February 13, 2022

Hindi Belt tightens for the BJP

Roza Kutty

BIHAR in 2020 witnessed a state assembly election where the JD(U)-BJP coalition emerged victorious, but not before it got a big scare. In coalition with Left parties, the RJD emerged as the single-largest party and the call of ‘unemployment’ by Tejaswi got a phenomenal response in the middle of a raging pandemic.

Could UP finish what Bihar had just started? Could it show the way forward with economic factors combining with social factors to shape a comprehensive narrative to blow up the Hindutva discourse which relies on suppressing cries for “social justice”?


Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data shows that India has 3.03 crore unemployed people, 10 lakh more than during the 2020 lockdown. Almost 95 per cent are under 29 and 1.18 crore are graduates. Over 1.24 crore youth are so disheartened that they are not seeking employment, which is something Dainik Bhaskar found noteworthy enough to highlight on page one in one of its Sunday editions.

The data explains the scenes witnessed in Bihar and UP and is the diametrical opposite of the election campaign of BJP’s ‘double engine sarkar’ in UP. 

The economy of UP always saw it at the bottom of the barrel and the phrase BIMARU was used to cover the state of the poorer states, including UP and Bihar. But what has taken place in UP in the past five years, and before the pandemic, has created massive unrest and desperation. The UP government, till just a day before the elections were announced, had been using public money to issue massive advertisements in the newspapers, hoping to cloud the discussion and more significantly, cultivate loyalists in the newspapers benefitting from largesse to not raise the issue of the economy any further. The Uttar Pradesh government declared that the per capita income in UP had doubled in the four years since the Bharatiya Janata Party government had come into power. In an interview with the Economic Times, the chief minister said, “the gross domestic product of the state was Rs 10.90 lakh crore in 2015–16 (when the state was being run by the Samajwadi Party government) which has grown to Rs 21.73 lakh crore in four years.” He went on to assert that “when we come to power after 2022, UP will become the largest economy.”

But the facts run completely contrary to all these assertions. Government estimates make it clear that the gross state domestic product (GSDP) of UP grew at a compound growth rate of only 1.95 per cent per annum over 2017-21. In sharp contrast, the growth rate was 6.92 per cent over 2012-17 during the previous state government. Falling growth under the Adityanath government has further impacted the per capita income in UP, which has grown only by 0.43 per cent on an average over four years. Manufacturing showed a negative growth of 3.34 per cent during the present government as compared to 14.64 per cent during the previous regime. But employment has registered the worst figures. Overall unemployment increased 2.5 times and youth unemployment by nearly five times compared to 2012!

Demonetisation and GST have damaged the informal sector all across India in 2017, but the state’s economy has nosedived, as it is almost totally reliant on the informal sector. Tall claims of “Two crore” jobs in the state have never been backed up with data. The unrest boiled over in Prayagraj hostels and lodges, where the police used rifle butts to attack students for taking part in protests against irregularities in railway recruitment board examinations. Desperate students bear testimony to how deep the unemployment situation cuts. Price inflation, especially food inflation has been impacting all and the poorest, even more so.


It is undeniable that those poorest and the most backward, socially, have been disproportionately hit by the economic slide. This informal economy hit worst where most people would find sustenance. It is not a coincidence that most of them in this sector are socially backward. The agrarian crisis in the state and the centre’s treatment of farmers had also provoked a huge response. The economic decline has created conditions for a perfect storm. The head of a Hindu muth as chief minister, running a caste-conscious administration was this government’s worst-kept crisis. Just days ago, the chief minister in comments to The Hindustan Times affirmed his pride in his caste and said many gods “were born in the caste”. These were spontaneous comments by him, but reflective of how a monk, who should have at least renounced his caste if not other things, is far from doing that!

