An interplay between the palpable deficiencies in the way the Uttar Pradesh government has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and an aggressive pursuit of Hindutva-oriented communal politics, evidently aimed at covering up the administration’s failures, has been distinctly evident in Uttar Pradesh over the past few months.
On September 15, the State recorded 113 COVID deaths, the worst ever tally after the onset of the pandemic. Data made available a day later revealed that approximately 49 per cent of those infected were aged between 21 and 40. Youngsters under 20 comprised 13.91 per cent of the infected, while 28.77 per cent were aged between 41 and 60. People above 60 constituted only 8.9 per cent of the infected population. Data from the last week of August had shown a similar trend of people in the most productive age group constituting the highest percentage of patients. These figures showed that there were severe limitations in the State government’s strategy.
Normally, this state of affairs should have resulted in pointed public questioning of the way the government is handling the COVID situation. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, however, managed to distract popular attention with a controversial statement on September 14. “How can Mughals be our heroes?” he said, while announcing his decision to rename the Mughal Museum, which is under construction in Agra, after the Maratha historical figure Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who has been projected as a Hindutva icon by the Sangh Parivar. (Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav launched the museum project in Agra in January 2016, when he was Chief Minister.)
Yogi Adityanath went on to add that his government had “consistently nurtured the nationalist ideology and anything which smacks of subservient mentality will be done away with”. It was his view that naming the museum after Shivaji “would invoke a feeling of nationalism and self-esteem”.
Interestingly, this “momentous announcement” was made during a routine review meeting of development work in the Agra administrative division. Leaders and activists of opposition parties, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress, and even Sangh Parivar insiders, say that Yogi Adityanath has a rather remarkable quality of injecting communalism into any situation.
A senior bureaucrat, who has worked closely with various Chief Ministers in a career spanning over 25 years, told Frontline : “He has a special knack for doing this. And without fail, he resorts to this stratagem when confronted with a difficult political or administrative situation. Even in the run-up to the routine review meeting of September 14, there would have been indications within the [government] system that the State could register yet another pathetic health statistics in a couple of days. Indeed, running down the Mughals and their legacy along with a sort of propping up of a Hindutva icon would have been perceived as the best way then to divert attention from the palpable failures on the health front, especially COVID-related issues.”
The long-term effects of this move are also a matter of debate in the State’s political, bureaucratic and academic circles. The Mughal Museum was one of three major projects undertaken by Akhilesh Yadav. All three are linked to the iconic Taj Mahal and are aimed at highlighting the country’s composite historical and cultural legacy. The Agra Heritage Centre and the Taj Orientation Centre are the other two projects. The museum is being built on approximately six acres of land near the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal. Though there is no clarification yet on whether the name change will impact the nature of the project, the overwhelming perception in political and bureaucratic circles is that this is bound to happen.
Leaders of opposition parties and political observers point out that even in July and August the Yogi Adityanath government and its associates in the various Sangh Parivar outfits carried out aggressive Hindutva projects to divert attention from governance failures, including in COVID care. July witnessed intense campaigning on the “great triumph for Hindutva” in the context of the Bhumi Pujan ceremony planned for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. August witnessed the actual ceremony itself under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In both July and August, Uttar Pradesh had sunk into new lows in its management of the pandemic. For the Union government, there was the added loss of face on account of developments on the border, especially the skirmishes with Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh leading to the death of several Indian soldiers. Discussions within the community of armed forces personnel at that time were marked by intense criticism of the Centre’s mismanagement of the border crisis. It was in this context that the Sangh Parivar leadership decided that an Ayodhya-related Hindutva project would be the “best antidote” to the growing public resentment over various issues.
Meanwhile, COVID cases and casualties are rising across the State. Health department officials told Frontline that the two most important districts, Lucknow (State capital) and Kanpur (industrial hub), recorded disconcertingly high figures of infections and fatalities. Even on September 15 and 16, the figures remained high in these two districts.
Reports from different parts of the State, Health Ministry officials told Frontline , pointed to a steady collapse of the health infrastructure. A senior official said: “The shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment] and oxygen kits is being felt very acutely, even as the number of beds available for COVID care has shown a marginal increase.”
Former Chief Ministers Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have separately drawn attention to this situation and demanded urgent remedial measures. However, the political leadership of the ruling dispensation, including the Chief Minister, have chosen to ignore these calls. Why bother when the Hindutva armoury has so many diversionary weapons in its arsenal ranging from the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya to Bhumi Pujan to the running down of Mughal history and culture?