Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Whither identity politics? KANCHAN CHANDRA


Whither identity politics?


As politics in Uttarakhand, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh moves towards bipolarity, it is becoming less friendly to subaltern groups.

THE most striking aspect of the recently concluded Assembly elections in north India – in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab – is the gathering of initially fragmented political forces around two main parties or poles. So far, regional party systems in India have mostly run parallel with national-level trends towards fragmentation. The proportion of State-level governments with coalitions has been increasing since the 1990s. Their degree of fragmentation, while not as extreme as at the Centre, has been increasing too. But at least in these three States, this trend has been reversed. Paradoxically, this may provoke even more fragmentation at the national level, as invigorated regional parties now resurrect talk of a "third front" government at the Centre.

The biggest surprise is Uttar Pradesh. Once among the most politically fragmented States in India, it has now produced single-party majorities twice in a row and appears to be settling into a politics of alternation between the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Uttarakhand, the vote shares of the main parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – have swelled over time at the cost of the S.P. and smaller regional parties. The BSP has maintained its vote, but it is a distant third. In Punjab, too, the two main political forces – the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance – have gained at the cost of smaller parties.

This emerging bipolarity can undermine one of the healthier aspects of democracy in contemporary India: the politics of naming and representing subaltern groups. This is important not only because of what it tells us about the well-being of some particular set of groups but because of what it tells us about democracy itself. A democracy is only as good as it is among those who are worst off. In part, this is an ethical argument. And in part it is an instrumental one. In a world in which both identities and political alignments are fluid, groups that are dominant at one time can easily switch places with the disadvantaged at another. A system that is friendly to the disadvantaged is in everyone's best interests.

India's electoral system has in recent years become increasingly "subaltern-friendly". By this, I mean not only that it is responsive to particular, pre-existing, subaltern groups, but that it constantly uncovers and represents new ones. Political representation has typically not altered the structural features of the Indian state and economy that produce and sustain disadvantage. But it has given members of subaltern groups a point of entry into the ruling elite and a share of state resources. Each time the definition of subaltern groups changes, these points of entry are distributed a little more widely.

All elections, however, are not equal. Elections with fragmented party systems are more friendly to the disadvantaged groups than elections with bipolar party systems. In a multipolar environment and a first-past-the-post system, parties face an uncertain future, and every vote counts. Consequently, they work hard to mobilise groups that might provide that elusive winning margin. In a bipolar system, parties are more likely to simply preserve their existing bases of support. They may try to increase their vote at the margins, but they do not have reason to engage in the politics of creating new identities on the scale that parties in a multipolar system do. As politics in Uttarakhand, Punjab and now Uttar Pradesh moves towards bipolarity, it is becoming less friendly to subaltern groups.

Uttar Pradesh

The period of party fragmentation in Uttar Pradesh extended from 1993 until 2007. Before 1993, the State usually had a single dominant party, usually the Congress and once each the Janata Party and the BJP (in 1977 and 1991 respectively). In the three brief instances that a majority government was not achieved, a single party was usually within reaching distance.

After 1993, this single-party dominance was replaced by a multipolar system with four main parties – the S.P. and the BSP, whose fortunes were in the ascendant, and the BJP and the Congress, whose fortunes were on the wane. None was strong enough to obtain a majority, but each was a viable contender to lead a coalition government. In 2007, the BSP obtained a majority of the seats. Its vote share of just over 30 per cent, while less than a majority, was comparable to those of the dominant parties in Uttar Pradesh's history. And in 2012, when the S.P. repeated the feat of winning a majority, the era of political fragmentation seems to be over decisively.

Uttar Pradesh's fragmented politics produced a regional democracy that was remarkably subaltern-friendly. Consider the example of a village nestled in the rocky hills of eastern Uttar Pradesh, populated mainly by Gonds (classified as Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh) and backward castes (Yadavs, Telis and Halwais). The village was designated an Ambedkar village by the S.P.-BSP government of 1995. In 2007, it acquired electricity and an all-weather road. Three villagers are now employed as safai karmcharis in a scheme introduced by the Mayawati government. It has a functioning panchayat, and a pradhan whom the villagers see as the first point of access to the government. A thousand households hold NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) cards, which they say were acquired without hassle. Government officials visit the village frequently, and the villagers speak positively of interactions with the police.

