Uttar Pradesh is crucial to national electoral equations. Its desire for change is a mix of reality and hype
Five months after the search for a thousand tonnes of gold, Daundiya Kheda village in Unnao, the small hamlet rumoured to be concealing the world’s greatest treasure, remains a paradox. The village is connected to the city through roads that are intractable and the fabled El Dorado plunges into darkness after the sunset. Daundiya Kheda qualifies to be a mythical treasure trove protected by inaccessibility and ignorance.
And yet it generates hope.
“They would have certainly found out enough gold to overcome all our poverty had they (the Archaeological Survey of India) followed the saint’s advice,” said Jhallar who was a key witness to the digging for gold. Nearly six months ago, a local Hindu saint known as Shobhan Sarkar claimed that a small residential place of Unnao’s king Raja Ram Bux Singh concealed a thousand tonnes of gold underneath.
In Unnao and its adjoining region, the maverick saint commands unquestioned loyalty. That is why he is called “sarkar”, or government. His words are considered sacrosanct, inviolable, a command to his followers. Jhallar, who belongs to Lodha community, is an ardent devotee; and so is Samajwadi Party district office bearer Shailja Sharan Shukla. Both believe Shobhan Sarkar cannot be wrong. If the search is left to the saint himself, with help from the Indian army, he would discover a huge quantity of gold that would put India far ahead of USA in richness.
Jhallar and Shukla are not exceptions but the rule here. Even the state believed in Shobhan Sarkar’s claim and deployed ASI and other agencies to search. After a fortnight-long operation, they found nothing. But they left the digging spot after marking it off with a tarpaulin. They might resume the digging in future, many people here said. Like Jhallar and Shukla, the Indian state would rather trust Shobhan Sarkar’s dream of gold than rely on its own machinery to alleviate people’s miseries, which continue to multiply. But the wait for the treasure continues.
It is no exaggeration to say that Unnao has been waiting for a divine intervention for a change in its fortune; not just financially but politically, too. Its Lok Sabha member Annu Tandon generated a similar hope when she won the seat on the basis of her social work. It was indeed difficult for a woman of Khatri lineage to overcome hurdles of caste identity and score a spectacular victory in 2009. Coming from an affluent background, Tandon’s commitment to social work was seen as precursor to imminent change that would transform Unnao’s landscape. But the hope stands belied at the end of her parliamentary term. She now symbolises status quo, an archetypal politician whose only interest is to win again. In an atmosphere of hope, she is on a losing wicket.
The story of Daundiya Kheda and Unnao forms a fitting metaphorical backdrop for our nearly 3,000 km journey crisscrossing Uttar Pradesh. We went there to assess people’s aspirations and the intensity of the societal impulse for a change in governance. In this journey, we came across facts and fictions, realities and hyper-realities that have combined to weave a dream of hope. It begins right when you enter the Yamuna Expressway after negotiating the traffic snarls of Ghaziabad and move along the bumpy roads in villages that have fallen on the wayside to pave the way for the development of Greater Noida and the expressway built and maintained by the Jaypee Group. On either side of this silken expressway are springing up luxury apartments and ready-to-move-in condos. This has fuelled the notional price of agricultural land, raising hope among farmers and prompting them to assume the new role of real estate developers. As of now, lush and verdant fields of western UP – called the country’s granary – have become a haven for the lucrative real estate business.
High-speed SUVs and luxury cars cruising easily at 140 km per hour on the expressway give a distinctly different picture of Uttar Pradesh from the reality which is as harsh as life, once you leave the highway and make for either Aligarh or Mathura. The roads to both the places are paved with back-breaking potholes.
In our brief stay at Vrindavan, adjacent to Mathura, we found that Jayant Chaudhary, son of civil aviation minister Ajit Singh, had failed to deliver on any of the promises in his constituency. “There is no development in the area. It lacks even basic civic amenities,” commented Arun Singh, a BJP aspirant for the Lok Sabha seat. Singh, a chartered account in Delhi, has shifted his base to Mathura. The twin cities of Vrindavan and Mathura, associated with Lord Krishna, are the oldest urban areas of the state. Yet its religious spots are the most dingy and poorly kept places that repel tourists instead of attracting them.
In sharp contrast to the prevailing mood of despondency, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi conjured up a dream for people of the region at his Agra rally a month ago. He promised to build an international airport to ferry tourists and develop high-class industrial enclaves for leather processing and bangle manufacturing at Ferozabad. He tried to strike a rapport with people of the region by highlighting the symbiotic link between Mathura-Vrindavan and Dwarka in Gujarat. There is little doubt that Modi’s oratory, albeit heavy on rhetoric, is the only sign of hope for people in the region.
But a hundred kilometres away from the dusty town of Agra lies Jaswant Nagar, hometown of Samajwadi party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his chief minister son Akhilesh Yadav. “Have you been to Jaswant Nagar or Saifai village of late?” asked a retired IPS officer from the district. “Go there and you will see that it is better than Lucknow in many ways.” He was right.
