In Uttar Pradesh, does caste politics trump human development?
The evidence is clear. Caste politics — of which the SP and BSP are accused — did not undermine human development indicators, as seen in the data from NHFS 3 and 4
The elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have resurrected claims that caste politics undermine development. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters in the commentariat, as well as the general public, argue that caste politics, as allegedly practised by Opposition parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), led to the state’s social and economic backwardness. In fact, National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data on human development since 2004 suggests quite the opposite: UP fared as well as, if not better than, its neighbours among the Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and UP (BIMARU) states.
Political instability marred UP since India’s Independence in 1947. Although the Congress won decisive majorities in legislative assembly elections held in 1952, 1957 and 1962, no chief minister (CM) completed a full term in the state. After 1967, political instability became even more acute, as power rotated between the several parties that competed for dominance without, however, managing to complete a full term. It was only as late as 2012 that Mayawati became the first CM to complete a full term in office.
Breaking the mould: Political stability after 2007
The BSP’s absolute majority in 2007 has been attributed to its inclusive social coalition. Unlike its rivals, the BSP sought to build a rainbow coalition that included Dalits, upper castes as well as Muslims. It also sought to include the majority of the lower castes except for the Yadavs, who were identified as being beholden to rival Mulayam Singh Yadav. The rainbow coalition forged by the BSP was like the social coalitions that fuelled electoral support for the Congress Party in the early decades after Independence.
However, two differences were crucial. One, unlike the state leadership of the Congress that held office at the pleasure of the party’s national leadership, CM Mayawati was also the national president of the BSP. Unlike CMs affiliated with the Congress, she was not accountable to the national capital but to her electorate. Two, unlike the elite upper caste leadership of the Congress, the BSP’s leadership was self-consciously Dalit. As a party committed to improving the well-being of Dalits — those worst-off in UP society — the BSP also realised the impossibility of doing so without a modicum of support from other social groups. This inclusive vision was outlined by its campaign slogan sarvajan hitay, sarvajan sukhay (may everyone benefit, may everyone be prosperous).
With an eye on improving life for Dalits, the BSP took development very seriously. Mayawati introduced and implemented a housing scheme for the urban poor. Of the 100,000 housing units promised, over 90,000 were constructed by the time her tenure as CM ended in 2012. She also inaugurated an integrated rural development programme to supply water, electricity and roads in villages with Dalit majorities. Almost 25,000 villages across the state saw improvements within their jurisdictions, and even her worst critics admitted there had been some development compared to previous regimes. Even as the BSP government remained unable to introduce structural reforms that would transfer more productive assets to Dalits, its development programmes reached populations that had hitherto been largely marginalised. Learning from the experience of neighbouring Bihar, the state government distributed one million bicycles to girls across the state in a bid to improve their access to schooling and general mobility. However, allegations of corruption overshadowed the developmental interventions introduced under her tenure and Mayawati was voted out of power in 2012.
The new government was formed by the SP. The SP borrowed a page from the BSP’s success in forging social coalitions. It cemented the Yadav-Muslim coalition that lay at the foundation of his party’s ideology with support from the upper castes. Muslim representation in the UP Vidhan Sabha was at the highest since Independence and more closely reflected the community’s population than ever before. Although Yadav scrapped many schemes introduced by Mayawati, he also introduced several social welfare programmes including housing subsidies, pensions and unemployment allowances. Further, he distributed 1.5 million laptops to students who completed their secondary and senior secondary education across the state.
But perhaps the highlight of Yadav’s chief ministership was the successful eradication of polio in the state. By 2013, the state had not reported a single case of polio, a major milestone in global health improvement. The involvement of Muslims in the SP’s social coalition helped to overcome worries from community members that the polio vaccine was aimed against them.
Improved human development indicators since 2007
The human development outcomes of the inclusive social coalitions that governed UP between 2007 and 2017 are clearly discernible. Several of these outcomes pertain directly to the effectiveness of the state in delivering services. NFHS-3 — which pertains to data collected in 2005-6 — is just a year before the BSP came to power in UP. NFHS-4 data pertains to the period 2015-6, or a year prior to the SP losing power in UP. Both sets of data offer useful insights into the changes in human development in the state through the inclusive governments of the BSP and the SP.
For example, the proportion of children under five years old whose births were registered increased from a mere 7% in 2005-6 to over 60%. Among its neighbours, only Bihar has a similar track record.
The proportion of births in a public facility similarly increased from 6.6% in 2005-6 to over 44% in 2015-6.
Indicators of human development pertaining to women’s status registered an improvement. Women’s literacy rates increased to 61%, the highest among the BIMARU states. The proportion of women with at least 10 years of education also increased, placing UP ahead of the other BIMARU states.
Immunisation rates improved.
A larger proportion of women reported a follow-up visit from a paramedic after the delivery.
Between 2005 and 2016, UP reduced the incidence of multidimensional poverty by almost 28 percentage points, from 68.8% to 40.8%. Multidimensional poverty measures poverty not only in terms of income but also deprivations in such sectors as health, education and quality of life. Given the size of the state and its enormous social heterogeneity, this was no mean achievement.
Not only did UP decrease the incidence of multidimensional poverty during this period, it also reduced the intensity of multidimensional poverty, or the number of deprivations suffered by people. Alongside Jharkhand, the state reported the lowest intensity of multidimensional poverty among the BIMARU states during the NFHS-4 reporting period.
Does caste politics trump human development?
The evidence from UP is clear. Caste politics — of which the SP and BSP are accused — did not undermine the state’s human development indicators. If anything, the state’s progress in overcoming decades, if not centuries, of human underdevelopment, is noteworthy. To be sure, neither the BSP government nor the SP regime was perfect. But to deny their contribution to UP’s human development would be grossly unfair. It's time the commentariat set the record right.
Indrajit Roy is a senior lecturer-Global Development Politics, department of politics, University of York
The views expressed are personal