Political representation has not brought about any deep changes in the structure of opportunity for the subaltern groups who live in this village. Only 20 men and women from the village have a regular job with a monthly salary. Others of working age, who number over a thousand, cultivate small plots of land or collect firewood or break boulders for a daily wage. It takes six men using rough tools about two hours to break down a single boulder. If they work 12 hours without stopping, they take home just over a hundred rupees apiece. It is a hard life, and political representation has not changed that. But it has given the village a small claim on the resources and the attention of the state, and the effects are tangible. Muslims, too, were named and represented during this period to a greater degree than previously (see Chart 1). As parties competed in a multipolar environment, each attempted to "outbid" the other by offering the party ticket to a higher number of people from particular social groups. This was initially accompanied by a drop in the representation of Muslims in the legislature. But by 2012, the proportion of Muslims among both party candidates and legislators, while still lower than in the population, has reached its highest point in three decades.

Indeed, by 2012, Muslims had come to occupy a central space in the election rhetoric of all the major parties except the BJP, so much so that the Congress promised to introduce a quota for Muslims if it were elected. For all the fuss between the Election Commission and Union Minister Salman Khurshid over this issue, it is remarkable that a promise that political parties hesitated to make just 10 years ago because of fears that it would trigger a "Hindu backlash" could now so easily be placed on Uttar Pradesh's political agenda.

In 10 short years of fragmentation, political parties generated more social and political identities in Uttar Pradesh than it had seen in 50 years of single-party dominated politics. They included Bahujan, MBC (Most Backward Castes), BFC (Backward among the Forward Castes), FBC (Forward among Backward), Forward Muslims, and Backward Muslims, and Uttaranchal, to name just a few.

AT A BSP rally in Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh. Political representation has typically not altered the structural features of the Indian state and economy that produce and sustain disadvantage.

The mobilisation of so many new identities is sometimes criticised as a divisive form of politics. But the lines of division are too fluid to be too deep. And over time, groups on both sides of the dividing line have found some form of representation. Many even have multiple champions. In 1996, in one especially polarised district in the east, Dalit voters complained that the "raja" – one of the large landlords in the area – did not let them vote. Two elections later, the raja himself ran on the BSP ticket. The BSP had begun defining Thakurs as a minority too, and that made him eligible for the ticket. The S.P. had also previously offered him the ticket using the same logic.

The S.P.'s victory in these elections has now drawn the period of political fragmentation to a close. Its majority rests on a fragile vote margin: it more than doubled its seats compared with 2007 but increased its vote by just 3.72 per cent. The difference between the seat shares of the S.P. and the BSP – 224 to 80 – is huge. But the difference in their vote share is only 3.24 per cent. This majority verdict was produced not by a large increase in ground-level support for the S.P. but by a change in the combinations that voted for the party. These combinations may or may not be reproduced in the future. But the S.P. and the BSP have now emerged as the two dominant parties in Uttar Pradesh's politics. Even if they do not get a majority of seats again, we can reasonably expect a politics of two-party alternation, in which one or another heads a governing coalition that it is large enough to dominate.

As the two main parties get larger, each has begun to expand into the other's vote base. Some analysts read this as evidence that the politics of identity is becoming less important in Uttar Pradesh. But the main lesson of this election is not that identity politics has begun to matter less, but that there is a change in how it matters.

Both parties are now paying more attention to defending the borders of the categories they had previously defined rather than proposing new ones. As an S.P. candidate from one constituency said when I asked him about his strategy in the 2012 elections: "Our strategy is to just preserve our vote base into which the BSP is making incursions. Ours is Yadav-Brahmin. Theirs is Maurya-Chamar." The BSP government passed a resolution some months before the election calling for Uttar Pradesh to be divided into four States. This seemed an attempt to mobilise new regional identities in anticipation of a hung Parliament, but the party did not in the end make it a major campaign plank. As a result, each has paid more attention to defending this base against incursions than proposing new identity categories. The era of forging new social identities that distinguished the politics of Uttar Pradesh in the last two decades seems now to be over.


