Remapping India: Elections and Demands for Statehood

As India’s election season gets into full swing, the idea of creating new states has once again appeared front and centre.

As India’s election season gets into full swing, the idea of creating new states has once again appeared front and centre. The announcement by the Congress-led central government in July that it would push ahead with the creation of Telangana from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh has ensured that statehood demands are likely to remain a hot topic in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha elections and beyond. Other demands – for Gorkhaland, Vidarbha, Harit Pradesh, Bodoland and others – are being reasserted and reassessed.

The major story of the last twenty-five years in India’s electoral landscape has been the consolidation of the states as crucial political arenas. This has involved the entrenchment of the power of regional parties within India’s states, and a firm shift to coalitions (involving national and regional parties) as the norm of government formation in New Delhi. In this federal context, demands for the changing of state boundaries have become a prominent part of the currency of politics. The power to create new states rests with the central government, and requires the passage of legislation in parliament. Thus regional parties and social movements seeking new states need to build alliances with parties in power at the centre. Commitments to create – or to oppose – new states have entered the terms of trade between national parties and regional parties as they negotiate coalition agreements before and after elections.

As regional parties have consolidated their hold over many state governments, we have seen national parties forging new links with sub-state regional parties (parties with a base in only one part of a larger state). National parties (the BJP, and more recently Congress) have found that supporting demands for statehood pursued by sub-state parties is a means by which they can attempt to build or rebuild their electoral appeal in states where they have been sidelined by state-level parties. On the other hand, sub-state parties – such as the Telangana Rashtri Samiti or Rashtriya Lok Dal in western Uttar Pradesh – have used alliances with national parties as a means to put pressure on their state-level opponents. We see these dynamics at play today in the case of Telangana – with Congress and the BJP vying over who can demonstrate the strongest degree of commitment to the creation of the new state.

Remapping India tells the story of how the Hindu nationalist BJP came to support demands for statehood in the course of the 1980s and 1990s. It did so in parts of the Hindi belt of north and central India that had been reshaped by lower caste political mobilisation and the coming to power – in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – of new state-level parties appealing to lower castes. When the BJP came to power at the helm of the NDA government in 1998, it pushed ahead with a move to create India’s newest states – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. It is this reorganisation of state boundaries in the Hindi belt that is at the heart of Remapping India, but the book offers a wider lens for understanding ongoing regional assertions too.

In much of India, statehood demands are now frequently to be understood not through the primary lens of ‘ethnic’ conflict and claims-making – as has often been the case in the academic literature on multi-ethnic federalism – but rather as part of a shifting electoral landscape. Yet this doesn’t mean that we should empty out, or ignore, the deeper content of demands for statehood. These are not simply transient demands floating on a seemingly fickle tide of electoral politics. Demands for statehood embody multiple re-imaginings of political and economic arenas, and are keenly contested. Pro-statehood alliances can include groups who seek to challenge existing power-holders, patterns of resource distribution and economic opportunities, and achieve recognition of new social formations. We need to interpret the creation of new states within the context of longer evolving changes in the nature of politics and political mobilisation across states. Drawing on extensive interviews and original fieldwork, Remapping India explores the creation of new states as the product of longer-term changes taking place in multiple arenas – sub-state, state and federal levels – of India’s polity.

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