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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Hoping against hope in Uttar Pradesh
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh

The state has more than 49m voters
The state has more than 49m voters

With more than 175 million inhabitants, the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh would be the sixth largest country in the world if it were an independent nation.

As the state begins the process of electing a new legislature on Saturday, the numbers being bandied about are staggering.

With 403 seats up for grabs, thousands of contestants are fighting for a share of the power pie.

Voting will be held in seven phases spread over a month.

More than 49 million voters will be exercising their franchise at nearly 50,000 polling stations, watched over by thousands of police and paramilitary troops.

Because of its sheer size and numbers, Uttar Pradesh, commonly called UP, holds an important place in the Indian political system.

The state sends the largest number of members - 80 MPs - to national parliament and has provided political leadership to the nation.

Several of India's prime ministers have been from here.

Liability

"The policies of the central government have always been influenced by Uttar Pradesh," says Ram Krishna Mani Tripathi, retired professor of political science at the state's Gorakhpur University.

But many in India say the state has now become a liability - it is the stone around the neck which hinders the rest of India from moving ahead.

"There is too much corruption here. Nothing seems to be going right," says Benaras Hindu University student Aditya Chilwar.

Voters at Mulayam Singh Yadav's rally
A few thousands came out to attend the chief minister's rally

A computer student, Chilwar is from Kanpur, "There was a time when Kanpur was called the Manchester of the east because it was tops in textiles.

"Today, there is no power, tremendous pollution. And there are no opportunities here. Perhaps the only place in UP where one can find a job is Noida, but then that's a suburb of Delhi, it's hardly part of UP," he says.

According to him, UP is doomed.

In the bustling university campus, I come across a group of girls drinking sweet milky tea in small glasses, all studying to be bankers.

Says Ankita, "The image of Uttar Pradesh is not very good. There aren't many opportunities here as in the rest of India. We will get much better returns for our education and efforts in other places."

Adds Anisha, "If I get a chance to work in Bangalore, I will obviously take it up, because it's already developed."

Their pessimism is not without reason.

The state is almost always in the news - mostly for the wrong reasons.

In the recent months, reams have been written about the serial rapes and murders of dozens of children in Noida.

Dismal

The spiralling crime graph is giving sleepless nights to its residents.

Last year, hundreds of applicants to become policemen rioted in Ghaziabad town because they felt their question paper for a written test was too tough.

The state's report card in the field of health is dismal.

It is one of the last frontiers in the world's battle against polio eradication.

Hundreds of children die here every year from encephalitis.

The state's maternal mortality rate is 700 or more per 100,000 live birth as against the national figure of 407.

And an Indian government report describes the childhood malnutrition rate in Uttar Pradesh as "grave".

Aditya Chilwar
'There is too much corruption here. UP is doomed,' says student Aditya Chilwar

To find out what ails UP, I drive through the mosquito-infested, crime-ridden eastern districts of the state, covering Gorakhpur, Deoria, Mau, Ghazipur and Varanasi.

On the way, I stop at bustling town markets and deserted government-run village primary schools.

I speak to farmers, politicians, educators and doctors and attend an election rally of the state's chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Before an audience of a few thousand at a girl's college in Deoria district, Mr Yadav lists his achievements.

Assets

A former wrestler-turned politician, he heads the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party. But, his critics say there is nothing socialist about his lifestyle.

The son of a simple farmer, today he is worth millions according to his own submissions before the Election Commission.

Last month, the Indian Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into the sources of Mr Yadav's wealth.

His main rival in the state elections is the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayawati - a woman who belongs to the poor, deprived Dalit or untouchable caste.

Considering her humble origin, she too has done pretty well for herself - her assets run into multi-million dollars with several properties to her name.

Her mega-birthday bashes are major media events where she appears laden with diamonds.

The main contest in the state is between these two as the country's two main political parties - Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party - have been on the decline here in recent years.

Varanasi students
These students say the image of Uttar Pradesh is not good

And if pre-election opinion polls are to be believed, the verdict in the state is likely to be fractured once again - just like in the past several elections.

Either Mr Yadav or Ms Mayawati are once again expected to form the government, with support from the Congress or the BJP.

"It's this politics of coalition which is one of the most important reasons for the state's backwardness," says Prof Tripathi.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi suggests splitting UP up into three separate states to better its lot.

'No hope'

"There is no administrative rationale, no economic justification, no compelling political logic, and not even any linguistic or cultural framework for holding the state together," he says.

In support of his theory, Mr Mehta cites the example of smaller states like Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Uttaranchal which have done fairly well on account of being small.

"In the present political climate, the state has no hope," says Prof Chandrakala Padia of Benaras Hindu University.

"Not much attention has been paid to this place by the central government and the state leadership has not been of the right kind," she says.

But now some in the state are getting impatient and willing to take matters in their own hand.

Like a group of young, successful professionals from various fields, who have formed their own political party and plan to contest the elections to "free the state from corrupt politicians, criminal elements and poor governance".

Their action, at best, is seen as a token of protest, rather than the beginning of a real change.

But it is cause for optimism for some, like banking student Sheetal.

"Given an opportunity the state can bounce back. It has the potential to become the best state in India. But we have to make a difference. We can do a lot, but we run away at the first opportunity," she says.

Everyone agrees that will be an arduous journey. The slide down is generally easier and quicker. The climb up is much harder.




SEE ALSO
UP defectors to be separate group
01 Mar 06 |  South Asia
Uttar Pradesh majority 'in doubt'
28 Feb 06 |  South Asia
Analysis: Caste and power in India
29 Aug 03 |  South Asia
New chief in Uttar Pradesh
29 Aug 03 |  South Asia
Turmoil in Uttar Pradesh
25 Aug 03 |  South Asia
Mayawati takes over in Uttar Pradesh
03 May 02 |  South Asia

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