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What happens in UP, happens in all of India

  • Published at 07:27 pm February 8th, 2017
What happens in UP, happens in all of India

The upcoming election in Uttar Pradesh, a state whose large population ensures its distinctive position in India’s political life, is characterised by considerable excitement. And in recent weeks, key players have contributed further to the electoral drama.

Just before New Year’s Eve, UP’s incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was expelled from the Samajwadi Party (SP) by the leader of the party, his own father Mulayam Singh Yadav. The conflict between father and son and their respective groups of supporters had been going on for months, but escalated at the year-end. The struggle between the two for control over the party was rooted in disagreements over candidate selection.

An important element here is the criminalisation of political life in UP.

In 2014, Gilles Verniers at Ashoka University described the atmosphere in Uttar Pradesh as marked by “lawlessness, sectarian violence, and a generally unsafe climate.” A number of Samajwadi Party’s representatives in the state assembly are criminal bosses who reign in their constituencies by way of extra-judicial violence and the channelling of resources through personal networks. They favour their own supporters and generally act with impunity. And, as one would expect, these political arrangements are a source of widespread discontent among people in the state.

Since he was first launched as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav has worked to change the established image of the SP as a party of crooks. His campaign, ahead of the 2012 state elections, emphasised on youthful vitality, development, and new technologies.

Whereas his father has consistently underlined his caste identity and made several appalling statements about rape, Akhilesh set up a toll-free helpline for women and portrays himself as a secular technocrat.

Akhilesh holds an MSc in Environmental Technology from the University of Sydney, and his political advisors are highly educated young men who front a vision of bringing UP out of the developmental quagmire. One of his signal projects has been to hand out free laptops and tablets to schoolchildren in order to curtail “digital inequality” and encourage young people to continue their studies.

The laptops have been immensely popular among recipients, but others have argued that handing out sops should not be the main priority of the government in a state ridden by poverty and poor infrastructure. While Akhilesh Yadav handed out free tablets, large parts of UP were regularly without electricity for up to 14 hours a day. And importantly, while promoting a progressive and new image, the chief minister has never said that he is planning to oust criminal candidates from the party.

Indian politics has long been dominated by older leaders. Voters have tended to prefer the experience and routine of established leaders over the vitality and new ideas associated with younger candidates

Thus, while we may agree that his politics are largely symbolic, it must also be remembered that promoting new symbols can provide a pivotal impetus to processes of social and political change.

What triggered Akhilesh’s expulsion from the dynastic party was that he presented an alternative list of party candidates for the upcoming state elections, a direct challenge to the power of his father. In the days that followed, father and son both summoned the party’s 229 elected representatives to separate meetings.

While more than 200 representatives showed up to support Akhilesh, a pitiful 20something representatives reportedly came to the Mulayam meet. The defeat was, thus, a fact for the man who founded the SP in 1992.

Within 24 hours of the successful meeting, Akhilesh was reinstated and has now been declared the party’s national president. One factor enabling this surprising development is the ongoing demographic change in the state.

India is in the middle of what development theorists call a “demographic window.” The postulate is that the population growth over the past decades produces a historical opportunity to lift large sections of the population out of poverty because the proportion in the productive age segment is large compared to the proportion of dependents, ie children and the elderly. But in order to take advantage of this opportunity, the large group of employable and educated youth needs jobs. And on this front, Uttar Pradesh, like much of the rest of India, is failing.

Indian politics has long been dominated by older leaders. Voters have tended to prefer the experience and routine of established leaders over the vitality and new ideas associated with younger candidates. Age has rarely been on the agenda in discussions about political representation, which rather revolve around the representational deficit of groups defined by gender, caste, and religion. But now, the heightened aspirations and sheer numerical weight of young people’s votes is increasing, given political expression.

Although no youngster himself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 66, appealed strongly to the aspirations of the youth ahead of the 2014 general election. Doing fieldwork in UP at the time, I spoke to many Dalit families with long traditions of supporting the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party dedicated to the interests of low caste groups. While their parents declared that they would continue to vote for “their own party,” young people said they would vote for Modi.

If demographic changes produce a split between generations, this could cut across established political cleavages in the state. Akhilesh Yadav’s successful coup in the Samajwadi Party may thus be read as a signal to leaders of all political parties that they can no longer risk to ignore the youth.

Guro Warhuus Samuelsen is a Doctoral Fellow at University of Oslo.