The investigation of the murder of Uttar Pradesh Public Works Department (PWD) engineer Manoj Gupta produces murkier evidence by the day, following the initial revelation that Bahujan Samaj Party MLA Shekhar Tiwari and a group of five men were at the engineer’s house the night he died, the charge being that they pretty much beat Gupta to death. Now The Indian Express has reported that police who were alerted to Gupta’s screams did not investigate matters once they realised that the MLA was at the spot. Among the questions is whether, in the context of all that has been unearthed, the state police can be expected to do a proper job of investigation and prosecution, and whether the case should be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Clouding that issue is of course the CBI’s own poor record when it comes to successful prosecutions.
The murder is linked by many to a larger issue: the fund collection that BSP functionaries undertake in order to present their chieftain, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, on her birthday. Ms Mayawati in recent years has reported very large donations made to her by her party supporters, and the reports that have come out suggest that Gupta’s killers were trying to extort money from him—apparently in the belief that all engineers working in the PWD must be hugely corrupt and able to pay up large sums of protection money. The chief minister has denied any link, but her word can hardly be the last on the subject. If it is indeed the case that an honest man died simply because he was honest and would not give in to extortion, the horror of the whole episode only grows.
What does all this say about Uttar Pradesh—a large state that now attracts less industrial investment than the much smaller, breakaway Uttarakhand (admittedly because of special tax attractions). It also suggests that government-funded projects in the state are substantially padded when it comes to costing. If such rackets are thriving all over, what does it say of the police in the state, and of law and order? Sundry policemen have now been suspended and dismissed, but this is probably the tokenism that diverts attention from the lack of systemic change.
It would be unfair to target just Ms Mayawati. A cursory look at the affidavits filed by MLAs in the recent lot of assembly elections shows how dramatically their assets have grown. In Delhi, while the assets owned by candidates hoping to become MLAs rose from an average of Rs 24.3 lakh in 2003 to Rs 167 lakh in 2008, it rose from Rs 92 lakh to Rs 321 lakh for Congress candidates, from Rs 55.5 lakh to Rs 299.6 lakh for BJP candidates, and from Rs 28.4 lakh to Rs 80.8 lakh for BSP candidates. In Karnataka, the average assets for all MLA candidates rose from Rs 52.7 lakh in 2004 to Rs 203.6 lakh in 2008; these rose from Rs 120 lakh to Rs 874.7 lakh for Congress candidates, Rs 87.9 lakh to Rs 383.6 lakh for BJP candidates, and Rs 146 lakh to Rs 487.4 lakh for Janata Dal (S) candidates. Ms Mayawati herself has seen her wealth multiply manifold. It is possible to argue that (i) richer candidates are coming into the political arena, and (ii) much of the increase in assets has to do with runaway real estate prices. Getting to the facts, however, is a relatively simple matter — you merely need to examine the individual affidavits to see how many have valued real estate at market prices and how many are sitting MLAs. The growing prosperity of political candidates is not a crime, but combined with the criminality of many of those elected, there is reason to worry about the criminality of the system itself.