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THE SICK STATE OF INDIA
- The damages wrought by poor political culture

In the late 1980s, the demographer, Ashish Bose, coined the term ‘BIMARU’, an acronym bringing together those states of the Indian Union which had low per capita incomes and literacy rates on the one side, and high levels of infant mortality and malnutrition on the other. BI stood for Bihar; MA for Madhya Pradesh; R for Rajasthan; U for Uttar Pradesh. Bose’s acronym punned on the word ‘bimar’, Hindi for sick or ill, which is what, in an economic and social sense, these states were.

Of these four states of India, the one I know best is Uttar Pradesh. I was born and raised in Dehradun, at the time not the capital of a separate hill state but merely a district town in UP. Although ethnically Tamil, by culture and upbringing I am in some part a UP bhayya. My maternal grandfather moved to the state in 1930; my father in 1948. My mother and her brothers were educated in Hindi-medium schools. Our closest friends were Kayasths from Allahabad.

As a boy, and as a young man, I certainly did not think my state was backward or disadvantaged. Allahabad University was not quite the Oxford of the East; but it still had a decent reputation. My scientist-father guided PhD students from the then moderately respectable Agra University. Kanpur was a thriving industrial town, and incidentally (or thus) home to the best among the Indian Institutes of Technology. Premchand was dead, but his stories were still read; and Firaq was still around to recite his poems. Lucknow and Banaras were active centres of classical music.

The Uttar Pradesh I grew up in was culturally rich, as well as politically dominant. I had reached the age of 19, and my country the age of 30, before there was a prime minister from outside Uttar Pradesh. This man (Morarji Desai) lasted all of two years. In the next 14 years, India witnessed as many as five prime ministers; all were from UP. When the most powerful man (or woman) in one’s nation is from one’s state, how can one possibly think of it as ‘sick’?

To be sure, my confidence in UP’s importance was a product to some degree of my class position. Had I been the son of a peasant or labourer I might have thought of my home state differently. By the time I had become a working adult, however, it was clear to everyone that Uttar Pradesh was in trouble. The universities had precipitously declined. Communal and caste violence were rife. Kanpur and Agra were no longer centres of industry and enterprise. Even prime ministers tended to come from other states of the Union.

The final blow to UP’s self-esteem, however, was statistical. For the first few decades of Indian independence, those who talked numbers tallied them at the level of the nation: India’s gross national product, India’s annual rate of growth, the average income of an average Indian, and so on. From the 1980s, however, analysts of economic development began to look more closely at variations across states. This was prompted by the fact that the polity was now itself highly federalized, with the Congress no longer so dominant at the Centre or in the states. Besides, development studies were no more the preserve of the economist; political scientists, demographers, and sociologists had all joined the party. This expansion of disciplinary horizons brought in such hitherto under-appreciated factors as the nature of the political regime, the quality of political leadership, access to schools and hospitals, and mortality across age and gender.

Once the study of India’s development became more disaggregated, the reputation of Uttar Pradesh rapidly collapsed. The intelligentsia of UP had previously spoken of states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala as culturally alien and politically peripheral. The numbers revealed that the condescension should actually run in the other direction. What made matters worse was the company that India’s largest, politically most prestigious state, had to keep — that of backward Bihar, and feudal Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Later, a fifth state was added to the list — that of Odisha, which statisticians had likewise demonstrated to be poor, with low levels of literacy, indifferent or non-existent public hospitals, and the like. The acronym now acquired a new vowel, becoming BIMAROU.

Thirty years after Ashish Bose’s inspired coinage, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh still remain poor — certainly when compared to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, or Maharashtra. Yet, in the past decade or so, four of the five sick states of India have made a move on. A table in a recent essay by Utsav Kumar and Arvind Subramanian (published in the Economic and Political Weekly) demonstrates that in the period 1993-2009, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan and Odisha all had higher annual growth rates than UP. Likewise, when it comes to health indices, my former home state is much more ‘Bimar’ than the states with which it is normally associated. For instance, a mere 23 per cent of children in UP were immunized in 2011 (as against 26.5 per cent for Rajasthan, 32.8 per cent for Bihar, 40.3 per cent for MP, and 51.8 per cent for Odisha).

One reason for the poor performance of Uttar Pradesh is its size, which is a challenge to competent and focused administration. As a (non-resident) native of Dehradun I am glad it is now part of Uttarakhand. However, the process should not have stopped with the creation of a hill state; the plains of UP should also have been broken up into three, perhaps even four, separate states.

Another, and arguably more important, reason for the continuing backwardness of UP is its political culture, which remains extremely reactionary. In neighbouring Bihar, the language of politics has undergone a significant shift since 2005. Where patronage and kin networks once determined government priorities and policies, now the focus is on building roads and bridges, improving law and order, and bringing more children into school. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party chief ministers have likewise emphasized issues of governance and development.

Nitish Kumar, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Vasundhara Raje, Ashok Gehlot — none of these politicians are flawless. Each is driven in lesser or greater degree by personal ambition. In choosing candidates for seats they do look carefully at particular caste configurations. Even so, the language they talk is one of hope — the promise of a better and safer life for the residents of the state they rule over. To be sure, the gap between promise and performance remains large. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan are still among the poorer states in the Union. But the narrative of politics in these states has certainly changed.

On the other hand, UP remains trapped in the politics of fear. The BJP stokes the insecurities of upper-caste Hindus; the Samajwadi Party of Muslims and Yadavs; the Bahujan Samaj Party of Dalits. Building temples, saving mosques, constructing memorials — these remain, more or less, the professed aims of parties and governments.

Uttar Pradesh has suffered greatly from the calibre of its political leadership. Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar are both former socialists; Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Ashok Gehlot are both members of the Congress; Rajnath Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan are both members of the BJP. In each of these pairings, the leader from UP is distinctly inferior in terms of administrative ability and social vision.

And so, while Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan all seek to heal themselves, my erstwhile home state wallows in a state of sickness.