Sometimes an election resonates far beyond the place it directly concerns. Voters in one nation can create problems for foreigners, or voters in one region can shape the fate of an entire country. This is what the citizens of Uttar Pradesh have just done for India for the second time in three years. By delivering a resounding victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in elections held between Feb. 11 and March 8, the country's largest state has not only set the ruling party on the path toward another victory in general elections set for 2019. It has also upheld a multidecade pattern that will define the shape of the country for many years to come.
The Center of Empires
Uttar Pradesh's central importance to India is hard to overstate. It is the country’s steering wheel; anyone who wishes to control India must control Uttar Pradesh. Its importance stems from the Ganges River, whose vast drainage basin is the country's heartland. Uttar Pradesh dominates the center of this fertile alluvial plain, its population of 200 million equal to Brazil's and almost twice that of India's next biggest state. All streams converge here, both literally and figuratively. The Ganges not only feeds a multitude but also creates a unity among its residents that isn't seen in the more fractured south, with its rugged terrain, numerous rivers and varied languages. By comparison, a large part of the north shares a common language, Hindi, while the great religion that sprung up upon its banks — Hinduism — has the river woven deeply into its spiritual values. In fact, India's British colonists found that they could only persuade indentured workers to board their ships if they brought along large cauldrons of Ganges water as well, such was Indians' aversion to leaving the sacred river behind.
If Uttar Pradesh is India’s heart, it could also lay claim to being its soul. The state plays host to some of Hinduism's most sacred sites. Varanasi, positioned at the point where the Ganges twists back north toward its point of origin, is believed to be the holiest city in India. Hindus travel there over great distances as their lives near an end, because it is believed that to die in the city is to achieve moksha, the liberating escape from the cycles of reincarnation. One text advises readers that if they are lucky enough to reach Varanasi, they should break their own legs to prevent their bodies from carrying them away again. Another city, Allahabad, sits at the point where the great Jamuna River flows into the Ganges. Every 13 years Hindus come to the city en masse to bathe in the waters, believing that the river washes away their sins. The 2013 Kumbh Mela pilgrimage saw 120 million people visit Allahabad over the span of two months — and 30 million on a single day — in what was the largest peaceful gathering in the world. To the north, Ayodhya (another town on the banks of the river) marks the sacred birthplace of Ram, the titular hero of the Ramayana, one of Hinduism's foundational epic poems.
Because of its geographic centrality and fertility, Uttar Pradesh has lain at the heart of most of the biggest Indian empires. The Mughals, for instance, based themselves out of the Uttar Pradesh city of Agra, while the British placed the utmost importance on the Grand Trunk Road, which ran alongside the Ganges from Delhi to Calcutta. In fact, events in Uttar Pradesh marked the beginning of the end for the British Raj, as the steering wheel began to turn against the foreign invaders. The British had gradually consumed chunks of the subcontinent until, in 1856, they annexed the Muslim kingdom of Awadh in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. This, along with other problems, proved too much for Indian citizens to bear, and in 1857 large swaths of native Indian troops rebelled across the northern plain. After the revolt was quelled, British officials shifted away from annexations and promised not to impose British "convictions" on the native population. The incident signaled a reversal of momentum in British influence and the start of the Indian struggle for independence, which largely centered on the Indo-Gangetic Plain until its goal was finally achieved in 1947.
Since independence, the politics of Uttar Pradesh have reflected those of the country as a whole. On its own this is hardly surprising, considering the state's key role in Indian politics: Uttar Pradesh has produced eight of India’s 15 prime ministers. Chief among them was Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin from Allahabad who had a critical influence on the nascent state's early years. Faced with a new country riddled with divisions, Nehru's primary challenge was to reach out to every subset of the population and encourage unity. His Congress Party was a rainbow coalition of diverse groups that had been brought together by the fight for independence. Muslims and members of the lower castes saw the party as a way to protect their interests, while upper-caste Hindus were mollified by Nehru's Brahmin identity and grateful to the Congress Party for securing their independence. The first few decades of the independent India thus saw the Congress Party control both state and country, first under Nehru and then under his daughter, Indira Gandhi.
But India is highly fragmented, and support for the ruling party began to wane at the state and national levels as time passed. Early goodwill was soon forgotten as the country's various groups began to look out for their own interests. In the south, regionally focused parties challenged the Congress Party's position, and across India caste-based politics took a hold. From state and nation alike, the Brahmin-dominated BJP has presented the greatest challenge. Formed in 1980, the BJP espouses a philosophy of Hindu nationalism, or "Hindutva." At first the party found its initial strongholds in peripheral northern states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but if it was to succeed, it had to perform well in the heartland as well.
