There is a popular narrative that tends to blame the political class of Uttar Pradesh (UP) for the contemporary and past economic underdevelopment of the state. According to such a narrative, while other BIMARU states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – were eventually given capable political leadership, the UP was not and continued its trajectory of economic mismanagement. This reasoning is problematic because it does not view politics as an interaction between supply and demand. The political economy of the UP was the product of such interaction, beginning in colonial times, and whose legacies still linger.
Any analysis of the political economy of UP underdevelopment must begin by considering some general economic figures. This serves two purposes: how did the UP compare to other provinces at independence and since then has the state really underperformed? In 1938–39, the income-to-income ratio of the UP (then United Provinces) was 4%, compared to an average of 4.4% for all of India. During the same period, the ratio of land revenue to state taxes was 64%, compared to an average of 46% for India as a whole. These figures suggest that the UP had relatively less state capacity and was more agricultural than its counterparts.
Examining pre-independence irrigation figures gives a better idea of the state’s agricultural economy. According to figures from the Labor Department of Industries and Works, between 1944 and 46 the average irrigation coverage in UP was 17%, compared to 12% in Madras, 14% in Sindh, 0.8% in Bengal, 4% in Bihar and Orissa and 46% in Punjab. The agricultural resources of UP were better than most of its peers, except that of Punjab. However, which sections of society would get the largest share of these resources would become the fundamental determinant of the future economic fortunes of the state.
After 1947, the data clearly shows patterns of sluggish growth in the state. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), between 1960 and 1994, the average annual growth of GDP per capita in UP was 1.2%, compared to a national average of 1.7%. Moreover, according to KL Krishna estimates, UP exhibited the second most volatile per capita growth between 1970 and 1996, second only to Rajasthan.
What explains this persistent weak performance? The main drivers of UP growth patterns can be discerned in the broader national political economy at play, which to begin with was determined by two interrelated factors.
First, as many scholars have observed, the Indian National Congress (INC) was an apex organization with a truly multiclass support base. Second, British direct rule was applied very heterogeneously across India – for example, through the widespread use of zamindari in UP. As this fragmented authority structure continued after independence, it resulted in an extraordinarily fragmented state authority, characterized by pockets of despotic power in the UP.
These two factors have resulted in what Atul Kohli has called India’s multi-class fragmented state authority. As a result, “the INC simultaneously leaned toward populism, making promises to the lower classes while quietly protecting the interests of the ruling classes,” writes Kohli. This system was based on the use of patronage – for certain elites – and co-optation – of the masses – to stay in power. And fragmented state authority meant that neither the central government nor the state government had the capacity of the state to uniformly implement even a limited number of policies. As recent research shows, the districts where the British implemented the zamindari (as opposed to land tenure) have been shown to have less state capacity and poorer long-term development outcomes. More broadly, however, this dichotomy between Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist rhetoric and pro-rural-urban capitalist policies was best illustrated by Barrington Moore’s description of Nehru as the “gentle betrayer of the masses.”
This economic system was mainly in favor of selected rural and urban capitalists. “Over the decades course correction became virtually impossible, with the parasitic reliance of Nehru and later Gandhi on the gentry for capital formation. For their socialist five-year plans relied heavily on rural accumulation to finance industrial expansion. Maintaining low rural demand – that is, poor peasant farmers – was, indeed, a macroeconomic priority,” writes Pratinav Anil.
The socio-economic composition of the UP, particularly that represented in the UP Congressional Committee (UPCC) and government from the 1950s to the 1980s, made it an ideal state to implement such a doctrine. economic. Except for a few years, Congress was in power in the state from 1952 to 1989. This power of Congress was backed by an umbrella coalition, which would include upper castes, backgrounds, schedule castes (SC) and Muslims. However, power rested first with the large landowners until the 1960s, then with the “Bullock Capitalists” – the middle nobility, who owned 2.5 to 15 acres of land – in the 1970s and 1980s.
This intra-Congress balance of power within the UP was evident in the caste composition of successive UP governments, which featured a disproportionate representation of upper castes such as the Brahmins and Baniyas, and the almost complete exclusion arrears, SCs and Muslims. Similarly, while from the late 1960s the UPCC had a proportional distribution of power between the upper castes and the backward, often the most powerful units at the district level were controlled by the upper castes. This power structure underpinned the economic policies of the UP, which were pro-landlord and bull-capitalist, and did little or nothing for the rest.
UP then, and to a large extent still today, comprised a majority of landless farmers or very small landowners. So, just like South Korea or China – and given the kind of economic ideas in play at the time – the main political choice of the UP should have been to facilitate large-scale land reforms and investments in primary infrastructure. In contrast, successive UP governments at the time decided to block any meaningful land reform and continued to support rural interests.
Consider two separate examples that help clarify the policy preferences of the UP government.
First, according to OECD data, from 1970 to 1994, in terms of physical, social and economic infrastructure (per capita), the UP is doing better than the national average in agriculture, irrigation and roads . These are the kinds of infrastructure demands one would expect wealthy landowners and bull capitalists to make. During this time, the state lagged the national average in electricity consumption, literacy levels, infant mortality, and bank deposits. These are indicators of more public-centric infrastructures, which did not seem to be a priority for the State.
Second, let’s review UP’s wacky attempt to implement land caps. The state had already abolished zamindari and large landholdings in the 1950s, and now the big Nehruvian idea was to set up land caps, redistribute expropriated land, and finally facilitate the pooling of small landholdings for collective farming. But the UP government, representing key rural interests, assured that any serious attempt to implement land caps would be blocked. As a result, by 1972 only 0.4% of the land had been redistributed – of which around 70% was in outlying and less fertile areas. Also, even that wasn’t the biggest problem with terrain caps. As Richard S. Newell argued, “Even if all the surplus land were distributable, the per capita share of the landless would only be about 0.04 acres.”
Therefore, land caps as an economic idea were a no-start in UP. However, that doesn’t mean UP congressional leaders haven’t publicly praised the policy. They made major public commitments and hailed it as the transformative idea of the state’s rural economy. But the execution and its very economic justification was a whole different story. This dichotomy between socialist rhetoric and pro-rural elite politics was the fundamental obstacle to the UP’s prolonged underdevelopment.
In the overall national political economy of Nehruvian and Gandhi, the economic orientation of a state was determined by a trade-off between “central transfers and regional re-election chances”, according to Aseema Sinha. On the one hand, in states with robust sub-nationalism and anti-center sentiment, its politicians choose re-election via anti-center politics. On the other hand, in states without sub-nationalism, there was no such compromise, leading its political elite to negotiate with the center for more investments.
The UP and its political class fell squarely into the second category and successfully negotiated with the center. Regardless, the political leaders of the state only represented the narrow interests of landowners and bull capitalists, as opposed to the population as a whole.
Srijan Shukla studies international politics and business at NYU and is editor of NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry
Opinions expressed are personal