The popular misconception is that the Hindi belt, or the Hindi patti as it is called, is one homogenous unit. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, which together gave rise to the term BIMARU states, and Haryana are indeed united by historical and social conditions. Backward and with high densities of population, the belt was witness to the First War of Independence, which conditioned social realities and may have led to migration. It also led to a renaissance of sorts in the evolution of Hindi as a language.
But Hindi spoken in each of these states has local variations, which have been influenced by dialects such as Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili, Bundeli, Bagheli and Haryanvi etc. which reshaped the socio-political psyche of the region. It is therefore fallacious to think of the Hindi-speaking states as one, homogenous unit.
Both during and after the freedom movement, the region had little difficulty in embracing the Congress and its creeds of inclusion and equality. This was challenged by the socialist movement which bred and flourished in the region. Parties and organisations swearing by Hindutva also grew in influence over the years.
Although Congress began to lose steam in the Hindi belt in 80s and the 90s, it was for the longest time the party for all. Brahmins and upper castes, Muslims and Dalits formed its core support base for long, although many of them drifted apart and aligned with other parties for a variety of reasons and because of the emergence of ‘identity’, in terms of religion or in terms of caste.
After a very long time, Congress, however, is seen making a serious bid to retrieve its lost ground in the region. Its newfound confidence and determination were evident in the impressive public rally it organised in Patna after a gap of three decades. In Uttar Pradesh too, it is seen putting its best foot forward. Induction of Priyanka Gandhi and making her responsible for the party’s revival in eastern Uttar Pradesh is another pointer to how serious the party is.
But aggression alone is unlikely to work. Congress leaders must realise that while the belt is sharply divided on caste lines, the ‘class’ factor is also important. The labour, peasants and the middle classes, however, are again not homogenous groups. There are land-holding peasants but by far the most numerous are the landless peasants here. The distinction is important because political sops like loan waivers can appeal to land-holding peasants but will be of little interest to the landless. This section yearns for land reforms but that is easier said than done and no political party thinks it can afford to discount the support of the landed peasantry. The long and short of it is that the same size does not suit all.
Equally complex are the caste identities in the Hindi belt, which often overlap with class. The political challenge is to find a strategy that is both simple and popular, to evolve simple messages around really complicated caste lobbies.
Its best bet is in developing rainbow coalitions of caste and community. While reviving its old support base among Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits is an obvious starting point, it will do well to keep in mind that these groups also have layers and layers of sub-groups and sub-castes. They do not necessarily see eye to eye and are certainly not monolithic groups.
Finding grassroot community leaders among these relatively smaller and marginalised Dalit castes may not be as daunting as it may appear. They have been ignored for so long that they are waiting to grab opportunities and political platforms that come their way
Dalits in Bihar, to cite one example, are divided into several strong subcastes, the Chamars, Dusadhs, Musahars to name a few. While Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi enjoy considerable following among Dusadhs and Musahars respectively, Congress needs to cultivate other leaders and make dents in these groups.
Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, the party needs to make dents into the social base of BSP for mobilising Dalits. With disenchantment against Mayawati growing among Dalits in UP and young leaders like Chandrashekhar capturing the imagination of many of the young Dalits, new alliances may help Congress mobilise a section of Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh.
It is worth keeping in mind that in Uttar Pradesh alone, there are more than 60 Dalit communities. Around 40 of them do not have any leader of consequence and therefore are largely left out of political calculations by parties. Many of these groups like Dhobi, Koris, Har, Begar, Badhiya and Bansor etc. yearn to be heard and get a fair representation in politics. Mobilising these non-Jatav Dalit communities is also an option before the party.
Developing political leadership among these groups and providing them the political space they are waiting for can yield dividends in the long run. Finding grassroot community leaders among these relatively smaller and marginalised Dalit castes may not be as daunting as it may appear. They have been ignored for so long that they are waiting to grab opportunities and political platforms that come their way.
Of course, reviving its old base among Brahmins and Muslims may prove to be relatively easier. One of the reasons the Congress lost its way in the Hindi belt was the collapse of its structures at the grassroot. Those structures and grassroot leaders need to be revived and given importance to develop workers at the local level.
Revival of the Congress in the Hindi belt is not only important for the party but is also crucial for Indian democracy. It is of course easier said but effective messaging, the appeal of an inclusive and liberal political party and organisation re-built at the grassroots are the way forward. The enthusiasm which one sees in the Hindi belt for the Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi augur well for the party’s much awaited revival in the Hindi belt.