The Rise of a New Rival
In some ways Uttar Pradesh represents a cross section of India. Like the whole, Uttar Pradesh is 80 percent Hindu, but within that figure lie extremes. In a country where caste is all-important, Uttar Pradesh hosts 40 percent of India's Brahmins; this is a huge number of the priestly upper caste, a remnant of the state's abundance of holy places. Taken together with Thakurs — a warrior caste previously known in the area as Rajputs — higher castes make up around 20 percent of Uttar Pradesh's population. But as in other states, the political clout of the lower castes has risen since independence. The "backward caste" Yadavs (8.5 percent) and the "untouchable" Jatavs (11.5 percent) in particular have grown more prominent in the state. Uttar Pradesh also has proportionally more Muslims than the Indian whole; they account for 19 percent of the population instead of 14 percent, a vestige of the Muslim empires that clustered in the north. This sizable Muslim population has increased the risk of communal friction arising in the state.
The BJP's popularity grew rapidly in the early 1990s thanks to the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya that it believes to be built on Ram's birthplace. The issue had been a source of controversy since the 19th century, and especially since independence, but it came to a head in the 1990s. In 1992, after the BJP had been voted into power in Uttar Pradesh's state government, a political rally at the Babri Masjid spiraled out of control and the Hindu crowd tore the Muslim building down, leaving it in ruins. The incident led to a period of brutal violence across the country that left 2,000 dead. Following the demolition, a makeshift Hindu temple to Ram was built on the site, but Hindus' desire to build a Grand Temple there has so far been frustrated by Indian courts. In 2010, the High Court of Allahabad decided that the site should be divided into three parts, with a third given to Muslims and the other two-thirds handed to Hindu groups. This verdict satisfied no one and was eventually suspended by the Supreme Court, which is now considering the case.
The years between 1996 and 2014 were difficult for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Political momentum in the state went to regional lower-caste parties, such as the Yadav-supported Samajwadi Party and the Jatav-dominated Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Muslim voters, with no clear party of their own, preferred to bolster these lower-caste parties or the limping Congress Party rather than vote for the BJP, whose Hindu nationalist philosophy directly contravened their interests. The BJP's poor showing in Uttar Pradesh greatly undermined its national strategy. Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the national parliament, or almost 15 percent of the total, and it is an important state to win for the sake of prestige. As a result, Narendra Modi — at the time the BJP's new leader — made Uttar Pradesh his priority in 2014 and personally ran for a seat in Varanasi, India's spiritual home, to send a message to the state and the nation. His non-Brahmin background softened his image among lower-caste Indians, just as Nehru's Brahmin identity had helped attract the support of the higher castes. The outcome was a resounding victory in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP and its allies took 73 of the state's 80 seats, and across the country, where the BJP became the first party since 1984 to win a majority in parliament.
More Than a One-Time Win
The biggest question coming into the 2017 elections, then, was whether the BJP's 2014 win was an isolated event. With general elections set for 2019, many thought, perhaps March's state elections could provide some guidance as to whether the BJP's success would continue — especially after the party saw disappointing results in Bihar, another heartland state, in 2015. The answer delivered by Uttar Pradesh citizens was a resounding yes. The BJP won 77 percent of the state's seats, while its nearest rivals — the Samajwadi Party and the BSP — got only 11 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. (It is worth noting that these results are accentuated by the state's first-past-the-post electoral system, which increases the dominance of winning parties.)
The implications of the Uttar Pradesh elections are vast indeed. The BJP has now twice managed to successfully reach across traditional caste divides and deliver a unifying Hindu message to secure a resounding win in the vital state. Uniting the Hindu demographic has the theoretical potential to deliver 80 percent of the country, though in truth the BJP's strength is likely to remain largely confined to the north. Issues on the BJP's agenda, such as the spread of the Hindi language throughout India, will continue to alienate southern electorates that are fiercely proud of their local cultures. But as the general elections of 2014 showed, being limited to the extensive Gangetic Plain won't necessarily prevent the BJP from achieving a national majority.
Those with the most to lose from this arrangement are members of the electorate least covered by the BJP: Muslims. The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate for any of the 403 seats it contested in Uttar Pradesh, and religious issues that have long been dormant are slowly coming back to life. The possibility of a new Grand Temple's construction in Ayodhya, which has been under consideration in the Supreme Court since 2010, was raised again in November by Subramanian Swamy, an outspoken BJP politician who successfully agitated for the departure of central bank chief Raghuram Rajan last year. Since the elections, several Hindu voices have begun to echo calls for the temple's construction, and pressure is beginning to build for the issue to be addressed swiftly. Today, few issues have as much potential for communal divisiveness in India.
Perhaps the most ominous sign for India's Muslims has been the BJP's choice of chief minister for Uttar Pradesh. Yogi Adityanath, a staunch Hindu nationalist, has a lengthy history of making inflammatory remarks about Islam, the Ram Temple and Pakistan. Until now, Modi's BJP government has been relatively circumspect on sensitive communal issues, but the appointment of Adityanath signals a shift in its approach. From now on, Muslims are likely to be left with the understanding that they are in a Hindu country — and that their values and beliefs are of secondary importance.
The history of India rests on Uttar Pradesh, and it remains the bellwether for the country's future. The state's re-affirmation of its support for the BJP will enhance and accelerate the spread of Hindu nationalism in India, which in turn will likely exacerbate friction between Hindus and Muslims, north and south. Thus, the Uttar Pradesh vote serves as a rare case in which regional elections reveal the course of a nation.