The World’s Fourth Largest Democracy Votes: Uttar Pradesh, India

Editor’s Note: An version of this post originally appeared on March 5, 2012, and has been updated to include the election results.

The world watched Sunday as Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential election. On Tuesday, election results will be announced in an even bigger state—and one where democracy is far more robust: Uttar Pradesh.

Never heard of it? Uttar Pradesh, weighs in at 200 million people, but is not an independent nation. It is India’s biggest and most symbolically-loaded state. UP by itself would be the world’s fourth biggest democracy, and fifth biggest country — behind China, the rest of India, the United States, and Indonesia. It is bigger than Brazil, Mexico, Russia, or Japan.

Elections here are the most significant in India, other than national parliamentary elections (currently slated for 2014). They directly impact national politics. UP’s members of India’s national parliament take up eighty-five of the 543 seats. Regardless of party, they pay careful attention to the mood of the state’s electorate. If the nation’s governing parties do well in UP, members of parliament feel compelled to stay in line. If opposition parties do well in UP, look for more gridlock in Delhi.

Since UP is the poster child for many of India’s economic and social challenges, outcome here said a lot about how India’s voters will let their leaders view the world. Though foreign policy rarely enters discussions in UP, if voters here are restless, leaders in Delhi may feel constrained to domestic affairs.

UP’s cultural riches are abundant. The holy Ganges River snakes across the length of the oblong state. It is the home of the holy city, Varanasi – a major pilgrimage center for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. UP also has the Taj Mahal – India’s global icon, built by the Moghul (i.e. Muslim) Emperor Jahan.

But despite its treasures and diversity, poverty in UP is endemic and grinding. It may be one fifth of India’s population, but it contributes less one tenth of India’s GDP. Once-proud textile factories have shuttered. Nearly two-thirds of the state is rural, and the average person lives on less than $2 a day. The question for UP is not how to catch up to the economic powerhouses of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Rather, it aspires to be a middle tier state such as Andra Pradesh and West Bengal. Right now, ambitious people in UP move elsewhere in India; their remittances an important source of income back home.

UP’s second challenge is social. Poverty here is superimposed upon one of the most deeply engrained caste systems in all of India. And like caste, religious conflict here remains barely below the surface. The city of Ayodhya has become a symbol across India of Muslim-Hindu tensions. In 1992, a Hindu rally turned into a riot that completely demolished a 16th century mosque, which was thought to have been built at the birthplace of the Hindu Lord, Ram. The 2002 Gujarat riots were sparked when 58 Hindus were killed on a train returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya.

In these elections, social issues dominated. The defeated Chief Minister, Kumari Mayawati, and her party – Bahujan Samaj Party, or Majority People’s Party – aim to represent those who have been “vanquished, trampled upon and forced to languish in all spheres of life.” That means Dalits (untouchables), other backwards castes (literally called “OBCs”), and religious minorities.

Mayawati is herself a Dalit. She won a landslide here five years ago, promising to transform the state. For the first time, Dalits had their own Chief Minister. It is hard to overstate the psychological impact on a population that had suffered generations of both abuse and neglect. Her 2007 election was as meaningful to lower castes in Uttar Pradesh as was Barack Obama’s to African Americans – if not more so.

It was also a watershed moment for governing the state. No party had owned an outright majority in the state assembly since the mid-90s. Now, Mayawati was firmly in charge. In the words of Brown University’s Ashutosh Varsheny, she had an “opportunity to combine the politics of dignity … and the politics of economic development.” 

Mayawati’s face is everywhere. She is ubiquitous in the newspapers, TV news, and daily conversations across the country.  She went on a spending spree, building hundreds of statues (including of herself) across the state as a symbol of the rise of the untouchable class. She also built roads and hired 100,000 teachers. Over her five years in office, UP posted 7% economic growth, just below India’s average.

