Our cities, wrote Ivan Turgenev about Russia, “burn every five years”. Funny, so do ours, with each general election. Except ours are not burnt, but bulldozed.
From Delhi to Bangalore to Lucknow, irrespective of epoch or party, as soon as a new chief minister takes oath of office, he or she becomes an expert on town planning, full of profundities and wisdom about mega plans for redoing the face of the capital, with public funds, of course. The Supreme Court has recently threatened Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), with strong action if her government does not immediately stop the construction of over a dozen stone memorials. The concept may have been driven by noble intentions, but the building of what the public in Lucknow calls patthar ke bagh (gardens of stone) has all but destroyed the green cover that Lucknow was once famous for.
According to her pious acolytes, Mayawatiji has devoted much personal attention to the concept and implementation of all these samajik parivartan sthals and sthans (social transformation areas and spots) with gigantic statues of major Dalit leaders, including several of her own. The tallest among these is the 18ft-high bronze statue of her mentor Manyawar Shri Kanshi Ramji. It has cost the exchequer of the impoverished state a sum of Rs47.25 lakh.
True, most Dalits in UP see in Behenji’s rise and visibility the end of a long history of their own invisibility and powerlessness. And the parks sporting wilting palms and enormous triads of Mayawati, Kanshi Ram and B.R. Ambedkar are, to them, temples of a new cult where Dalit leaders are the deities. But the rest of the electorate is not too sure. Mayawati’s predecessor, the other backward classes leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, too had started on a similar building spree and created huge parks and gates to commemorate backward communities and their Samajwadi mentor Ram Manohar Lohia. Entire neighbourhoods were razed, including some historic homes as the pickaxes and bulldozers went into motion. As is often the case in India, laziness, graft and finally a change in government prevented those samajik nyaya (social justice)-driven plans from destroying Lucknow. But not before it left the city with several unfinished cycle paths and flyovers that are virtual death traps during the rush hour. Mayawati’s government has had more time and resources to demolish old Lucknow. But his bulldozers, Mulayam Singh said recently, are waiting for her ouster.
For old timers it is possible to recall how, in years gone by, Lucknow was a city where it was possible to relax and have freewheeling discussions about the state and the nation and the world in general over cups of tea or coffee or a glass of beer. There is almost no room left for such informal gatherings now. You may walk around for hours but you will find no park or inexpensive place where you may relax and catch up with old friends without fearing for your pocket or your life, or both, especially after dark. From the airport at Amausi to the secretariat and the vidhan sabha (state legislative assembly) premises, the neta (leader) prototypes and their cronies loom everywhere, cars invariably parked in total defiance of parking rules. In the city markets, they loll about at street corner paan shops and parks in clusters, eyeing women and making lewd comments, scratching their unmentionables, belching and flashing cash and arrogance. If you have neither a home nor a safe hotel room in Lucknow, forget about letting your hair down in the city.
The builders, most of whom are also party fund-raisers, have created new markets in their own image, after displacing or demolishing the old ones. The gaudiest and largest display windows in the city’s prime shopping centres no longer display books or Lucknow’s famous attars or the traditional hand-embroidered garments, but mobile phones, expensive foreign watches and pens, imported perfumes, flashy machine-embroidered “designer” wear, and expensive fixtures for homes and offices. The last time I visited Lucknow (about a month ago), as our taxi drove through the ugly, over-crowded streets with towering billboards announcing many grand product launches and public rallies, roads were lined with garish malls, querulous doormen and hassled buyers. This, I was told, is so and so’s son’s mall, and that showroom is in the name of so and so’s “Mrs”, and that multiplex you see, madam, is built by so and so’s right-hand man who grabbed the old building and chased away the owners with the help of his gun-toting goons.
Suddenly, I understood the real meaning of the much-touted social justice revolution of India. It has not changed the ruling norms, only created autocrats from other castes.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org