In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Politics of Assertion and Not Identity

What the leaders of bahujan parties have done by asserting their backward identity and standing up to oppression is bring the millions that hail from the oppressed sections into mainstream political discourse.

Akhilesh Yada (left) and Mayawati. Credit: PTI

Akhilesh Yada (left) and Mayawati. Credit: PTI

Whenever Uttar Pradesh and Bihar go to the polls, the media is saturated with the term ‘identity politics’. The shrill campaign coverage by the mainstream media paints identity politics as being inimical to egalitarian society and destructive to the supposed holy cow of Indian democracy.

A well-known Gandhian recently wrote that the ‘U’ in Uttar Pradesh stands for ungovernable, mainly because it is ridden with the scourge of identity politics. He longs for the glorious past of Uttar Pradesh in an eerie similarity to the ‘make America great again’ slogan that we are all too familiar with now. Thus Guha equates the rise of bahujan leaders in Uttar Pradesh with the regression of the state’s prospects.

This narrative needs to be dissected to comprehend the ire of such Gandhians and other media pundits. First, how about a counter-narrative?

Today, almost 70 years after the birth of a nation called India, but more importantly, more than 3000 years after Vedic ‘civilisation’ spread over this land, Uttar Pradesh is the only state where a freestanding Dalit political party stands a chance at ruling the state. And UP is only one of two states – the other being Bihar – where OBCs have taken centre stage by ruling unopposed for the past two decades.

Leaders from the bottom of the Vedic stepladder such as Mayawati (Dalit), Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav (all OBCs) became forces to reckon with only as a result of an assertion of their backward identity. It is only because they raised their banners in the name of their oppressed background that even the national parties today are forced to sing the OBC and Dalit tune.

While it is easy for self-proclaimed political pundits to brush off bahujan parties with the deprecating label of ‘identity politics’, millions of people from all over India who hail from these sections can vouch for the dignity that a Prasad, a Mayawati or a Kanshi Ram brought to them by standing up to oppression and bringing them into the mainstream of political discourse. There is no means to measure the confidence that these leaders and parties instil in the bahujans across the country. In fact, it is a travesty that other states have not seen such an upsurge in bahujan assertion.

To put things in a historical context, not too long ago, the castes that they represent were banished to menial jobs that Savarna Hindus would abhor to even dream of. They did not have the right to own land or even stand next to a Savarna. But today, they have risen to rule themselves and the Savarnas too.

The other aspect of demonisation of identity politics that needs to be dealt with head-on is the canard that directly ties it to lack of ‘development’ or rather, regression and violent crime. Such a blatant lie assumes that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were once prosperous states where everybody lived peacefully. But the reality is that these regions – just like any other state in India – were under the stranglehold of oppressor castes, both before and after independence. As bahujan forces started asserting themselves and assuming political prominence, the oppressor castes obviously did not just stand as mute spectators.

The rise of ruthless militant armies such as Ranvir Sena, which claimed hundreds of bahujan lives in defence of upper caste landlords, and the fomentation of hysterical mandir-masjid emotions that extinguished several hapless victims were all part of the nefarious schemes sponsored by the same oppressor classes that stood to lose the most in the light of bahujan assertion.

To ignore the role that these issues played in keeping Uttar Pradesh and Bihar away from ‘development’ throughout the 1990s and early 2000s is disingenuous. And of course, the bahujan parties – Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party – gave shelter to criminal elements. But to put the blame solely on them and to suggest that their identity politics have somehow led to ‘jungle raj’ – a term that in itself is derogatory – is a wilful act of defamation against bahujan assertion.

It is also important to realise that crime often is a by-product of failure of the society. The rise of Phoolan Devi, herself a quintessential example of feminist and bahujan assertion, is an example of the ramifications of counter-violence in the face of brute oppression. The experts that leave no stone unturned in blaming these parties are practically mum when it comes to violence propagated by upper caste faction feudalism in Rayalaseema (Andhra Pradesh) by both the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the hooliganism of elements such as Gali Janardhan Reddy of the BJP (Karnataka), the communist violence in West Bengal when Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power for decades and scores of caste-based violent skirmishes perpetrated by some parties in Tamil Nadu in the garb of Dravidian outfits.

If Uttar Pradesh has become ungovernable because of identity politics, where was governance in Gujarat in 2002 when rioters were ‘allowed to vent their anger’ on streets murdering Muslims and marauding and pilfering street after street? Where was governance in Kashmir in 2016 when hundreds of protesters including children were blinded by pellet guns? Where was governance in Amaravathi (Andhra Pradesh) when thousands of acres of fertile agricultural land was grabbed from small-scale farmers in the name of development?

While rhetoric tends to suggest that UP and Bihar became worse under bahujan rule, facts belie such claims. There is undoubtedly room for improvement but the human development index in Uttar Pradesh went from 0.314 in 1991 to 0.388 in 2001 to 0.54 in 2015. In Bihar, it went up from 0.22 in 1981 to 0.536 in 2015. What the analysts will not write about is the fact that both states were well below national average even in the 1980s when ‘identity politics’ was still a distant dream.

As the media berated his tenure as the chief minister, the inimitable Prasad, the poster boy of identity politics, turned heads as the union minister when he successfully steered the railways into profits without increasing the prices for passengers’ tickets during 2004-2009. So much was the effect of his development prowess that he was invited by the same universities and business schools that liberal economists swear by, to give lectures on efficient management.

The day when an independent Dalit force emerges to the level of ruling a ‘developed’ state such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu or self-proclaimed developed states such as Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh is nowhere in sight, while such a fete has already been achieved in the ‘ungovernable’ Uttar Pradesh. In summary, critics can croon all they want about the bane of ‘identity politics’ but what these leaders of UP and Bihar have really done is assertive politics, that in fact needs to be replicated all over the country to bring about true development to bahujans languishing as vote banks in other states still ruled by leaders hailing from financial powerhouses but numerical minorities.

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