Still, her opponents reminded voters that UP state has not advanced on the UN’s human development index. Mayawati herself is regularly accused of corruption.

Campaign news coverage mostly focused on Mayawati’s fight with Rahul Gandhi, who was auditioning to be the face of the Congress Party. Rahul is the Harvard educated son of the current Congress Party chief, Sonia Gandhi. Rahul’s father (Rajiv), grandmother (Indira), and great-grandfather (Nehru) all have been prime-minister. Someday he could become the first successive fourth-generation prime minister in any modern democracy. Mayawati taunts Rahul, calling him “the Prince.”

Though Congress has run the country since 2004 (and for much of India’s history as an independent country), it has lost its way lately – and has not governed in Uttar Pradesh for two decades. In the state, a succession of upper-class (and upper-caste) Congress Party leaders ignored the lower castes. Other states moved ahead; Uttar Pradesh fell behind. The BJP and then the Socialists rose to power in UP. Mayawati herself sprung from the Socialists, and sharpened her message to appeal to the lowest castes.

Rahul went negative, attacking Mayawati as all symbolism, with no economic gains and lots of corruption. But he also played his own form of identity politics, filling the slate of Congress candidates in UP with Muslims, Dalits and other backward castes.

Rahul Gandhi’s challenge to Mayawati was not just about how she runs the state. He was also making his debut, and trying to give new birth to the Congress Party’s brand. Since great-grandfather Nehru’s time, Congress has appealed to “all India” regardless of language, religion, caste, or class. He was trying to revive Congress’s role as India’s unifying national party. His failure to do so is already interpreted as a sign of stalled momentum in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.

The big winner yesterday was the Socialist Party, which won an outright majority. Its new face is Akhilesh Yadav – himself the son of the founder of the Socialist Party and a former Chief Minister of UP. In many ways, the elder Yadav built the Socialists as one of the original regional parties – focusing on the decline of India’s northern industrial base under Congress Party rule. But the Socialists also were notoriously corrupt, and were beaten badly by Mayawati’s break-away faction.

So Akhilesh Yadev, like Rahul Gandhi, is attempting a generational overhaul. Unlike Rahul, who attacked Mayawati, Akhilesh’s campaign was relentlessly positive, focused on a simple message of economic development. Where father Yadav was anti-technology, Akhilesh promised to give every student a laptop. He ran his campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and call centers. He appealed at once to farmers directly, and also to aspiring urban youth.


Akhilesh also continued the Socialist’s traditional outreach to Muslims, with which it ranks high. But unlike Rahul, he didn’t promise party offices, but simply that development will lift all boats. His message: how you feed yourself is as important as how you see yourself. He also has been expelling party goons left and right, sending the message that this is not just his father’s party. Unlike Rahul (whose many believe aspires to be Prime Minister), his vision is largely confined to UP.

The fourth major party, the BJP, also contested in UP, and also beat the Congress Party. Given the importance of Hinduism in UP – not to mention the importance of UP to Hinduism’s history – the BJP is surprisingly weak here. The party’s appeal has largely been to upwardly mobile upper caste Hindus. Elsewhere, the BJP (and conservative Hindus) have benefited from economic liberalization. Here in UP, that success has not trickled down to the lower castes.

With national elections about two years away, the BJP wanted to show that it can again be entrusted with both economic growth and social harmony. That means playing it cool this time around, fighting for incremental gains, and potentially gaining a brokering role in UP.

Sorting out the national significance of the election results will consume the Indian media for the coming weeks. In particular, the spin-cycle has begun about what this means for Rahul’s future.

The deeper social and economic dynamics may be more important. Many have argued that Mayawati’s rule was a necessary moment for UP, Dalits have had their day in the sun, and now it’s time to move on. But Mayawati’s defeat does not mean that identity politics are dead. Dalit dignity is established, and they are now an electoral force that can no longer be taken lightly. But in the cultural heart of the country, it could also be true that economic development has begun to trump identity politics.