Even at its most restrained, Indian politics is characterized by feints, ruses and ambushes, plotted from dozens of centers in the country's rambunctious multiparty political landscape. One of the most audacious gambits in recent memory was seen last week when Mayawati, the charismatic and controversial chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, declared, out of the blue, her intention to see her state broken into four.
To understand the significance of Mayawati's remarks, it's necessary to first understand the significance of Uttar Pradesh in Indian politics. For all 64 years of the life of the Indian republic, this vast northern state, once the center of the Mughal Empire, has been considered the jewel in the crown of the nation's politics. Its current population is about 200 million; if it were a country, it would be the fifth most populous in the world. It accounts for 80 seats (or about 15 percent) of India's 545-member Parliament, and has always been central to the political health and ambitions of the two most powerful national political parties, the Congress and the BJP, for whom winning the state comes very close to winning the house.
More than half of India's 15 prime ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, were either been born in the state or represented it in Parliament. "U.P," as the state is known, also represents all that is atavistic in Indian democracy: Its population is broken up into clear "vote banks" along lines of religion and, most significantly, caste, each one nurtured by a particular party. Four years ago, in 2007, Mayawati, who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party, became the first low-caste, or Dalit, leader to become chief minister of the state, thereby crowning a long climb toward political self-assertion by the long-oppressed lower castes in the north of India, a movement that the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has called "India's silent revolution."
U.P. is home to Hindu and Muslim centers of pilgrimage such as Banaras, Ayodhya, Haridwar and the Taj Mahal of Agra, watered by a long swathe of the holy river Ganga, and sanctified by the Hindu imagination as the landscape of the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana. Its breakup would resemble the dissolution of an empire. This empire is currently presided over by Mayawati, whose government has been repeatedly accused of corruption, and who has spent much of her time in power creating a kind of cult of her personality. She has aspired to govern the state throughout her political career, and after winning it in 2007, she briefly nurtured dreams of becoming prime minister of India.
Why then would Mayawati want to break up her own grand kingdom? The state is home to a substantial number of India's poorest people, many of whom migrate elsewhere in search of employment, and sections of the population have long agitated for independent statehood, believing that the fruits of development and economic progress were being denied to them because they were too distant from the capital. So Mayawati's decision would have many sympathizers among the citizenry. Indeed, it would follow the logic of one of India's clearest political trends since independence: the breakup of large states containing diverse ethnic or linguistic groups and often significant regional inequalities into smaller ones more responsive to local political aspirations.
As recently as 2000, three new states were carved out in north and central India, and elsewhere in the country there are demands for several more. To study the internal boundaries of India across the decades is to see, as the historian Ramachandra Guha observed in an essay earlier this year, that the country's political map has yet to settle into a state of equilibrium, and that "large nations take shape over long periods of time." BR Ambedkar, the Dalit intellectual revered by Mayawati's party and one of India's greatest political thinkers, called for the breakup of Uttar Pradesh into several politically viable units as early as the 1950s.
But the most important bit of context to Mayawati's announcement was surely that Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls in April and May next year. This election is likely to involve bitter warring, with at least four major political forces lining each other up in their sights; in addition, it is a contest that Mayawati can't be sure of winning. The ballot will be India's most keenly watched since the national elections of 2009, especially because the Congress Party's campaign is being overseen by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi dynasty and very probably the party's next choice for prime minister. As the BBC's Soutik Biswas wrote this week, "How much Mr Gandhi is able to revive the Congress in the heartland of Indian politics may well determine his -- and his party's -- future."
Mayawati's decision then, which was passed in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in a mere three minutes on Monday, was carefully calculated to shift the focus of the election away from the questions of governance and corruption attached to herself and her party, and to make the breakup of the state the core issue. Her venture seemed designed to take the wind out of the sails of her political opponents, especially the Congress, which is battling with movements for statehood in other parts of the country. In a piece called "Heartland Surgery," the political commentator Sudha Pai observed:
The BSP government has proposed that the state be divided into four parts: Paschim Pradesh made up of 17 districts in western UP, Poorvanchal with 28 districts in eastern UP, Avadh with 23 districts in central UP and Bundelkhand with 7 districts in south-west UP. The BSP has made this demand based on parameters that are often put forward by supporters of small states: faster economic development, greater participation and improved governance.
However, the timing — prior to assembly elections due early next year — points to political calculations underlying the demand by the astute BSP leader. Mayawati hopes to create embarrassment and trouble for the Congress-led UPA, which is already facing demands for separation in Telengana, Vidharbha and Gorkhaland among others, and has failed to find a solution.
And on Rediff.com, Neerja Chowdhury explained some of the calculations behind the decision:
[Mayawati] is fighting with her back to the wall, to save her chief ministership. The BSP has lost ground since 2007 -- and some believe that there may well be an undercurrent building up against her government, though her core vote support of Dalits remains intact -- and she may have played the "divide-the-state" card to compensate for at least the 4-5 percent loss of popular support that may occur this time. She calculates that the demand for four smaller states could find resonance amongst some people in all the four regions of the state.
Even more usefully, the idea is politically malleable because it's of immediate relevance to every citizen of the state, but a project of such consequence that it could take several years to see through, depending as it does on approval by the Indian Parliament, where it would have many opponents. If Mayawati was at all to be admired, it was for the brilliance of her trade-off between short-term and long-term prospects, or the hedge that mooting the breakup of India's most significant political entity would be the very gambit that would allow her to secure her post for another term. In a piece in Outlook magazine called "The Mayawati Math," Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay observed:
[Mayawati] knows that there is no way that new states will be formed immediately, while the resolution will enable her to seek votes in the name of the promised lands.
And in the Hindu, Smita Gupta offered a picture of what a redrawn Uttar Pradesh would mean in a piece called "Mayawati's cleverly crafted pre-election strategy":
But even as she seeks to get the better of her political opponents, [Mayawati's] move...is likely to have national repercussions as well: Telangana [in the south] is still hanging fire, and there are demands for smaller States from across the country, from Vidarbha in the west to Gorkhaland in the east. Even more significant, U.P. will lose its identity as the pre-eminent political State in the country, which has produced a majority of the country's Prime Ministers. Its 75 districts which send 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha could be split with each of its four proposed parts, Bundelkhand, Avadh Pradesh, Purvanchal and Paschim Pradesh, getting roughly either less than a fourth or a little over.
In U.P.'s place, the western State of Maharashtra would be top dog with its 48 MPs in the Lok Sabha, not to mention its financial clout. West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, each with 42 MPs, Bihar with 40 MPs and Tamil Nadu with 39 MP would all have a larger say in national politics. U.P., the heart of India, which has played its role — despite its unwieldy size — in keeping the country united, and holding back the communal tide, would no longer exist. [...]
So will Mayawati's gamble pay off? It will certainly distract attention from the shortcomings in her administration, leaving her political adversaries, the Samajwadi Party, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RLD scrambling for an effective counter strategy.
Might it be, then, that in a few years the memory of the size and might of Uttar Pradesh becomes a fading image in the minds of Indians? Or is the idea of the state's dissolution the highway on which the elephant, the election symbol of the BSP, stalks triumphantly back into power? This may all depend on what happens in election season in the world's biggest sub-national political body.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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