With general elections looming, the Bhartiya Janta Party-led Uttar Pradesh government has presented its annual state budget, handing bounties to cow protection, Hindu pilgrimages, the Sanskrit language, and other causes. Presenting the biggest ever budget for the state, which the government dubs “welfare-oriented”, it clearly tries to please citizens on religious lines.

Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of lawmakers to the Parliament, is crucial in India’s political equation. The BJP needs to get the maths right in Uttar Pradesh if it is to win the upcoming general elections and retain power for another term with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the country’s helm.

Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) remained at the very center of the 4,790 billion rupees (US$67.15 billion) budget, 12% higher than the previous year. It is because the ideology is pursued diligently by the Narendra Modi-led federal government and furthered by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht also known as Yogi Adityanath.

In a first-of-its-kind initiative, the state government has earmarked 6.12 billion rupees (US$8.5 million) for the protection and welfare of cows, including around 2.5 billion rupees for setting up and running cattle shelters for stray cows. Uttar Pradesh has lately been facing a massive problem with stray cows and cattle on the street and farmlands due to restrictions on cattle slaughter and trade and rising cow vigilantism.

Something along these lines was expected, as cows are revered as sacred by Hindu nationalists. The chief minister, who is the high priest of the Gorakshnath Temple in Uttar Pradesh, is a cow lover himself who has imposed a special duty on liquor to help support destitute cows.

Religion vs education

The opposition claims that 6.12 billion rupees, which equates to 42,000 rupees per village, is meager considering the number of stray cattle. “In comparison (to the cow budget), only 4.9 billion rupees has been granted for the infrastructure of primary schools, many of which are in bad shape,” said Nishi Sahni, a school principal from Uttar Pradesh.

Funds have also been given for research centers devoted to the study of ancient Indian (vedic) science, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Late BJP leader and Prime Minister) and Baba Gorakshnath.

The government has also decided to develop an International Buddhist Center and a Center for Excellence in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in Siddharth University Kapilvastu, Siddharth Nagar.

However, the higher education sector is not satisfied.

“State Universities, which are facing (a) fund crunch for years affecting their expansion and teachers’ recruitment, have been grossly ignored. At the same time hefty allocations are there for the development of Sanskrit language,” said Professor Mukul Srivastava of Lucknow University.

The government has set aside 3.14 billion rupees for schools, colleges and universities offering education in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, a commitment made by the BJP in its poll manifesto in 2017.

The 100-year-old Lucknow University has not been painted in a decade and Prof Srivastava is the only full-time teacher in the Department of Journalism. But it received 20 million rupees for setting up a research chair in the name of the late Indian prime minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Educators warn that irrational budgets in the education sector will further dent publicly-funded education, benefiting the private sector.

Further aiding Hinduism, around 4.6 billion rupees was approved for the development of religious sites in Ayodhya, Mathura, Braj, Garmukteshwar, Varanasi and 50 million rupees set aside for building boundary walls around the Ramleela grounds (where a dramatic folk re-enactment of the Hindu god Rama’s life takes place) in the state, delivering on BJP pre-election promises.

Silent on jobs

The budget is silent on job generation. Rather, it talks about self-employment and support to semi-skilled workers like barbers, masons, and tailors. This is despite the fact that the BJP promised millions of jobs, but unemployment has only gone up.

“The employment generation for skilled youth and loan waivers for farmers both are missing from the Yogi’s budget. Dues of many sugarcane farmers are pending despite allocation in the last fiscal,” said Lalji Verma, a legislator from the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Congress leader Ajay Singh Lallu also alleged that the government has ignored the core issues of the poor, farmers and youth.

CM Bisht told media persons after the budget, “Rather than being a populist one, this budget is for people’s welfare. Adequate funds have been given for infrastructure development, Rural, medical education and health, urban development, women and child welfare, metro as well.”

Finance minister Rajesh Agrawal defended the budget saying, “If we have dedicated funds for cow-shelters, we have also given money for Madrasas. We have taken care of every community. The support to Sanskrit schools (and) vedic science centers aims to encourage our ancient texts and culture.”

Madrasa modernization

The BJP government’s proposal to spend 4.5 billion rupees for modernization of madrasas (Islamic schools) has raised many eyebrows. This is being viewed as the government’s attempt to woo Muslims, especially the Shia community.

The announcement has come in the wake of the failure of hardline Hindu nationalism pursued by Bisht during his electoral campaigns in three key states, which BJP lost in assembly elections two months ago, say experts.

Minorities constitute 20% of the Uttar Pradesh electorate, and a section of Muslims, especially Shias, voted for the BJP in the 2014 general elections that brought the party to power. Their votes in the upcoming general elections, expected to be held in April-May, will be crucial.

Ramesh Dixit, a political analyst, said, “The alliance of two regional satraps—Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samajwadi Party— along with Congress’ increased popularity and entry of Priyanka Gandhi as the election in-charge of Congress in eastern Uttar Pradesh is likely to spoil the BJP’s game. In the name of modernization, BJP is indulging in Madrasa politics just like previous regimes.”

There are almost 20,000 madrasas across the state, according to government estimates, and the actual figure may be higher. Then there are fake Madrasas as well; the government has busted 17 such premises in Saharanpur district alone. From dress code to yoga, Bisht’s government has also imposed several norms on Madrasas in the last two years.

“Madrasas have mushroomed across the state over the last decade, many of them being run from one or two rooms. Modernization of Madrasa is just an eyewash. These children need to be mainstreamed rather than being put up in seminaries,” says Athar Hussain, director of Centre of Objective Research and Development, Lucknow.

While there is no official data on the number of pupils there, community leaders peg the number at two million. The state’s significant Muslim population stands at around 40 million. The state’s Muslims may not play a decisive role in the upcoming election, but they will be important for the BJP as its popularity declines in the Hindi heartland.