The Yadav clan has turned Saifai into dreamland and Jaswant Nagar township into a well laid-out urban cluster. The highway that passes through the Jaswant Nagar is well connected by good roads which interlink various parts of the township. “Netaji is our hope and we will vote for him only,” said a tea vendor who belongs to the Kushwaha community here. “This part of the town is even better than Lucknow. You get round-the-clock electricity, the best medical facilities and good education,” he said. Saifai is the only village in the entire state which can boast of a post-graduate medical institute and several professional colleges. The area also has an international airport, though of course the only planes landing there are the ones carrying the Yadav clan. The annual fare of cine stars regaling village audience with their stage performance is yet another bonanza that people of the region are proud of. A popular refrain was: how could it have happened without Netaji? For them the status quo is an ideal state of being.
But this state of perfect bliss and reverie in the region is broken whenever the BSP comes to power. During Mayawati’s regime, the area is deprived of all facilities and starved of power. “We dread that prospect every five years,” said the tea vendor who believes that a section of society in the area is swayed by the BJP’s sustained campaign projecting Modi as the new hope. “But that is confined to some upper caste people and those living in the ravines of the Yamuna and the Chambal in the region,” he said, adding with an air of finality, “Netaji is invincible in this region comprising Etawah, Mainpuri, Etah and Farrukhabad”.
But hope has a different meaning just 150 km east of here, in Kanpur, where on February 28 the young and brash Samajwadi Party legislator Irfan Solanki roughed up resident doctors of the Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi medical college. What is worse, policemen led by an IPS officer close to chief minister Akhilesh Yadav acted as hired goons of the legislator, as they rounded up doctors and beat them brutally. “The victims were arrested and sent to jail while the state showed all sympathy for the assailants,” said an owner of a private hospital on the condition of anonymity.
Kanpur is a classic example of how a dream weaved by a new paradigm of development and high hopes can turn into a nightmare. As one enters the city, a pall of smoke and dust envelops, making it amply clear that all is not well here. Kanpur has an illustrious history that once bestowed it the epithet of the Manchester of the East. In post-independent India, the city witnessed a frantic pace of development by setting up arms manufacturing units at the outskirts, sprawling campuses of IIT, HBTI (both technology institutes) and the national sugar institute (NSI). The cosmopolitan character of the city was sustained by the presence of huge industrial and textile units. This was why Kanpur was once represented in the Lok Sabha by SM Bannerjee, a Marxist Bengali whose influence among workers was overwhelming.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Kanpur started losing its prestige as most of the textile mills closed down. The frequent communal clashes polarised people and spawned a politics that thrived on money and muscle. In the ’90s, Kanpur turned into the state’s most troubled communal hotspot with riots breaking out almost every year. On February 28, when the SP legislator clashed with the resident doctors in the medical college, the undercurrent of this tension was palpable all over the city.
In such a setting, hope acquires a different meaning. “We need someone like Modi who will set all these people [meaning Muslims] right,” commented Shailesh, a receptionist at a plush hotel in Gumti Number Five, a dusty and busy crossing in the middle of the city. That the city continues to not only stagnate but degenerate in terms of governance and infrastructure has fuelled a deep resentment.
“Can we not have visionary politicians?” asked Omendra Bharat, an IITian from Kanpur and aspirant for Aam Aadmi party (AAP) ticket from the city. On March 2, AAP’s convenor Arvind Kejariwal held a fairly good gathering where he promised hope. There is a distinct feeling that people have lost faith in the old order.
Three-time MP and coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal has been steadily losing ground while Marxist veteran and one-time MP Subhasini Ali is believed to be shifting her base from Kanpur to a safe seat in West Bengal. In Kanpur the old order is giving way to a new one in the fond hope that the situation in the city will improve.
Lucknow has however adapted itself to changing times. The city of Nawabs once known for etiquette and elegance has practically metamorphosed into a city of grand structures of sandstones built by BSP leader Mayawati. Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party has lumpenised the gentry. Since 1991, this Lok Sabha seat is considered the BJP’s impregnable citadel. Yet the Modi rally on March 2 was a damp squib. Crowds were ferried from several towns while Lucknow residents were cold to the event.
“Why should we go to attend the rally when we have decided to already vote for him,” commented a resident of Aishbagh, an old-world locality. A serving bureaucrat summed up the voters’ dilemma by saying, “people are fed up with non-governance and increasing criminality and corruption.” The general impression is that the Akhilesh Yadav government does not take any decision. ‘The impression that Modi delivers is an attractive proposition for people of the state,” he said. Though people of Lucknow were indifferent to Modi, they still see hope in him as they feel cheated by successive regimes. “People are enamoured of Modi, but not the BJP which is intensely divided into various factions,” said a local BJP leader while analysing the low turnout at the rally.
