Last week many Indians celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, at its vibrant best in India’s most populous, politically powerful and ungovernable state, Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Until 1977 every prime minister of India had been elected from Uttar Pradesh, which occupies the subcontinent’s most fertile country, between the two great rivers of the Indus and Ganges. With a population of 200 million - nearly ten times that of Australia - UP just about ranks as a country in its own right. A small town in Eastern UP, Mirzapur sets the time for all of India; Indian Standard Time is calculated on the basis of the clock tower in the centre of the town. And whoever “wins” UP has traditionally determined power across independent India, with some notable exceptions.
Once again in this fast-looming general election, UP is where the fate of the general election may well be decided. Holi this year was therefore destined to be more wild and boisterous than usual.
Holi marks the arrival of spring after winter, a period of renewal and fresh energy. It is the inspiration for the Colour Run – an event spruiked as the world’s happiest five-kilometre run - where participants get plastered with paint as they run. Among Hindus the tradition marks the victory of good over evil and is also associated with the life of the young Lord Krishna.
Holi, in essence, is the great equaliser, as all hierarchies break down and there is a new joie de vivre and an affirmation of life in all its colours.
Until recently few major blockbusters of Bollywood could do without a Holi song-and-dance routine. The most famous is one performed by India’s most popular actor, Amitabh Bachchan, in the 1981 movie Silsala.
Bachchan used the song Rang Barse during the 1984 electoral campaign in his hometown, UP’s Allahabad. It helped deliver him the Lok Sabha seat by one of the highest margins in India’s electoral history. (Bachchan later resigned in disgust, describing politics as a “cesspool”.)
Throughout UP a particular local version of the tradition, the Lath Mar Holi, re-enacts the “naughtiness” associated with the teenage Krishna who famously teased his beloved Radha and her village friends, the Gopis. Today, men from Krishna’s village Nandgaon visit Radha’s Barsana and are playfully “beaten” with sticks (Laths) by the women from the village. Holi, in essence, is the great equaliser, as all hierarchies break down and there is a new joie de vivre and an affirmation of life in all its colours.
Eight of India’s 16 prime ministers have come from UP and the state sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha – more than any other state in India. Interestingly, UP was a creation of the British seeking to manipulate the geography of India to serve their interests after the first Indian war of Independence in 1857 - referred to by the Imperialists as the Great Indian Mutiny. The new state was initially called the North Western Provinces of Agra and Oudh, and in 1902 was renamed the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh and popularly referred to as the United Provinces or its acronym UP.
UP became Uttar Pradesh, or the Northern State, after India’s independence. In 1999, the hilly parts of UP were carved into a new state of Uttarakhand. There are continued demands for a further reorganisation of UP into new states in what is administratively one of the most poorly governed regions of India.
UP is a mirror of the complexities and contradictions of India. Religion and caste have traditionally played an important role in electoral calculations. Until the late 1970s, the Congress Party was able to translate the support of the upper-caste Brahmins, Dalits at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and the Muslim minority into an unbeatable electoral constituency. The Jat leader, Chaudhuri Charan Singh (representing the middle peasantry) was the only non-Congress chief minister until 1977.
The 1980s and 1990s saw this traditional caste and religious arithmetic collapse. The Congress’s political influence in the state declined as castes became more discreet kinship groups rather hierarchical steps in a social ladder.
The upper-caste Hindus, including the Brahmins, moved to the more nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believing that the Congress was appeasing the Muslims. The Muslims themselves felt no longer protected under the Congress and built a coalition with the intermediate castes, led by the Yadavs, and the new Samajwadi Party. The Dalits' political awakening led to a revolt from the Congress (they believed that the Congress had used them as a vote bank) and the formation of the Bahajun Samaj Party.
2014 will witness at least a four-cornered contest in UP, with three prime ministerial aspirants all contesting from the state - and that is only one of the reasons it is so electorally unpredictable. Gujarat’s chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, will contest from Varanasi - one of the holiest cities for the Hindus. The Common Man’s Party (Aam Admi Party) leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has threatened to contest against Modi, while Rahul Gandhi of the Congress will fight from his regular constituency, Amethi.
The biggest opinion survey conducted so far by the television network NDTV suggests that BJP will be the main gainer and could win half of UP’s parliamentary seats. Indeed without winning at least 40 seats in UP, Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions could come to nought. UP has produced eight prime ministers but it has also been the slayer of many a prime ministerial ambition.
Traditionally, on the day of Holi, bhang with thandai (a beverage of sweet cold milk mixed with leaves and buds of the cannabis plant and topped with almond shavings) is drunk in the morning to give you that heady festive feeling. But with elections around the corner no bhang will be needed to raise spirits in Uttar Pradesh.