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The construct behind the ‘Shining U.P.’ card

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. File   | Photo Credit: PTI

These days, India’s national capital, Delhi, is a sight to behold — strangely, not for reasons connected to the city-State. As a matter of fact, a visitor might think she was in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh seeing the profusion of posters and flex boards featuring its Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all of them claiming that U.P. is today India’s number one State.

Bagging the top rank

U.P. as India’s number one State? The miracle owes to an award that was given out this summer by the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry under the Smart Cities Mission. Tamil Nadu, with an exemplary record on development and welfare, was placed third on the list after Madhya Pradesh. If anyone had quibbles about the line-up, they had to lump it. U.P. and its Chief Minister were going to savour the trophy which had most conveniently arrived in the months ahead of the 2022 State Assembly election. By another coincidence, it was also the first time that States had been picked for the award.

 

In the days since the award, the Chief Minister has found himself hit by an avalanche of praise, most notably from the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. The praise also settled speculation that Mr. Adityanath and Mr. Modi were in conflict over a State-level appointment proposed by the Prime Minister. In the end, Mr. Adityanath had his way. The Gujarat cadre retired IAS officer, said to have been Mr. Modi’s nominee for the State Cabinet, got appointed to an ornamental party post. If indeed there was a conflict over this, it made sense for both sides to sue for peace. U.P. is the all important State that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to win, and win by a wide margin. What has followed is a mammoth, nothing-left-to-chance effort to rebrand Mr. Adityanath as the leader of India’s best-run State.

In their speeches, Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah have attributed qualities to the U.P. Chief Minister that are in embarrassing contradiction of evidence and felt experiences. Some of the flattery and claims were so over-the-top that fact-checking sites such as Alt News instantly demolished them, among them the astonishing one that the Chief Minister’s handling of the second COVID-19 wave was “unparalleled”. The situation in U.P. at the time was indeed unparalleled, but not in the glowing manner it has been imagined and told. Quite the opposite with images of floating corpses and mass burning of pyres making it to the international media.

In the pandemic’s grip

As the second wave raged, there was no sign that U.P. had become a shining example of good governance. Hundreds lost their lives in the scramble for hospital beds, ambulances and oxygen. Men and women collapsed unattended and many died begging for oxygen. These deaths were not statistics that the Government could hide or dispute. These happened in real time as friends and families watched helplessly. A Lucknow journalist’s last cries for help are recorded in the phone of an editor friend she desperately called. He continues to be hounded by her cries and remains inconsolable over not being able to save her despite his access to higher-ups in the Government. The sad truth is that U.P failed its citizens during the second COVID-19 crisis — the better off died trying in vain to work the political system for beds and oxygen. The worse off died anyway, some of them abandoned by their kin and turning up as bloated corpses in the swirling waters of the Ganga.

 

The floating bodies, discovered along the length of the Ganga by the reporting teams of the Hindi newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar, have since become a metaphor for all that is wrong with U.P. The U.P. government and the Chief Minister have underplayed the deaths and passed them off as jal samadhis — the ancient practice of burying the dead in shallow river beds.

However, the explanation has not convinced many. In his report dated May 22, 2021, The Hindu’s Omar Rashid cites residents who had watched the bodies wash up as saying they had not witnessed floating bodies on this scale before. For Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the head priest of Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan temple, the floating bodies represented a truth that could not be hidden. “Ganga has revealed the truth,” he told Mr. Rashid.

Mr. Rashid also reported on the deaths of Government employees who had contracted COVID-19 while on polling duty in the panchayat elections that were held irresponsibly at the peak of the second wave. The Government at first denied the deaths, but has now confirmed them by awarding compensation to the families of over 2,000 employees who fell to COVID-19 after being on election duty.

 

The horror of U.P.’s second wave is too recent and too graphically captured for it to be so easily forgotten. To insist that the virus was controlled with “incomparable efficiency”, therefore, amounts to a reconstructed truth, an alternative reality intended to replace the original memories by the time the 2022 Assembly election is held.

There have been other exaggerations in the project to build Mr. Adityanath as a brand, among them claims that U.P. has topped the charts for COVID-19 testing and administration of vaccine shots and also that it has provided a violence-free environment to its residents. The State does have impressive absolute numbers for both COVID-19 testing and vaccine shots but plunges close to the bottom once the figures are adjusted for population. U.P. has so far lagged behind even the national average on both counts.

Also read | Medical system of U.P. in smaller cities and villages is Ram Bharose, says Allahabad High Court

Crime data

On general law and order and women’s safety, the less said the better. Women’s safety, a key promise in the BJP’s election campaigns, has been callously treated in U.P. An Alt News analysis of national crime data placed U.P. on top for custodial rapes and dowry deaths. Further, National Crime Records Bureau data show that the number of dowry deaths per one lakh people in U.P. is the highest in the country. This is besides the gang rapes that have regularly hit the headlines. The State BJP’s sweep of the recently held block pramukh elections came amidst widespread violence and allegations of booth capturing and intimidation. Clearly, in the current day U.P., law and order has come to mean just one thing: the State government’s aggression against minorities and its crackdown on alleged gangsters and anti-nationals, many of whom are in fact students and rights’ activists.

U.P.’s self-appointed status as India’s top State is ironic considering it was at the bottom among large States in an index (Public Affairs Index) compiled by the Public Affairs Centre, a not-for-profit organisation headed by K. Kasturirangan, formerly chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. Released in October 2020, the index used 50 indicators to measure the quality of State-level governance on the three pillars of equity, growth and sustainability. Unsurprisingly, Kerala was adjudged the best-governed State while U.P. came last (in the large States category).

 

Political impact

So what are the BJP’s opponents in U.P. doing to counter the party’s public relations offensive? Not much as both the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seem focused on chasing the elusive Brahmin vote in U.P. This is baffling logic considering the well-known Brahmin affinity to the BJP. The SP and the BSP both came to power on rainbow alliances of the forward and backward castes. Having lost that platform to the BJP, they now watch as Mr. Adityanath plays his ‘Shining U.P.’ card.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is a senior journalist


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 3:19:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-construct-behind-the-shining-up-card/article35845176.ece

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