In college during the late 1980s, in the north Indian city of Allahabad, I heard many stories about local toughs and criminals who were keen to get into politics. They came from Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Bihar, two of India’s poorest provinces that together contain nearly as many people as the U.S.

Students spoke with something like awe of Hari Shankar Tiwari, one of the first Indian legislators to win his election while languishing in prison for serious criminal charges. Another local legend was Raja Bhaiya, the son of a feudal lord who was rumored to feed his enemies to crocodiles he bred in a lake on his estate.

This reverence for homicidal brutes had good reason. In this predominantly rural region, men like Tiwari had realized the only real opportunities for self-advancement; it mattered little that their wealth and power derived from smuggling, drug-trafficking, kidnapping, assassination, prostitution and extortion.

In the absence of honest policing and an efficient legal system, the mafia dons provided rough instant justice. They also showered some Robin Hood-ish largesse on the underprivileged, and gave irregular jobs to the region’s many educated unemployables.

Many of their strongmen, nominally registered at the university I attended, lived in student dorms. Harmless for the most part, they were nevertheless menacing with their seemingly easy access to “katta” or “tamancha,” country pistols and bombs. Activated by their patrons around election time, they indulged in that pastime known as “booth-capturing,” whereby groups of armed young men took over election sites, scared away voters and stuffed ballot boxes at leisure.

Shock of Decay

In 1999, I returned to Allahabad after a long absence to report on a parliamentary election. Accustomed to decay in those parts, I was still shocked to find how rapidly the city -- once the center of intellectual and political life in north India and the ancestral town of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty -- had been undermined.

The students at the university looked as unemployable as ever. Meanwhile, the mafia dons had grown richer with New India’s money. They were moving into respectable professions, building shopping malls and apartment buildings on dubiously acquired land (and ruthlessly trampling over anyone who came in their way). The old middle class of lawyers, doctors and teachers was in retreat, moving away to places like Delhi, and even farther west to Europe and the U.S.

I spent some time with one of the rising mafia dons, Atique Ahmed, who in 2005 would be accused of murdering his victorious opponent in a parliamentary election. Ahmed was then in baby-kissing mode, and revealed nothing more fierce than his Dobermans. Late one night I nearly spoke harsh words to the noisy men in the hotel room adjacent to mine. One of them turned out to be Bhaiya.

Having narrowly escaped the belly of a crocodile, I have, over the last decade, obsessively followed the rise and fall (and rise) of gangsters in the region: Bhaiya’s lake, by the way, was seized by a hostile local government, and he was thrown into prison, but he is due for a comeback in the next elections. Long-suffering friends have kept me supplied with stories of what it is like to live in towns and cities where regular payments to the local mafia are the norm.

Wild East Image

Needless to say, this parallel universe of India’s Wild East is, as Mrinal Pande, a distinguished Indian journalist, points out in her new book, “The Other Country: Dispatches from the Mofussil” (Penguin India, 2011), “completely at odds with the newly branded image of India as a fast-growing modern economy with a large, upwardly mobile, English-speaking middle class.”

For many Indian as well as foreign journalists, the devastated moral landscape of these provinces has remained terra incognita. And, as Pande points out, the “free” local press is hardly a reliable guide to them. On the eve of India’s Independence Day in August 2010, a bestselling Hindi newspaper carried full-page greetings to the “people” from one of U.P.’s most notorious fugitives, a man accused of killing two elected legislators and at least one senior policeman.

Pande first knew places like Allahabad two decades before I did, in a more civil age; her anguish and despair over their despoliation is greater than mine. “Atrauli in Uttar Pradesh,” she writes, “was once much adored by classical Hindustani music lovers.” It is now famous for its “schools that do little or no teaching but offer special facilities for cheating during the UP Board exams,” for junior and senior high school.

In another piece titled “No Future in Eastern UP,” Pande meets old friends in Allahabad who reveal that criminals become their elected representatives because they “can get anyone killed anywhere in India for a fee or kidnapped by their gangs.” It barely matters whether they are low or high caste, left- or right-leaning: “They go to any political party with bags of money and buy party tickets.”

This is indeed what they have been doing for the elections due in Uttar Pradesh next month. This week I spoke to Rajeev, an old friend from my years in Allahabad, who had just returned to Delhi from a trip to his eastern U.P. hometown of Varanasi. Long election convoys of unregistered and expensive cars, he reported, were already clogging the city’s streets: a show of strength for the dons lodged in prisons across the country, facing multiple charges of murder but determined to secure seats in the state legislature. He relayed the latest stories about Mukhtar Ansari and Brajesh Singh, two of the region’s most influential gangsters.

Goods Without Jobs

The concentration of “black money” in a few hands, he said, had created exorbitant apartment buildings and many malls selling brand names. But the conspicuous consumption was accompanied by near-zero growth in employment, creating a vast reservoir of educated, ambitious and frustrated youth. Rajeev felt safer in the relative anonymity of Delhi and hopeful for the prospects of his children. It was only after I put the phone down that I wondered if Rajeev was being too optimistic about Delhi.

“On the face of it,” Pande writes, “provincial India with its non-existent roads, frequent power blackouts and perennial water shortages seems to be turning into a microcosm of metropolitan India with its millionaires and consumers.” But in many significant ways metropolitan India is beginning to resemble the provinces. In recent years, the parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana that are now an extension of Delhi have witnessed a spate of gang shootouts and unsolved deaths, together with a steep rise in property prices and hectic mall construction.

Booth-capturing is still rare in the Indian capital. But mafia-style capitalism and democracy no longer seem peculiar to the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Exporting its malaises, the “other” India may be finally breaking into the metropolitan fantasies from which it has been excluded for so long.

(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.