This week, I found myself in Lucknow, the capital of the populous state of Uttar Pradesh. Under Chief Minister Mayawati, the newer parts of Lucknow have been transformed. There are now gargantuan parks of sandstone with huge, life-size statues of elephants, majestic fountains, and many lovely roads. Some parts of the city are more impressive than the ceremonial boulevard of Rajpath or the famous road in Lutyens' Delhi that connects the India Gate to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Such development is nice to see in any Indian town, and nobody can complain about the money being spent on the infrastructure that our cities desperately need. But I can’t help but get the uncomfortable feeling that for Mayawati, the construction boom is also an opportunity to make some personal and political gains.
In India, public works are the most efficient tools for siphoning money off from government coffers, and when you spend the kind of money Mayawati's government has over Lucknow's beautification, it seems likely that some of this will find its way, one way or another, into her party's coffers. It’s true that Mayawati has a grand vision—many of the new structures in Lucknow, or my home suburb of Noida, which is in Delhi but which falls under Uttar Pradesh, are impressive in their scale. Indeed, it’s almost as if she has been inspired by the building zeal of the Mughals, who were responsible for much of northern India's most iconic structures.
What's worrying about the Mayawati approach, though, is the monarchical undertones—most, if not all, of the public infrastructure commissioned by her government is stamped with the elephant mascot of her Bahujan Samaj Party, an elephant. In Lucknow, road after road, and flyover after flyover, have posters with her face on.
What could be worse than the democratically elected leader of our most populous state treating a mandate as an invitation to rule?