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Mihir S Sharma: A state without jobs

Congress has lost the urban young despite the state visibly prospering under UPA govt

Mihir S Sharma 

The Congress party may have lost a generation of young, urban men. After a while, in Uttar Pradesh, you can spot the loudest supporters of Narendra Modi from a distance: they are the young men with a slight hunger in their eyes, whose clothes stand out as a little more thoughtfully put together. Even in the Congress' core belt in Uttar Pradesh - Unnao, Raebareli and Amethi - such young men are disdainful of the party.

This is in spite of the fact that Uttar Pradesh has visibly prospered under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Even in tiny towns, mobile phone towers are visible in the distance - towers brought there thanks to the requirement that payments under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme be recorded electronically at block headquarters. But the Congress has not chosen to emphasise the changes since 2004; nor have they gone far enough for these discontented young men. Above all, more jobs - and more factories - are wanted.

In the far northeast of Uttar Pradesh, a few miles from the Nepal border, stands the tiny town of Padrauna. The seat of Union minister of state for home, R P N Singh, it is dotted with lovely, run-down havelis that testify to its past as a prosperous centre for timber and sugar processing. But, right next to Mr Singh's ancestral palace, what was once the pride of the town stands silent. The dark and cavernous interiors of Padrauna's largest sugar mill are guarded by contingents of its mill workers, unpaid for years but hopeful that if they just keep an eye on the machinery inside, it will one day come to life again. Elsewhere in the town, too, the mill is considered talismanic: if it does not open again, how will jobs come? Yet its eerie quiet, broken only by the rustle of pigeons in the roof, is a reminder of consistent failures of governance. Once profitable, in the private sector, it was driven towards insolvency by absurd sugar pricing policy. It was nationalised and further ruined; and, finally, the government leased it out to one of the robber oligarchs of Uttar Pradesh, Jawahar Lal Jaiswal. A liquor trader, Mr Jaiswal - unlike the man he was named for - believes that the true temple of modern India is the bureaucrat's waiting room; men who profit off licences and intimidation are not likely to succeed with factories. And so the mill stays silent. Successive governments are complicit. One worker tells of going to meet former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and holding on to his feet in supplication. "What did he say?" I ask. In an odd echo of accusations against his successor, he says: "The PM stayed silent for a long time. And then said, 'theek hai' (It's all right)."

Far to the south of Padrauna, in the southeastern corner of Uttar Pradesh - where the rich Gangetic plain gives way to the rocks and red earth of the Chota Nagpur plateau, and the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh meet - is Mirzapur district. It is so remote that I repeatedly heard the state Assembly being referred to as "UP's biggest panchayat". There, in surroundings poorer than other parts of Uttar Pradesh, I attended a political rally, in honour of the local Congress candidate, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi - a disarmingly charismatic young man from an old political family. As we stood listening, Ram Charan, who plays the dhol - and is, like many dhol players in rural Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit - told me the young people in his family are more dissatisfied than he is. They want to leave to find jobs. Others at the rally demand more from the Centre: a Kendriya Vidyalaya; a central hospital. Kols, the local tribe, are Scheduled Tribes in Madhya Pradesh but not in Uttar Pradesh; they want their children to "travel abroad", just like the children of Kols in Madhya Pradesh. The women, in brightly coloured sarees, take out mobile phones as the speeches finish and the music begins; as the song - a hymn in praise of Indira Gandhi - gathers force, my feet start tapping to the brilliantly syncopated rhythm. If I stand tiptoe I can just about see Ram Charan, his fingers rushing across the surface of his dhol, his eyes closed in concentration.

There are more kinds of young people in Uttar Pradesh, thus, than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) imagines. In Deoria district, as I ate some of the finest samosas I have ever had, I made the mistake of asking if girls there were educated. The men gathered there actually take offence. Of course they are, I am told. They all study "to BA level". But, they add sadly, "there are no jobs for them afterwards". I look around me - the fields are verdantly beautiful with unseasonable rain. "You will all be first in line to complain if fertile land is taken for industry," I suggest. They laugh. Of course not, I'm told. And then I'm seized by the shoulder, and patches where the land lies fallow are pointed out to me.

Yes, the Congress has lost the urban young. At a sleepy crossroads in Salempur, few will vote for the Congress. Later, I learn that very crossroads where the' Congress finds no defenders hosted a Rahul Gandhi rally last year. So much for Mr Gandhi’s outreach. But Mr Modi hasn’t won the young, either. The BJP is strong there, sure – but it turns out that’s because it picked the right candidate, a Khushwaha.

In fact, the BJP has banked so much on a Modi wave that it seems to have taken more risks with candidate selection than are warranted. Mr Modi had to declare a Modi Wave in order to rise to the top of the BJP. But any party that proclaims a wave becomes inundated with ticket seekers - and, confused by the options on offer, it has made some pretty bad choices, apparently. If there's no wave, then it will do even worse than it needed to.

I will leave you with one last observation, for what it's worth. In rural rallies, you can hear speakers praise or attack Mayawati and Mulayam Singh, Sonia Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But one name isn't heard: Narendra Modi's.

First Published: Sun, March 30 2014. 22:44 IST