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Uttar Pradesh: Competitive Communalism Once Again

Uttar Pradesh, a key state in the race for power in New Delhi, is witnessing a resurgence of communal politics after a brief lull in the early 2000s. While the Samajwadi Party’s attempts to win back Muslim support seem to have hit a roadblock after the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to revive its earlier appeal by promoting Narendra Modi and the Hindutva agenda. Though the earlier weakening of identity politics was expected to bring in a development-oriented politics, the state remains underdeveloped and caught between political parties that still play the same old electoral cards of division and promotion of strife.

The election campaign for the Lok Sabha elections is a highly contested one with many different, often contradictory, issues being stridently debated by political parties, their candidates, and the public. On the one hand, with liberalisation, the rise of a large middle class, and urbanisation, issues such as governance, corruption, and the need for welfare or neo-liberal reforms have been raised by civil society movements, which political parties and the electorate have to contend with. On the other, the politics of identity, which was widely felt to have abated in recent years in the key state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), has reared its head once again. In the 1990s, UP experienced changes that transformed national politics – the rise of the Hindutva ideology, Mandal and the dalit upsurge. With the relative weakening of identity politics by the early 2000s, it was widely believed that political stability with a competition between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on a development-oriented agenda had come to UP.

Revival of Communal Mobilisation

However, since 2012, UP has once again been experiencing communal discord, which led to the Muzaffarnagar riots, accompanied by attempts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to revive its Hindutva agenda with the support of the Sangh parivar. Closely related to this is the contest for the support of the Muslim community, which from the late 1990s seemed to enter a more independent and aggressive post-Babri Masjid phase, but now seems to be unhappy, seeking protection and support once again, and searching for political alternatives. This article will examine these two issues and how they could affect the Lok Sabha elections and politics in UP.1

While the BJP is using the issues of development and governance in its campaign across the country, in UP, the leadership seems eager to bring back the Hindutva agenda to centre stage. This is the result of the perception by a post-Atal Bihari Vajpayee/post-L K Advani BJP that this is the route to power in New Delhi under a new-generation leader, Narendra Modi. Given that the BJP does not have much of a presence in the north-east and deep south, winning seats in the Hindi heartland is imperative to capturing power at the centre. Equally important is the party’s need to rebuild its organisation and social base on the ground in UP. During the late 1980s, communal mobilisation centred on the Ayodhya dispute created a massive Hindu vote-bank in UP, leading to the meteoric rise of the BJP from just eight Lok Sabha seats and 7.58% of the votes in 1989 to 51 seats and 32.82% of the vote in 1991. Following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the dispute lost political importance, which led to ideological and organisational disarray in the BJP and a rapid decline from 57 Lok Sabha seats in the 1996 elections to 10 seats in 2004 and 2009 (Pai 2013). By the early 2000s, both the Congress and the BJP were in decline in UP – it was the SP and BSP which won the 2002, 2007 and 2012 assembly elections. In sum, the BJP had failed to emerge, as it had hoped, into a broad-based party replacing the Congress in UP.

Today, by reviving communal mobilisation, the BJP hopes to rebuild its base and re-emerge as a strong force in UP. A section of the party has always believed that its decline has been due because it moved away from its Hindutva ideology. Despite opposition, as early as September 2013, it announced Modi, closely associated with the Hindutva agenda, as its prime ministerial candidate. This has enthused the cadres in UP. Unable to create statewide communal polarisation as in 1991, it has attempted to create Hindu-Muslim tension before the elections – evident in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) support to Modi, the shifting of Modi’s close aide Amit Shah from Gujarat to UP, and attempts to revive the mandir issue. Modi has also tried to reconstruct the party by replacing its old brahmin leaders close to Vajpayee, such as Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra, M M Joshi, and Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders such as Kalyan Singh, with a younger generation loyal to him. That he has chosen Varanasi as his Parliament seat is expected to help win 50 seats in the Bhojpuri belt from Allahabad in UP to Chapra in Bihar. Since 2012 there were a series of low-key communal incidents that led to the riots in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013. The BJP also hopes to obtain backward caste votes by focusing attention on Modi as being a backward caste.

Contestation for Muslim Votes

Yet, a number of weaknesses are evident despite the high-intensity campaign. Divisions have appeared among BJP leaders over ticket distribution in UP, which have been exacerbated by Modi’s attempt to control the party; in Varanasi, the Muslim population is worried about communal polarisation; and the general populace fears that once the BJP is victorious, Modi will retain the Vadodara Lok Sabha seat, forgetting Varanasi and his promises of bringing improvement to the state.

Some long-term developments help explain the competition for Muslim votes in UP. The SP, which has received support from the Muslim community since the late 1980s, is in decline notwithstanding its electoral success. It has been unable, despite Mandal, to homogenise all the backward sections in the state. It has also decayed from a party with roots in the socialist/backward caste movement to a family fiefdom with criminal links and numerous factions controlled by Mulayam Singh Yadav. This has changed the relationship between the SP and the Muslim community, creating a space for other parties to woo the latter.

