On the face of it, there seems to be little hope for the 16 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh that are going to the polls on April 16. Loosely comprising the region known as eastern UP, these are areas that fall on the fringes of development, hallmarked by deepening poverty, unemployment and always on the brink of sudden, violent crime.
Take Varanasi. The gentle, civilised town that has taught the world how to enjoy the good life, is offering its residents Mukhtar Ansari as one of the options to vote for.
Ansari, till recently, was lodged in the Ghazipur jail, a prison he shared with his younger brother Afzal who is now out on bail. Both brothers are candidates of the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party. The elder Ansari is on trial for the murder of Krishnanand Rai, a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Legislative Assembly from the same region. But there are many who speak in his favour, for instance, he paid the dowry of one young Muslim girl, he paid for the heart operation of another indigent Muslim.
His supporters say that he was imprisoned for his acts of charity. No one knows if he will be able to get bail to campaign, unlike his brother, who is out on bail and is campaigning in Ghazipur, which he will contest. Residents of Varanasi say the others in the fray are decent, upstanding individuals: Ajay Rai from the Samajwadi Party and Murali Manohar Joshi from the Bharatiya Janata Party. But they're not sure who the winner will be.
Another candidate from eastern UP who is lodged in jail is Bhola Pandey, the Congress nominee from Salempur. Pandey has been clapped back in jail in connection with an extortion case filed against him in 1982, after he failed to appear before the court despite repeated summons. He was allowed to file nomination papers under police custody and then sent to jail.
Of those who are candidates while being on bail, there is any number. Ramakant Yadav from Azamgarh and Kamlesh Paswan from the Bansgaon reserved seat have serious criminal charges against them and are out on bail. Seema Parihar, who is alleged to have killed over 70 persons, looted 30 houses and abducted around 200 persons, is contesting from Mirzapur as a candidate of the little known Indian Justice Party. Of the 29 cases against her, Parihar has been acquitted in 15 (which says something about the law and order agencies in UP) and given bail in 14 others.
What is it about eastern UP that provokes the nexus between power politics and criminal behaviour? Hard to tell but data collated by Indicus Analytics suggests -- contrary to conventional wisdom -- that there is a full-throated cry from this region to be recognised as upwardly mobile, rather than going down the tubes.
In Azamgarh, the supposedly notorious haven for Islamic radicals, the rate of violent crime has actually gone down from 2004 to 2008 -- from 23 per cent to 22 per cent as a share of general crime. The number of electrified homes in this constituency have increased from 41 per cent to 60 per cent over the same period. Literacy has increased from 61 per cent to 66 per cent.
Similarly in Mirzapur, the literacy rate has risen from 59 per cent to 64 per cent; in Chandauli from 66 to 70 per cent; in Maharajganj from 51 to 56 per cent; and in Robertsganj from 33 to 43 per cent. The share of violent crime has increased in all these constituencies, but the number of electrified households has increased uniformly, with the exception of Mirzapur that has gone down from 29 to 15 per cent, suggesting grid-related problems.