It is not just because the election in Uttar Pradesh was a rehearsal for 2019 that the results from this state are more important than the rest. The real significance of the remarkable mandate that this state has given Narendra Modi (not the BJP) is that voters see him as a new kind of political leader. He seems to have sensed this because in the first speech he gave after the results he spoke of building ‘a new India’.
With his uncanny knack for keeping his finger firmly on the pulse of Indian voters, he knows that what they really want is a different India. This is especially true in Uttar Pradesh where crumbling walls of caste and religion have been kept standing by cynical politicians who benefit more than voters. These walls have decaying foundations and would have fallen long ago if a political leader had dared to try and knock them down.
It is the misfortune of Uttar Pradesh that its political leaders have been cynical caste leaders for decades, glaringly evident in Akhilesh Yadav’s first response to his humiliating defeat. He told reporters that he believed he lost because people voted for those who misled them with false promises rather than those who worked hard for them. Had this scion of the mighty Yadav dynasty been humble enough to travel on his cycle in rural parts of his state while he was chief minister, he would have noticed that the people ask for very little and that very little was what he failed to provide.
It is disgraceful that while he boasted about distributing laptops he did not notice the appalling state of schools in Uttar Pradesh. Disgraceful that he did not notice that farmers stayed up on cold nights to use the dribs and drabs of electricity that his government so erratically provided. Disgraceful that he did not notice that people did not even have access to drinking water or roads. It is not his fault that these things do not exist, but it is his fault that he was unable to make the improvements people so desperately want.
The point I am making is that it will take very little to create a ‘new’ India. So little that if the army of newly elected BJP legislators just do their jobs, Uttar Pradesh could change dramatically before the next general election. In the villages I travelled through during the election campaign, people pointed to broken bridges and the broken roofs of schools and hospitals to make the point that their elected representatives had failed them. The cost of repairing some of these things was so small that I asked why they did not pool in their own resources to make the repairs. To this they said, ‘If we do what you are saying, then the MLA will take all the credit for it and we will see even less of him.’
This is indicative of a general mindset that believes the ‘sarkar’ has to do everything and the people nothing at all. But it is a mindset created by long decades of Nehruvian socialism, and although it has changed in more urban parts of India, in largely rural states such as UP it has hardly changed at all. So if the Prime Minister wants to prove that he can bring about change, development and prosperity, then he now has his first real and most challenging opportunity.
He said during the election campaign that India could not move forward if UP continues to lag behind, but can he make it catch up? Can a BJP government in Lucknow show that it can bring about the sort of transformation that Modi is credited with in Gujarat? Can the Prime Minister prove that in this state ruined by colonial ideas of governance and ancient divisions of caste and religion there can be political, economic and social change? This last ingredient is almost more important than all the others, and as the first Prime Minister to have talked of social change from the ramparts of the Red Fort, can Modi really make a difference?
If I have not once mentioned these things as being the responsibility of the chief minister, it is deliberate. The problems of Uttar Pradesh are so huge that it almost needs to become a department of the Prime Minister’s Office for any change to happen. Modi speaks often of tourism as a vital economic tool and in UP he has a chance to show how this tool can be used.
It is beyond belief that Agra, that has the Taj Mahal, remains so ugly and wretchedly poor that the city looks like a vast garbage dump. Shameful that Benaras continues to resemble a city in terminal decay. Narendra Modi must personally take responsibility for bringing change. It was for him that UP voted.