Editor's Note: This column presents the travel notes of a student of Indian politics and serves as a journal marking the run-up to General Election 2019. Sandip Ghose's day job as a marketing executive takes him deep into the country's interiors, which affords him the chance to listen to, and make sense of, India's concerns. These pieces will run in tandem to the frequency of his travels. Views expressed here do not reflect those of Ghose's employer.
The Kolkata-Delhi Rajdhani Express reaches Allahabad, now Prayagraj, at 3 in the morning. Not a very inviting prospect in the peak of winter. However, there are few options. Other trains on this route are seldom on time. The once popular Kalka Mail and Bombay Mail are often hours late.
Following a spate of rail accidents, major track improvement work is going on. Tighter safety standards without latest infrastructure affect on-time performance.
The platform is sparkling, as if it got a fresh coat of polish. It looks clean enough to sleep on. So, it is no surprise to see yatris sprawling on the floor covered with blankets. They are waiting for their trains to arrive, or for daybreak. However, the place still looks orderly and sanitised. One wonders how the situation will be a few days from now, when lakhs will arrive in trainloads for the Kumbh Mela. That must be a different order of challenge than building cattle shelters.
Coming out of the station, one whizzes across the new flyover into Civil Lines. My colleague from the city points out the broadened roads. I ask, “Are the locals not upset with the demolitions?” The ordinary people are happy. Access to the colonies has improved. Sure, it has upset those affected, but the implementation was even-handed. There were no exceptions made for the rich and influential. After it is all over, when the city looks good, everyone will take pride in the change.
But, with less than two weeks to go for Kumbh, work in the city is far from complete. Contractors are struggling to meet deadlines, as there is a stiff penalty for delays. Still, some bits will spill over. However, it will be a new city, asserts my companion.
The locals I met during the day exude less enthusiasm. They are not impressed by cosmetic changes. The arrangement and management of the Kumbh has been getting better year after year. Akhilesh Yadav’s government had done a great job in 2013. No doubt, it will be several notches higher this time. That was expected under a BJP government. However, when one asks them if life has changed for them in the last two years, there is a pause that indicates the jury is still out.
There is great excitement at the multi-fold increase in air connectivity. Finally, Allahabad is conspicuous on the airline map. Some people doubt if all the services will continue after the Kumbh rush recedes. However, even a flight to Lucknow and Delhi will be a big boon to the "Illahabadis".
The drive to Lucknow by the shortest route via Unchahar still takes four-and-a-half hours on a good day. There are very few refreshment options on the highway. My driver attributes it to the law and order situation. After dark, truckers are wary of taking halts. So, there are very few dhabas and eateries.
Suyash Hotel at Raebareli is one of the few choices for hungry travellers. As it turns out, it is also a fine dining destination. Both Smriti Irani and Rahul Gandhi were due to visit the constituency a day later. However, the staff members at the hotel were nonchalant. The reason for that was not difficult to understand. It was because none of them were locals.
The next eighty-odd kilometers to Lucknow is a smooth two-hour run. Lucknow is one state capital that had uninterrupted development under three regimes. Mayawati changed the landscape with parks and statues. Gomti Nagar developed as a satellite town under Akhilesh Yadav. A real estate boom happened during the Samajwadi Party rule. Taking the outer ring road or Shaheed Path, one can get there in less than hour from the airport.
Under Yogi Adityanath, there was a fear of a clampdown on everything "non-sanskari". Throwing chilled beer over such apprehensions, Gomti Nagar has a throbbing nightlife. Bars, bistros and restaurants abound. Swanky nightclubs have come up. Restaurant chains from the metros have opened outlets alongside high-end local eateries.
International hotel brands have arrived, albeit with mid-priced brands. One would expect the clientele to be tourists. But in reality, much of it is business traffic coming in pursuit of mega projects across the state. The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court sits in the imposing complex at the heart of Gomti Nagar. It also draws a good number of outstation lawyers and litigants.
Besides, in the election season, there is a huge demand for rooms. It is not only politicians and their entourage. There are battalions of election consultants. Journalists flying in from the capital are now spoilt for choice. They are no longer confined to the ancient hotels and shady watering holes of Hazratgunj.
However, old Lucknow still exists in a charming time warp. I am invited for a fireside winter dinner at an associate's home in the city. Guests are a small group of businessmen, former bureaucrats and retired army officers. Amazing local vegetarian cuisine makes for good conversation along with fine single malt.
As it happened, I had been in the same house for a similar winter gathering in February 2017. It was the evening of the third phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh. It was a "dry day". So, I did not hesitate in accepting the invitation – or may have even asked for it. The mood was upbeat. By then, both the weather and the political climate had begun to change. There were signs of the needle shifting in favour of the BJP, though the trend was still not clear.
But, in mid-December, the smog of Delhi drifted into the Gangetic plains. An alliance between the BSP and SP looked like a done deal. Everyone present was certain Mayawati will make it happen. Another rout could mean virtual political extinction for her. They also felt she would keep the Congress out of the pre-poll configuration. Giving away seats to the Congress would weaken her bargaining position vis-a-vis the Centre. After the polls, she may not be averse to joining a coalition, even if she has to eschew her ambitions for the big job.
So, the pundits gathered were not willing to give the BJP more than 27-28 seats in the best-case scenario. The implications of such a loss on the state would be worrying. especially if there is no BJP government at the Centre. In such a situation, the knives will be out inside the party. The administration could start playing truant, leading to a breakdown in governance.
The disappointment with the BJP government was palpable. However, there was a tinge of sympathy for Yogi Adityanath. No one doubted his sincerity, hard work and honesty. He had contained corruption at the top level. There is greater accountability among top bureaucrats, with a premium on performance. However, there is a feeling that he is being let down by his team and the lower rungs of the administration.
Many of the crises faced by the government — especially on the law and order front — were controllable. However, the chief minister lacked experience. At the mutt, his word was the command. In the government of a state as large and complex as Uttar Pradesh, there are wheels within wheels. Besides, there are old loyalties and caste equations still alive. Here, Adityanath's hands-on approach put more problems on his plate.
In contrast, Akhilesh Yadav governed through delegation and empowerment. Many feel he deserved a second term. Akhilesh Yadav was beleaguered by his tiff with his uncle and father, and Modi swept the ground from under his feet. Besides, he made the vital error in judgement of taking the burden of the Congress on his shoulder.
I was planning to drive to Agra the next morning by the new expressway. Having done that sector a few times, I remarked on what a boon it was. That sparked off a reaction of excitement from one of the retired secretaries.
"It was a project executed by me," he said with justified pride. "Akhilesh gave me a carte blanche and I completed it in record time. Yogi should gather a team of competent officers and give them a free hand. Miracles are possible in Uttar Pradesh, because the ground is fertile for change. However, the secret for that is development, not the Mandir".
Those words lingered with me through the rest of the trip. Seasoned bureaucrats have an uncanny sense of the pulse on the ground. In all my travels through Uttar Pradesh in the last two years, I have heard the Kumbh mentioned, but not the Ram Mandir. Most of the conversations were around governance and development.
So, could it be that the Mandir exists more in the minds of the party workers? Or is it a bigger issue in other states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra than in Uttar Pradesh itself?
The answer is blowing in the wind. Or perhaps, floating down the Ganges.
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 17:34:14 IST