In Uttarakhand, the BJP, with 31 seats, and the Congress, with 32, each came within striking distance of the required majority (36 members in a 70-member House). Both parties have steadily increased their vote share in the three elections held in Uttarkhand since 1992. The Congress obtained 33.79 per cent of the votes in the 2012 elections compared with the 26.91 per cent it obtained in its first election in the State. And the BJP won 33.13 per cent of the votes compared with 25.45 per cent 10 years ago.

The BSP, with a vote share that has hovered between 11 per cent and 12 per cent, is a distant third. And the other significant political forces in Uttarakhand – the S.P. and the various factions of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal – have lost support over time.

Uttarakhand has a diverse ethnic structure, comparable although not identical to Uttar Pradesh. Dalits constitute 18 per cent of its population (compared with 21 per cent in Uttar Pradesh). Muslims constitute 12 per cent (compared with 18 per cent in Uttar Pradesh). It has small, but prominent Sikh and Scheduled Tribe populations. There are emerging differences between the hills and plains peoples. And economic disadvantage is overlaid, albeit imperfectly, on these ethnic differences. But, even though Uttarakhand is itself a product of subaltern mobilisation within, and consequent separation from, the larger State of Uttar Pradesh, this election campaign was marked by the relative absence of reference to subordinate groups, however defined. The focus of the campaign was on development, corruption and criticism of the incumbent BJP government. This relative invisibility of minorities during elections is related to Uttarakhand's emerging two-party system.


When the first competitive election was held in post-conflict Punjab in 1997 (the 1992 election was boycotted by the Akali Dal and the turnout was low), four main parties were in the fray. The SAD fought the 1997 elections in alliance with the BJP and won a majority on its own. The Congress was the second largest party but not its sole opponent. The BSP was a potent third force.

But the BSP has steadily lost ground in this State. So have smaller parties such as the SAD(M), while the Congress has gained. The result is that Punjab, like Uttarakhand, now has a bipolar political system, with the Congress on one side and the SAD-BJP on the other.

Punjab is one of India's more prosperous States, but it is no stranger to disadvantage. It is home to the largest concentration of Dalits in India, who make up 29 per cent of its total population and almost a third of its rural population. It also has a large proportion of backward castes. And, although Dalits and backward castes in Punjab are better off compared with their counterparts in other States, their condition compares unfavourably with the Jat Sikhs, who dominate both the Akali Dal and the Congress, and the Hindu traders of the BJP and the Congress.

In the 1997 elections, the BSP cut into the base of both the Congress and the Akali Dal, pushing both parties, as well as the Communists, to engage in the overt mobilisation of these subaltern groups. But hit first by the disintegration of the BAMCEF [All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees' Federation] in the State and then by the death of Kanshi Ram, it no longer has the capacity to become a viable channel for Dalits and backwards itself, or to influence the agenda of other political parties in Punjab. And the consolidation of a bipolar system in Punjab means that the main political parties do not have an incentive to do so themselves.

Indeed, references to subaltern groups were conspicuously absent in Punjab's election campaign just as they were in Uttarakhand. Both the SAD and the Congress sought the support of Dalits indirectly by seeking the support of the leaders of prominent deras – sects – associated with Dalits. But the overt campaigns of both political parties focussed on general issues such as development and corruption, regional issues such as water sharing, and the usual promises of subsidies in power and diesel to farmers. Subaltern groups, ethnic or otherwise, were invisible in this election campaign, and the dominance of Jat Sikhs across the main political parties went unchallenged. If anything, there appears to be an increasing entrenchment of political power in the Punjab Assembly as wealth and family ties reinforce patterns of dominance and subordination already defined by caste.

Kanchan Chandra, Professor of Politics at New York University, is the author of Why Ethnic Parties Succeed (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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