February 26, 2017 12:03:33 am
In the cacophony of puerile speeches that have defined the campaign for Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister’s most important observation went unobserved. India cannot move forward, he said, if our largest state fails to keep pace with the rest of the country. These words resonated with me more than any others uttered during this silly season of a campaign, because while wandering through squalid towns, filthy bazaars and wretchedly poor villages I said them to myself over and over again.
Uttar Pradesh is a chilling reality check. Instead of improving, as much of India has, it seems to have deteriorated into a vast, fetid slum. This is a state I know well. I spent most of my school days here and it was beautiful then. There were unspoiled forests, pristine rivers and picturesque villages that huddled around white-washed mosques or temples. They were often set in groves of mango and litchi trees.
Lucknow, Agra, Allahabad and Benaras were towns dominated by ancient monuments of great beauty. And then there were the old Mughal trade towns that had their special, specific identity. Firozabad for its glass bangles, Khurja for its pottery, Moradabad for brass and Aligarh for locks. All they needed was some serious Swachh Bharat activity for them to have become major tourist attractions. Today they are filthy shanties.
Rural Uttar Pradesh has fared no better. Villages have become semi-urban habitations of unspeakable ugliness, redeemed in this season only by flowering mustard fields. These villages are devoid of trees, gardens and architectural beauty. Their schools are in a disgraceful state of decay as are their health centres and hospitals. Roads do not exist and when they do, are just ribbons of broken tarmac.
In the Prime Minister’s ‘model village’ of Jayapur, I saw nascent signs of improvement. There was a proper bus stand, solar power in homes, two banks, skill training centres and hectic paving of the village’s main road. If the rest of his army of MPs made similar efforts, they have hidden them well. Villages in UP are hellholes of squalor and misery but they are better than this state’s towns and cities.
Urbanisation has created a bleak landscape of grimy bazaars, clogged drains, rotting garbage and general squalor. Urban skies are blotted out by kilometres of thick dirt-clogged wiring that supply the electricity that the Chief Minister boasted about during this election campaign. Akhilesh Yadav asked the Prime Minister to swear on the Ganga that Benaras did not have 24-hour electricity. He made it sound like a special favour. There has been a lot of very stupid talk in this campaign about extra electricity on Eid and Diwali when the real question is why electricity is not available every day for every citizen. The same is true for drinking water. It should be a non-negotiable fundamental right. Shame on our political leaders that we should even be discussing these things 70 years after independence from our colonial masters.
What was most disheartening about this campaign for UP is that the protagonists in this election talked of these basic public services in passing while insidiously appealing to voters along those old faultlines of caste and creed. The Chief Minister seeks a second term on the grounds that he has brought ‘development’ to Uttar Pradesh. He boasted endlessly about the highway he has built and the laptops he has handed out. The new highway from Lucknow to Agra is magnificent but has he noticed that when you get off it, you see a state that appears to be in terminal decline?
What use are laptops and smartphones when electricity remains elusive? What Akhilesh Yadav should be most ashamed of though is how little he has done to improve schools and hospitals in his first term. That he knows exactly what he should have done becomes more than evident if you take a short trip around his Daddy’s ancestral village, Saifai, where fine schools began to be built 20 years ago.
The Prime Minister is right when he says India cannot move forward until UP does. But forgets that in 2014, this state gave him the 73 seats he needed to get a full majority. When this election is lost and won, he would do well to summon his MPs to discover what they have done to deserve the mandate they were given. Where are their model villages? How many times have they visited their constituencies? What have they done with their constituency allowances? All questions that need answers.
The mood during the 2014 general election was one of exuberant, hysterical hope. This has evaporated. The Prime Minister remains popular but his party is fighting to defeat a Yadav scion who till he dumped his uncles, was not in the race. Uttar Pradesh more than any other Indian state needs a real chief minister.
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