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A discredited desi neta seeks foreign approval

columns Updated: Jan 17, 2016 00:46 IST
Uttar Pradesh

A file picture of UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. (HT File Photo)

Some years ago, when Narendra Modi was still chief minister of his state, I came across a full-page, lavishly illustrated advertisement taken out in The Spectator by the Gujarat government’s department of tourism. This urged the magazine’s readers to come experience the splendours of Gujarat’s historical sites. The ad emphasised the fact that Gujarat was Mahatma Gandhi’s home state. A visit to Sabarmati Ashram was offered as a highlight of this Gujarat Darshan.

When I read this ad I was amused. Clearly, the copywriter working for the Gujarat government knew nothing of his intended audience. The Spectator is a right-wing British magazine, catering to an ageing, male, upper-class audience whose worldview rests on, among other things, a deep nostalgia for the British Empire and a deeper love for fine wine. The average Spectator reader has either never heard of Mahatma Gandhi or, if he has, detests him for having helped bring about the liquidation of the Empire. The average Spectator reader, when he travels abroad, must have several glasses of wine during the day and several pegs of whisky before retiring at night. Why would he voluntarily visit the land of Gandhi, where consumption of alcohol is prohibited by law?

I remembered that Gujarat government ad recently, when reading the first weekend issue for 2016 of the Financial Times. The FT is in my opinion the world’s finest newspaper; and its weekend section provides rich, engrossing, reading — from book reviews written by the world’s greatest scholars to profiles of the world’s most influential businessmen, with plenty of ground reportage and analytical news commentary thrown in for good measure.

The FT’s weekend edition comes with several pull-outs; a House and Home section, and a How to Spend it brochure among them. On the weekend of 2/3 January, 2016, there was a new extra — a four-page supplement about Uttar Pradesh, fully paid for by the state government. The supplement had eight articles in all, extolling Uttar Pradesh’s (alleged/mythical) attractiveness as an investment destination. Several articles extolled the UP chief minister’s (alleged/mythical) reputation as a visionary, forward-looking, leader. The first or cover page of the pull-out had two large photographs of Akhilesh Yadav, in both instances before a microphone, making a (profound?) point to his audience.

All the articles in the supplement were unsigned, except the lead, which was written by a certain William Young. (I suppose the UP chief minister must have thought he needed a white man with a Christian name to impress his videshi audience.) The first sentence of this piece claimed that, when aged 39, Akhilesh Yadav took over as chief minister of UP in March 2012, he was ‘the youngest politician to take over the chief ministership of any Indian state’. Even without recourse to Wikipedia, I knew this to be untrue. I am old enough to remember the year 1978, when Sharad Pawar took over as CM of Maharashtra at the age of 37.

Where the first sentence rested on a falsehood, the rest of the article was (shall we say) spun so as to provide the most favourable interpretation of the facts. We were told that Akhilesh Yadav is a qualified engineer, and hence well placed to ‘usher in an industrial revolution’ in the state. Other articles in the supplement also stressed Akhilesh’s engineering degree, claiming that under his leadership UP was ‘rapidly emerging as an infotech and high-tech hub in India’, such that ‘entrepreneurs and investors have started setting up impressive projects across the state’.

This is largely news to me, and I suspect to most citizens of Uttar Pradesh as well. The only parts of this large and sprawling state that have seen high-tech companies set up shop are those that closely border Delhi. Noida and Ghaziabad have benefited from their proximity to the national capital, with its educated workforce and its international airport. Otherwise, Uttar Pradesh remains an industrial wasteland. Till the 1970s, Kanpur and Agra were major industrial centres; now their once thriving factories lie shut, while the government of Akhilesh Yadav, and those of Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Rajnath Singh and Kalyan Singh before him, have done little to stimulate their economic revival.

The FT is, as I have said, arguably the world’s best newspaper. It has an excellent India bureau, which has carried many reports on Uttar Pradesh. These however have mostly been on the criminality, corruption, and communal violence the state has been known for in recent times, the criminality and the communal violence accelerating during Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure as chief minister. Readers of the FT will thus know already that, with the exception only of the parts of the state bordering Delhi, Uttar Pradesh is more or less the least attractive investment destination in India.

This advertising blitz is unlikely to change their minds. In fact, I suspect most subscribers to the FT sent the four-page supplement unopened to the trash-can. (This subscriber read it only because he is a professional student of Indian politicians and their ways.)

Despite his youth and his engineering degree, Akhilesh Yadav has been a colossal disappointment as chief minister. He has allowed himself to be made captive to three of the most malign men in Uttar Pradesh (and by extension) Indian politics: his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and his uncle Ram Gopal, and that purveyor of sectarian bigotry Azam Khan.

Akhilesh Yadav’s image now lies in tatters. No amount of advertising in foreign (or Indian) publications can change that. The sole beneficiaries of that supplement in the Financial Times are the ad agency which provided the text for the UP government, the (previously unknown) William Young, and, not least, the FT itself, which must have charged a hefty fee for those four precious pink pieces of real estate.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.