Uttar Pradesh has finally given us a break from coronavirus and China. But what can we say to it in response, thanks, but no thanks?
Because, the context is every bit as disturbing as the threat of a rampaging pandemic or the army of an intrusive neighbour. A man has been killed in an alleged encounter so poorly staged that the policemen—and their political bosses—who did this should lose their jobs for incompetence if not be sent to jail for extra-judicial killing. If you believe this yarn, you’d even believe that the fables of ‘Vikram-Betaal’ are a reality. To me, even some of those might look more convincing.
We are, however, leaving the forensics and jurisprudence aside for the moment and reading the political message here. What is the state of Uttar Pradesh, whose population constitutes 15 per cent of the entire republic of 36 states and union territories, and which has given India’s ruling party more than a fifth of all its Lok Sabha MPs, the prime minister, defence minister, telling us? It is saying, go to hell. Take your Constitution, the rule of law and the courts with you. We make our own law, and then break it at our pleasure. Why? Because we have the size.
Uttar Pradesh is our most powerful state. It is also our worst governed. And remains carved up between many competing mafias. Its state government is just one of these. The chronic virus that’s eating up Uttar Pradesh from inside is its size. It is also taking India down with it.
Let’s first size up the problem called UP. It is a state with 75 districts, that is, more than one in ten out of all of India’s 739. To understand how unmanageable the state is, think of some nations with populations about the same as Uttar Pradesh. Pakistan and Brazil both have about the same population, in the 20-crore ballpark. The first has four full provinces and two supposedly “autonomous” federative units, and the second has 26 states. The chief minister of UP does it all by himself.
It is an impossibility. And it shows in the state’s governance quality and social indicators. UP has the same population size as Pakistan also nearly matches its poor social indicators. Trifle better on some (infant mortality), worse on some others (per capita income, gender ratio), but about the same on the most significant negative: Population growth.
Uttar Pradesh’s population growth has slowed lately but is at almost exactly the same level as Pakistan’s, around 2 per cent, which makes it twice as high as the rest of India’s. Uttar Pradesh’s per capita income is about half of our national average. Its crime rates, mafia infestation, criminalisation of politics is the stuff of movies. It is because the state is so large, and its politics so divided based on caste and religion, that those left out of the power structure then seek refuge in caste mafias and ‘bahubalis’ (strong men, mafiosi), for protection, justice and equity.
Let’s try and illustrate how this works. If a Yadav father or son is in power, it means the Yadavs have the power. That is only about 9 per cent of the population. They ally with Muslims, and often with Thakurs. So, they are all accommodated in the legitimate power tent. All governance, distribution of welfare, including the sinking of tube wells and hand pumps, the appointment of the most important officers. The castes that feel left out then lean on their mafia leaders.
This results in a counter-intuitive situation where the more active mafias usually consist of castes that are not in power.
In the past, until the 1980s, when upper castes were usually chief ministers, crime syndicates and dacoit gangs were backward castes. It was late VP Singh as a chief minister who first brought the encounter culture to the state in 1981-82 with the killing of 299 ‘dacoits’ in just over a month. It stopped, unfortunately, when his brother, Justice Chandra Shekhar Prasad Singh of the Allahabad High Court, was killed along with his teenaged son in apparent reprisal. VP Singh resigned soon thereafter.
An important political aside is that this was when a still young former wrestler called Mulayam Singh Yadav made his fame, as an unlikely human rights activist campaigning against encounters. Many of the encounter victims were of the backward castes that later became his support base.
Of course, once power in the state shifted to the lower and middle castes, including the Yadavs, upper castes moved to organised crime too. Brahmin and Thakur gangs came up now, while western UP became a lawless zone in its own right. The mafia the state is now dealing with in Kanpur is exclusively Brahmin. Remember, the last Brahmin chief minister this state had was Narayan Dutt Tiwari in 1989. That is after a succession of Brahmin strongmen from Govind Ballabh Pant to Kamlapathi Tripathi. Now the community has been deprived of that political power for 32 years. So, a Vikas Dubey became its Robinhood in Kanpur, as Hari Shankar Tiwari might have been in Gorakhpur in the past.
It is because the context today is law and order that we have dwelt in so much detail over one dimension of this mis-governance. You can quickly run your eye over the rest. In seven decades, the state has failed to develop any new entrepreneurship, even a tiny flourishing industrial estate except Noida, the sliver of territory abutting Delhi.
It inherited some of India’s oldest and finest cities. They are all in decay, if not dead, already like Kanpur and Allahabad. Its farming languishes, barring the few Green Revolution districts in its west.
Twenty crore people, divided over 75 districts spread over 2,43,000 sq km is too much to govern for one government, especially when run entirely by one individual, which is the norm in our states now. Similarly, 80 seats in Lok Sabha is too much power for one state in a federal republic. It is more than Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka put together. It is politically distortionary, especially when its politics is so internally divisive based on caste and religion that the incentive for improving social indicators is poor.
Uttar Pradesh must be cut into four if not five. The western districts have been demanding a Harit Pradesh for some time. Bundelkhand, to its south, should be carved out as another state, with three to four contiguous districts of Madhya Pradesh added. Purvanchal, with capital in Gorakhpur, should include all the districts going east along the Nepal border up to Bihar. The central state—you can call it Awadh Pradesh or any other—can be governed from Lucknow.
This would make it four new states. In my book, however, five would be even better as Purvanchal will be too big and too under-developed still. So, split it into two, Varanasi being the capital of the other.
No political leader wants to do it. One with a full majority has an even greater vested interest in keeping UP together: Why mend what is working, never mind how broken it is. But, unless somebody takes up that challenge, this state, where about one of six Indians lives, has no hope.
(Shekhar Gupta is a senior Indian journalist and author. He is the founder and the editor -in-chief of The Print)