Both economically and socially, Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state, has become the nation’s greatest backwater. At 170 million-plus, at least 16% of India’s population resides in UP, though the state accounts for only 6% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Agriculture still accounts for at least 40% of UP’s economic output, as opposed to less than 17% of the national GDP. UP’s literacy rate is 7 percentage points below the all-India average and a girl in UP is likely to live 20 years fewer than a girl in Kerala.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Until the 1960s, Bangalore was a sleepy town while Lucknow was bustling with self-belief and historical glory. Today, Bangalore is written about throughout the world while Lucknow is a relic of the past. Kanpur, industrially far ahead of Bangalore until the 1960s, has fallen into bad times with the closing of its textile mills. The town of Noida constitutes the only recent success story of national magnitude from UP. However, the performance of Noida may have more to do with its proximity to Delhi, and less with UP’s policy vision.

What accounts for such a miserable record? The long-term sources of UP’s decline remain unclear, but the recent causes are clearly identifiable. For roughly two decades until 2007, no government in UP lasted its full term and there was no policy stability. In the May 2007 state elections, the victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) basically terminated the endemic political chaos and promised political stability.

Mayawati’s victory was based on an unusual social coalition. In 2007, every sixth Brahmin in UP voted for the BSP, a primarily Dalit party. Even in south India, where the non-Brahmin castes came to power as early as the late 1960s, Dalits were never in the lead. Mayawati’s victory was undoubtedly a democratic novelty.

BSP’s rise to power also created a window of opportunity for economic development. First, in a state haunted by endemic political instability, the very promise of political stability was a positive development. Second, electoral realities had altered the political agenda of the BSP; it was no longer a party that catered only to the Dalits. Rather, its emphasis was on the “poor upper castes" as well as Dalits and “lower OBCs" (other backward classes).

Mayawati’s victory, thus, opened the possibility of a dualistic political thrust. She had the opportunity to combine samman ki rajniti, or the politics of dignity—the core of Dalit politics thus far—and vikas ki rajniti, or the politics of economic development, which would make it possible for her to serve a larger social base. To accomplish both, UP needed a substantially higher economic growth rate.

This is where Mayawati has badly erred. She has pursued the old brand of dignity politics, if only more spectacularly. But the politics of economic growth, which requires emphasis on governance and market-oriented policies, has been neglected.

Three features have marked Mayawati’s politics of dignity: grand architectural projects aimed at making Dalit icons more visible in the public sphere; extension of affirmative action beyond the standard government services and public education; and the accent on behavioural retribution. The meaning of the first two is clear; the third requires elaboration.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, has argued, in a society which has historically been highly socially unequal, politics is not always seen as a way of solving common problems. Rather, politics is often viewed as the best way to punish groups that were powerful earlier. Plebeian politicians often express power by transferring bureaucrats at will or by excessively punishing upper-caste violations of the new grammar of respect for the lower castes.

Respecting lower castes as fellow citizens is a worthy project, but unless it is backed by a strategy to lift economic growth, it only provides symbolic, though significant, benefits. It does not fundamentally transform the lives of the masses. Southern lower-caste parties realized this in the 1970s and began to attend both to dignity and economic growth; Bihar’s current regime has also made the new moves, while Mayawati is still incarcerated by an old model. She has already paid a price for her inadequate vision. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, she lost votes among virtually all groups, including the upper castes and Muslims.

On a more fundamental level, Mayawati’s failure to combine dignity with economic growth is a tragedy. UP is blessed with technocratic and scientific wealth. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, is a world-class institution with distinguished alumni such as N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, and many others in the Silicon Valley. Lucknow also has a highly rated Indian Institute of Management. The intellectual capital of such institutions remains untapped in the policy process. Politicians and bureaucrats seem to know it all.

For growth acceleration, UP needs high value-added manufacturing and/or services, but the government has no bold policy ideas about how to get there. If UP’s politics do not change, there is a good chance that Bihar—where the government is seeking new ideas from outside the standard bureaucratic channels—will leave UP behind and bring a swift end to the so-called Mayawati revolution.

Ashutosh Varshney is a professor of political science at Brown University, US. A version of this piece appeared in the University of Pennsylvania’s India in Transition

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