Return of a spectre

The return of communal tension to Uttar Pradesh is alarming. In the past few months, Mathura, Pratapgarh, Bareilly, Lucknow, Ghaziabad and Faizabad have witnessed communal violence. Despite the widespread sense that riots are a thing of the past, that greater all-round investment in stability and progress mean that large-scale destruction of life and property are not as likely, these incidents are a reminder of how fragile the peace is ó and how much it depends on a responsible administration.

By all accounts, the UP government appears distracted, one ear cocked towards the rumblings around the 2014 election. Akhilesh Yadav, for all his seeming sincerity, has no real experience of governance. Mulayam Singh Yadav seems to view this as his best shot at the prime minister's office, and is focusing the government's energies on winning over as many constituencies as possible, with lavish freebie schemes the state clearly cannot afford. Instead of administering with a firm, decisive hand, the Samajwadi Party appears preoccupied with pre-election gestures only seven months after it was sworn in. This also often means that it chooses the path of least resistance, afraid to offend anyone ó the fact that on August 17, angry mobs could attack passers-by, stone shops and vehicles in Lucknow, a couple of kilometres away from the seat of government, while the police did nothing, was proof that Akhilesh, who is both chief minister and home minister, was either unwilling or unable to take things in hand. Recent actions of SP workers have brought back unwelcome memories of the previous SP regime, which became notorious for "goonda raj". Party leaders have interfered with custodial decisions, attacked police and administrative officials, and they have got away with it. The disempowerment of the police has a direct impact on their willingness to anticipate and stop potential incidents.

Knowing that central authority is weak has emboldened those who want to make trouble between communities. While Akhilesh has signalled a desire to change by replacing the additional director-general of police, he needs to exert far greater control over his own party cadre. The SP's self-interested calculations should not be allowed to tip UP into a conflict the state has struggled mightily to overcome.

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