The BJP has refused to conduct a caste census or declare the numbers of the SECC(Socio-Economic Caste Census) conducted in 2011. This has provoked more anger with numerically smaller castes and their leaders, who had so far agreed to subsume themselves in the Hindutva tent in the expectation that they will get recognition and respect and BJP will go beyond mere accommodation. This has been worsened by upper-caste dominance which has got full play in five years. The number of upper caste MLAs elected in 2017 zoomed to their highest proportion, since 1980. The state has gone back to where it was before Mandal shook its roots. The BJP went onto setting up a commission headed by justice Rohini, to sub-categorise castes to apportion reservation more fairly to under-represented castes, saying that Yadavs were ‘over-represented’ and the commission was to give its report in 2018, but the commission is on its 11th extension and there is no sign of a report. A social justice committee headed by retired Allahabad High Court judge, Raghavendra Kumar in October 2018 too has submitted a report to the state government but it seems to have been shelved with claims that it is still under consideration.


States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu (and Maharashtra to some extent), because of how social reform took place and the decades of hard work by those who strove to break the status quo were able to ensure that representational politics truly worked for its people and improved living standards drastically, so much that these states are now outliers in the Indian experience. This social reform and consequently economic wellbeing has eluded UP, because of historical reasons. The zamindari system, whose long shadow remains over the state, has serious implications on the lives of the majority of its people. The presence of significant numbers of ‘forwards’ too, in terms of their proportion in the population, say some analysts, prevented social reform from transforming society. Politics seemed to be the only tool that was able to secure some progress for those at the bottom, but that too soon got wrapped up in caste. But now, it appears, with the Samajwadi Party announcing Samajwadi canteens and constant invocations to ‘Baba Saheb Ambedkar’, there are attempts to transcend older limitations and also learn from other states to convey a message of ‘welfare’ which is an umbrella idea and perforce drags the discourse away from anti or pro Muslim/Yadav/dalit identities.

It is still too soon to tell but the stage is ripe for a challenge to the BJP’s narrative. BJP has tried to use high-voltage religious events to emphasise the ‘Hinduness’ of the administration and use sharp anti-Muslim rhetoric to try and deflect attention from growing economic distress. But as the resignations from the BJP camp of important backward leaders show, there is deep disenchantment and suffocation of backwards within, who are not hesitant to express themselves. Beyond the backward class angst and thwarted desires, along with the ruined economy, the experience of the state’s dalits too has been a nightmare. They have been hit economically, as they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but they have also been at the receiving end of crimes in the state, the tragedy at Hathras being only one of them. Last year, according to NCRB data, crimes in UP against dalits constituted 25 per cent of all crimes recorded against dalits in the entire country. The ambivalence of the BSP to play the role of an active opposition party has allowed the Samajwadi Party to make good its reach beyond Yadavs – not just to OBCs – but try and construct a non-forward coalition encompassing dalits too in a way that Lalu Prasad could manage in Bihar in the early 1990s.

Careful to not speak of caste assertion but as a battle for rights and delivery of rights and stitching back the state’s social fabric, could the opposition help with their own version of ‘Dravidian’ modelling? The Tamil Nadu chief minister has recently spoken of the state’s mixing social justice with economic progress and given it this name. But for that to happen in UP, politics will have to be melded with a call for real social and economic change. ‘Socialism’ in recent times in the state has dissolved into a caste-based counterclaim, not really upending the system, not even in the more radical ways it has been articulated in neighbouring Bihar. UP has for all kinds of historical reasons been the most unreformed state in India. The BJP’s idea is not of rights at all, of benefaction from the leader. On the contrary, the clear desire which is being expressed now is to accord them what is theirs by right. So, could UP be finally close to devising its own comprehensive model as the answer to UP’s ferment? Not only of hissedaari or division of resources along proportional lines, but a ‘model’ where economics, participation and representation are propelled by people-first policies, not diverted by demonising “internal enemies”, or in the name of ancient India, a respect for the ‘status-quo’ caste hierarchy which has served its people badly. The counter-cry of ‘85 versus 15’ (referring to the backward and forward numbers) by UP’s ‘Backward’ leaders, challenging the Hindutva noise of ‘80 versus 20’, and politics of one-leader, one-nation, has the potential to push for a rethink in how politics is done in India’s largest state and by implication in the rest of the country.

The significance of the moves away from the BJP is deliberately undermined by mainstream media reports, fed on UP government advertisements and treating politics as an electoral game like a cricket match or a celebrity event. They don’t do justice to the seismic change in discourse or challenge to the ek-chhatra raj (single, dominant rule) they point towards.