LUCKNOW: "I was mesmerised by the change," says an excited Sifat Khan, a 21-year-old who grew up in Australia and visited poll-bound Lucknow this winter after four years. She was thrilled to find recreation spots, malls, well-lit roads and a changing lifestyle - not to mention the renovated commercial hub of Hazratganj. Barnstorming by political parties may be in full swing in the current elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populated state of over 200 million people and around 120 million voters. But many of those from the state who live abroad are impressed with the development work and applaud Chief Minister Mayawati's efforts, saying it's no mean feat in this erstwhile city of nawabs and currently at the heart of a fierce political battle for control of the country's most politically consequential state.
"One thing that caught my eye was the Ambedkar Memorial Park," said Sifat, a medicine student based in Brisbane.
"The enormous and magnificent place drips with creativity. I was in awe of the 62 huge elephant statues welcoming me," Sifat told IANS.
"Another great transformation was how organised Hazratganj has become! I clearly recall being stuck in traffic for hours witnessing street fights and brawls just to get parking at this shopping centre. Now you see a wide expanded road with traffic lights and multi-storeyed parking and its shoppers delight," she added.
Even though Maywati's opponents are training the gun on her and say she has failed to bring development and has wasted and misused central government funds, outsiders are happy to see the new developments in the historical city, home to 4.5 million people, which is focusing on better infrastructure and safety.
For Sanjana Singh, travelling to the city from the US was a great experience.
"You keep hearing a lot of things on television but coming here gives a different picture. As an outsider you feel safe in the city and it offers good outing spots too."
Many NRIs from Uttar Pradesh were holidaying in their native state in winter even as the state is in the middle of seven-phased assembly polls. Lucknow, which has a population of 4.5 million, votes Feb 19.
Some local people complain that much of the construction work has benefited Mayawati's brother who is in the construction business, but for Huma Khan, who works abroad as a consultant, what counts is the development effort in the city.
Hazratganj and Gomti Nagar area have changed remarkably, she said. "There are wide, three-laned, well-lit roads and there is the Ambedkar Smarak. It's hard to believe it is the same Lucknow."
And clearly they have a good word for Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has been in power since 2007.
"Many chief ministers came and went, but it is only Mayawati who has tried to develop the city. The connectivity to the heart of the city (Hazrarganj) and the airport are a compared to earlier days," Huma Khan said.
The development is not centred in the state capital alone, points out London-based Samrat Basu, who used to dread travelling by road earlier. He says it is a delight to take a road trip between Lucknow and Banda now.
"My visit this time was exceptional. I started my journey from Delhi to Banda and I was very happy to catch the train UP Sampark Kranti. The journey was very comfortable and safe," he said.
And he had a similar experience from Banda to Lucknow.
"The travel to Lucknow from Banda by train used to be a nightmare due to erratic departure timings and trouble in boarding. So this time someone suggested I travel by road. I was not confident, but was amazed to see the construction of a long bridge on the Yamuna river near Chilla Ghat. This particular improvement by the Uttar Pradesh government has connected Banda so well with many cities by road. It took us only four hours to reach Lucknow and we enjoyed the trip," Basu told IANS.
"I must be thank Mayawatiji for her enormous contribution and vision to develop this city. We loved the advancement."
(Arpana can be contacted at email@example.com)