It is often said that the road to power in New Delhi goes via Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital. Even Narendra Modi had to contest from this state (Varanasi) to mount a successful prime ministerial bid in 2014. Except for three former prime ministers who were members of the Rajya Sabha during their tenures in India’s most coveted political office, only two others—Morarji Desai (1977-79) and P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96)—have been elected to the Lok Sabha from a state other than Uttar Pradesh.
It is not just Uttar Pradesh’s record of electing prime ministers but also its overall say in political discourse that gives the state its privileged position in national politics. There have been several instances when UP-based political parties have succeeded in deciding the fate of Central governments. The role of the Samajwadi Party in rescuing the Manmohan Singh government in a no-confidence motion after the latter’s decision to move forward with the India-US nuclear deal is a prominent case in point.
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The most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh has the largest state assembly with 403 seats. It also sends the highest number of representatives (80) to the Lok Sabha—Maharashtra is a distant second with 48 representatives. So it is not at all surprising that the ongoing state election in Uttar Pradesh has come across as the most important political battle for Modi after May 2014. Winning Uttar Pradesh will allow the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to expand its national footprint by several leaps in one go. Victory will also boost the BJP’s membership in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house which has become an obstacle to many of the Modi government’s legislations. Uttar Pradesh will also strengthen the BJP’s attempt to get its choice of president elected after Pranab Mukherjee demits office in July this year.
Despite electing so many prime ministers and playing such a big role in national politics, Uttar Pradesh has remained one of the most backward states in India—it’s possibly now the weakest link even among the “Bimaru” states that include Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan. The term “Bimaru” comes from the Hindi word bimaar, meaning sick. Ashish Bose, a prominent demographer, used this term coined in the 1980s for states that were contributing massively to population explosion and lagged behind on social and economic indicators. Even though a large number of people have been pulled out of poverty in the post-1991 liberalization period, Uttar Pradesh’s condition remains abysmal when compared to most other states.
With close to 17% of the population, Uttar Pradesh contributes merely 8% to India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Only 22% of the state is urbanized compared to the national average of 31%. Even among the Bimaru states, Uttar Pradesh’s average per capita gross state domestic product (GSDP) growth has lagged behind Madhya Pradesh and Bihar in the recent past. The average growth in gross value added in agriculture—which employs the maximum number of people—from 2012-13 to 2015-16 has been a meagre 0.84% in Uttar Pradesh compared to 9.21% in Madhya Pradesh.
The picture is no better when it comes to the human development indicators. The infant mortality rate at 46 (per thousand live births) is not just higher than the national average of 37 but rivals that of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Both the literacy rate and life expectancy are below the national average. The total fertility rate (TFR), at 3.2 in Uttar Pradesh, compares unfavourably with a national average of 2.3. But more importantly, it is way higher than states like West Bengal (1.6), Punjab (1.7) and Maharashtra (1.8), which have gone below the replacement level of 2.1. This divergence in fertility rates is likely to drive intra-country labour migration, with attendant consequences in the form of a political backlash against migrants and a rise in regional chauvinism.
Yet more political firestorms await as a result of this divergent pattern in fertility rates. The delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies has been postponed till the first census after 2026. If the divergence holds, Uttar Pradesh is set to gain further political capital at the expense of states which have achieved their family planning targets. This will not be taken lying down by states set to lose out because of better performance.
In a paper last year, Vivek Dehejia and Praveen Chakravarty had pointed out the worrying trend of diverging per capita incomes among the large constituent states of India—an experience that sits at odds with other large economies like the US, Europe and China. But as the Economic Survey of 2016-17 highlights, this is not due to lack of inter-state connectivity, both in terms of movement of people and trade. The blame may instead be pinned on “governance and institutional traps”, as the Survey hints. As India’s most populous, and one of the most backward, states, Uttar Pradesh exemplifies these conundrums.
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The future of Uttar Pradesh will, in many ways, determine the future of the entire country. If it continues to remain a laggard state, the consequences will be felt by the best-performing states as well. This will be truer in a post-GST (goods and services tax) single-market India. It is for this reason that 11 March, the day of election results, is of immense national importance.
Will the winner in Uttar Pradesh elections settle things for good in the state? Tell us at email@example.com