At a private event in Hong Kong in 1998, a senior official from the neighbouring Guangdong province was being flattered by a group of American investors, each more eager than the others to extol the remarkable economic success of the China’s largest state. The official endured the fawning with a passive expression, until one of the businessmen pointed out that Guangdong’s population, 80 million, was three times that of California, exclaiming, “You’re running a successful country within a successful country.” The official smiled, and replied, with a self-deprecating shrug: “Imagine how much more successful we would have been if we were TWO countries within one country.”
At first, his audience confused this as a form of clever wordplay, an allusion to the motto of “One Country, Two Systems” that President Deng Xiaoping had coined for Hong Kong’s reunification with China the previous year. But the official clarified through his translator that he was making a point about administrative efficiency: If Guangdong had been two states instead of one, with two governments and two bureaucracies, then each might have been more successful. Its massive size, he argued, had slowed the province’s economic growth. “We are like an elephant, but we could have been two tigers.”
When I interjected that several Indian states had larger populations than Guangdong, the official laughed: “In India, you have too many elephants.”
I was reminded of that conversation recently, at a luncheon in the Lucknow home of a prominent civil servant, where my interlocutors, several of them senior bureaucrats, answered my questions about the state’s poor economic performance by pointing to the sheer scale of their administrative tasks. If Guangdong’s highly efficient administration had somehow managed to overcome the disadvantage of size to deliver success, the UP bureaucrats cited size as cause for failure.
And they’re right: UP is too big to succeed. If Guangdong is an elephant, then UP is an elephant that’s carrying another elephant on its back. China’s largest province now has 104 million people, India’s largest state has twice as many—and this is despite the fact that a chunk of it was carved out in 2000 to make Uttarakhand.
Many UP politicians agree with these bureaucrats, but dare not say it aloud, especially during an election campaign. There is one notable exception. In November, 2011, ahead of state elections in the following spring, Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader Mayawati floated a resolution calling for UP to be divided into four smaller units: Purvanchal, Bundelkhand, Awadh Pradesh and Paschim Pradesh. She was then UP’s chief minister, and widely expected to lose the election. Inevitably, her proposal was dismissed as an act of political deflection, a populist gesture to draw attention away from an inept administrative record. (If that was the intention, it didn’t work: the BSP received a shellacking at the polls.) In the past few weeks of campaigning, Mayawati has resurfaced the idea in some of her speeches—notably in regions like Bundelkhand and Purvanchal, where dissatisfaction with the government in Lucknow has historically been high.
The usual argument against breaking up states is a negative one: if you allow UP to be split up, then you can’t say no to those demanding Bodoland be carved out of Assam, Gorkhaland from Bengal, and so on. But this is a red herring. In the past two decades, there have been several instances of states being broken up — leading to the creation of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Telengana — but this has not led to greater agitation for Bodoland, Gorkhaland, et al.
The case for breaking UP up isn’t really based on ethnic or linguistic grievance or exceptionalism: it’s a matter of governance, and of administrative efficiency. The population of each of the smaller states would have a greater say in how their government prioritizes local problems, and allocates local resources. Each would have a bureaucracy far less removed from the concerns of the people it serves.
To the point that Chinese official made about his province, if UP were four states instead of one, each would have a better chance of success than the combined whole.
The operative word in that last sentence is ‘chance’. There’s obviously no guarantee that each state would immediately find an enlightened political class and civil service. India has plenty of smaller states where elected representatives are unresponsive, bureaucracies inefficient, and corruption is rife in both classes. But small states, as a rule, outperform large ones in most of the important economic and social indices, ranging from per-capita income to life expectancy — and UP ranks close to the bottom in most cases.
Splitting UP up is clearly an idea whose time has come. Whoever forms the government in Lucknow has the opportunity to take it forward. If it’s Mayawati, she won’t need to make the argument afresh. Now would either of the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, because they already have a track record of supporting the break up of states elsewhere in the country. As for the Samajwadi Party, perhaps it can be persuaded by the prospect that it could have a shot at forming four state governments in future elections, instead of being a one-state wonder. After all, a political circus that has four tigers is always going to draw a bigger audience than one that has just one oversized elephant.
The major political parties have themselves set the stage by promising, through the long weeks of campaigning, to serve the best interests of the people of the state. The best way to serve UP is to start dismantling it.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.