Until the mid-1990s, the SP drew its political strength from an alliance between the Muslim, Ahir, Jat, Gujjar, and Rajput communities (MAJGAR) created by Charan Singh. This was the bedrock of a Jat-Muslim understanding, which allowed Charan Singh to dominate western UP politics. Mandal politics brought about changes in this alliance. The riots in Muzaffarnagar and the return of community-based politics have been to a great extent due to a breakdown of this older, agrarian-based, social alliance. Changes within the Muslim community have also contributed to it. Since the 2000s, with the decline of the BJP in UP politics, there has been a growing assertion of a strong Muslim identity and the community has tended to vote for the party that promises not just protection, but also maximum representation in the government. Some events disturbed this equation, most notably the shift of BJP leader Kalyan Singh to the SP in 2004. Unhappy with this, Muslims began to move towards the Congress, which contributed to the 21 seats won by it in the 2009 parliamentary elections. But in the 2012 assembly elections, the Muslims were once again wooed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, enabling the SP to obtain a majority. After forming the government, the leadership tried to strengthen the relationship by giving Muslims important positions in the government. This higher visibility and growing assertion began crowding out moderate Muslim politics in UP. Small Muslim parties formed in recent years such as Tauqeer Raza Khan’s Ittehad-e-Millat Council and Mohammad Ayub’s Peace Party began to demand a larger share for Muslims in UP. The assertion of Muslim power led to the BJP reviving its Hindutva agenda and spreading the notion of Hindu victimhood to rally the community. The deteriorating law and order situation in the state and the influence of Muslims in the government has meant the police have largely remained passive spectators in times of trouble.

The failure of the SP to firmly control the initial skirmishes and the Muzaffarnagar riots suggests that it was a deliberate decision. Yadav seems to have believed that low-intensity communal tension would ensure that the Muslims did not once again vote for the Congress or move towards the BSP. However, he did not expect that the riots would assume the proportions they did, leading to Muslims fleeing to camps in large numbers and refusing to return to their villages. Yadav’s “over-possessiveness and consequent insecurity” regarding the Muslims have seen them become disillusioned with the party that remains dependent on their votes (Narayan 2014). A number of respected Muslim clerics have expressed their fear that the recent incidents were part of a conspiracy to foment much larger communal riots. The SP is also afraid that the Muzaffarnagar riots will affect its Hindu vote as the propaganda literature circulated by the BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the RSS says the riots occurred to defend the honour of Hindu sisters and mothers. This explains Mulayam’s praise of Advani and his use of the language of “soft Hindutva”. These developments have created room for other parties such as the Congress and BSP to make overtures to the Muslim community.

The decision on 2 March 2014 by the United Progressive Allliance government to provide reservations to Jats in UP and neighbouring states will also affect inter-communal relationships and the fortunes of political parties in western UP. The Congress has rushed to recognise Jats as OBCs because the community has been moving towards the BJP since the Muzaffarnagar riots. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) led by Ajit Singh, which is likely to continue its alliance with the Congress, feels that this decision will help bring Jats back to its fold in western UP. At the same time the OBCs – particularly the weaker sections – are resentful they have to share reservations with the Jats.


While battle lines are being drawn for the national elections on issues of democratic governance such as corruption and poor economic management, UP politics remains mired in communal-based identity politics. Communal mobilisation and the Muzaffarnagar riots and their aftermath have resulted in a churning within the Muslim community, which was moving towards a new development-oriented politics. The SP could lose much of its Muslim base, both due to the riots and the partisan manner in which it handled them. The gainer could be the BJP, which hopes Hindutva to consolidate the Hindu vote in western UP by reviving its Hindutva ideology. Events in UP suggest that the SP and the BJP joined hands to foment trouble and build their respective Muslim and Hindu vote banks. However, it remains to be seen if the BJP, which is facing a generational change, can win seats in UP under Modi’s leadership. The Muslims could also gravitate towards the Congress or the BSP.

A fundamental reason for the resurgence of communal politics in UP is that the state remains underdeveloped and trapped in traditional politics, which has failed to use the opportunities liberalisation provided. With the weakening of identity politics in the early 2000s it was hoped that a development-oriented agenda would replace it. However, ruling parties in the state proved incapable of introducing new policies, and have relied on their existing vote banks and tried to strengthen them, or build new ones. In contrast, leaders in other states in the Hindi heartland such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar have attempted to move away from identity politics to grappling with the questions of development. An aspirational younger generation in UP is despondent as the promised benefits of higher economic growth have proved elusive. How political parties will exploit the widening fault lines in UP to their advantage will determine their electoral performance in the approaching Lok Sabha elections.


1 While other issues such as the role of caste-based identities and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are important, the focus of this article is only on these two issues.


Narayan, Badri (2014): “Politics of a Riot”, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 11 January.

Pai, Sudha (2013): “Uttar Pradesh New Patterns of Mobilisation in the 1990s and Beyond” in Atul Kohli and Prerna Singh (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Indian Politics (London: Routledge).

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