Driving on the bumpy road from Lucknow to Allahabad was once again a bad experience. The single track state highway passes through Raebareli represented by AICC president Sonia Gandhi. Though Raebareli does not compare favourably with Jaswant Nagar in terms of facilities and amenities, local residents are happy. “We are not fools to be swayed by any wave and we will vote for Sonia Gandhi,” said Kallu, a tea vendor. “Who is Modi? I know Sonia Gandhi and Atal Bihari only,” commented a man, who says he belongs to a schedule caste and rears goats and cows in a village near Pratapgarh. Their logic is simple: Sonia’s influence got them industries in the area and ensured electrification in the district.
Though the district figures quite low on human development indices, people still put unflinching faith in Sonia’s ability to steer their future. This hope is entirely different from what is evident in Lucknow.
While traversing through Pratapgarh and Kunda, we came across a group of gun-wielding youth brandishing their weapons at a roadside Dhaba. They belong to a fan group of UP minister Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiyya. The ‘Raja Bhaiyya youth brigade’ is a feared band that can unleash a reign of terror at the drop of the hat.
Raja Bhaiyya’s goons were accused of assassinating a Muslim police officer of DySP rank last year. In the entire Kunda area, hoardings proclaimed, “sach vichlit ho sakta hai kintu parajit nahin (The truth may face difficulty but will ultimately prevail)”. Obviously, Raja Bhaiyya claims to stand for the truth and hope, for want of an option in the region.
In neighbouring Allahabad, the situation seems to be better because of the recently concluded Kumbh Mela. Though a part of the old city is devoid of basic civic facilities, Allahabad has been losing its sheen gradually in comparison to Lucknow. “All government offices are being transferred to Lucknow,” said an officer of the UP higher education directorate.
In an interesting interactive session with the research scholars at the GB Pant Institute of Social Studies, most participants blamed their politicians for the ills, even if there were sharp differences among them on hope and political choices. A majority of them see Modi as a sign of hope, while another group vehemently opposed him. “This is quite interesting to see intense polarisation of even research scholars in this election,” said Dr Pradeep Bhargava, the director of the institute.
Considered the Oxford of the East thanks to the presence of the educated elite and a prestigious university in Allahabad, the city has been shedding its distinctive features of late. Its famous Civil Lines is no longer civil, while the famous India Coffee House known for spawning new political idioms and debates is now frequented by upstarts. A more substantial loss is the closure of hundreds of industrial units in the Naini industrial estate. Several PSUs and private units which opened here at the instance of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru are either closed or facing closure. The barren look of the once thriving Naini industrial estate is a testimony to the development plan that went wrong. More recently, a powerful movement was launched to restore Naini’s glory. With the unemployment rate growing in the region, people are hopeful that Allahabad will see better times only when they elect an efficient representative. The identity of that ideal representative is a big question.
From Allahabad to Varanasi, we once again took to the highway that is a part of the NDA regime’s golden quadrilateral that connects the four corners of India. The smooth road to Varanasi hides the ugly reality of the interiors of the state and gets bared only when one enters Varanasi. Though the whole city is dug up, the raging debate in the holy city revolves around whether or not Modi will contest from here. Varanasi is considered an important constituency in terms of its influence on eastern UP and Bihar. For BJP strategists, Modi’s presence is expected to bolster the BJP’s prospects in the region.
After a long gap, people of Varanasi seem quite elated at the prospect of electing a future prime minister. “We feel that his election from Varanasi would change the city’s fortune,” said Alok Rai, a professor of management science at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). “Varanasi has become unliveable,” said an additional district magistrate.
Of late the city has developed into a hunting ground for mafias owing allegiance to several political groups. This is why gangsters masquerading as politicians have found shelter in all political parties. “Modi may be different from these traditional politicians of the Hindi heartland as he has changed Gujarat,” said a professor of the Sir Sunderlal medical college of BHU.
Another factor that helps along a new narrative of development in Varanasi and adjoining Ghazipur is the existence of a large number of Gujaratis who have become ambassadors of the ‘Gujarat model’. Since Varanasi and Ghazipur are associated with weaving and silk, a large number of people working in Surat and other cities of Gujarat have been conveyors of the message of prosperity and peace in that distant land.
In such a discourse, Gujarat’s chief minister invariably emerges as a symbol of hope and change. Though the society in eastern UP is sharply divided on caste lines, the poor quality of governance leading to an acute shortfall of basic amenities has fuelled a deep yearning for a change across caste lines in some places.
Ghazipur has traditionally been a Left bastion. Legendary CPI leader Sarjoo Pandey is still an icon for the older generation. But the younger generation seems to be more fascinated by the lucre of the underworld than the old socialist dreams.
The district has earned notoriety for its bloody gang wars, though once it was a link between good governance and development. There is a monument erected in the middle of the town in memory of Lord Cornwallis, who came to India with a specific purpose of purging corruption from the British bureaucracy.
He also set up an opium factory in the district to promote opium trade with China. His administrative reforms came a cropper while his second project continues to spell doom for generations two centuries later. A sizeable section of youth in the areas surrounding the factory has turned into incorrigible drug-addicts. This irony of development and governance can hardly be missed in Ghazipur.