One day, earlier this week, I ran an unscientific but anecdotal comparison of news headlines from three cities in India’s largest northern state and its largest southern state.

These were some of the news headlines from Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Erode, Salem): 36 arrested for gambling in Tirupur; HCL chairman Shiv Nadar tells students to learn Hindi; IIT researchers generate lasers from carrots; New microbial technology to generate electricity from textile-factory wastewater; New robots to regulate traffic in Salem; A student-built underwater drone could aid rescue units; A businessman buys 140 air tickets for poor, elderly villagers; 45 injured in jallikattu; and Women voters outnumber men in three districts.

Some of the news headlines from Uttar Pradesh (Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra) read: The Hindu Kalyan Mahasabha in Agra protests Valentine’s Day but offers cash prizes to Hindu men who marry Muslim women; Stray cows to be auctioned to decongest roads; A sadhvi caught on camera plotting a murder; Locals riot in Azamgarh after an Ambedkar statue is damaged; 38 ghost schools unearthed in a scholarship scam; and Over 1.2 million first-time voters to be eligible to vote this year.

This random exercise revealed a remarkable contrast in what made it to the headlines in either state, both of which have populations larger than many countries. In Uttar Pradesh, news of religious confrontation appeared predominant; in Tamil Nadu, news of scientific advances. This is not to say that Tamil Nadu is a paradise of science, coexistence and hope. It is a state run by politicians who have mainstreamed corruption. It is also ridden with caste prejudice, which runs as deep as it does in Uttar Pradesh. The preponderance of caste is, perhaps, a factor that unifies Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, reminding us they are quintessentially Indian, however divergent their realities appear to be – as the table I put together below indicates.

UP and Tamil Nadu: Two roads led from the woods

Indicator Uttar Pradesh Tamil Nadu
Population 200 million 72 million
Population Density (people per sq km) 829 555
Literacy 68% 80%
Total Fertility Rate (births per woman) 3.1 1.6 
Female literacy 61% 80%
Population Below Age 15 34% 23%
Households With Electricity 71% 99%
Households With Any Member Covered By Health Scheme Or Health Insurance 6% 64%
Average Value Of Assets Per Rural Household Rs 10.42 lakh Rs 6.73 lakh
Factories 15,294 37,220
Total Employed In Factories 1.01 million 2.40 million
Size Of Economy (Net State Domestic Product) Rs 925,437 crore Rs 970,953 crore
Annual Per Capita Income Rs 43,861 Rs 130,197
Sources: Census of India, 2011; Sample Registration System; National Sample Survey 70th round (2016); Annual Survey of Industries, 2016-'17; Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 2831 for 02.08.2017; National Family Health Survey, 2015-'16.

Tamil Nadu is clearly far ahead on Uttar Pradesh on important indicators. It is a more literate, less crowded state with a vastly greater proportion of its women educated (nearly 20 percentage points ahead of Uttar Pradesh) and, as a consequence, producing fewer children.

More than three children are born to a Uttar Pradesh woman, while fewer than two are born to a Tamilian woman. The replacement rate of fertility is 2.1 children, at which the population neither rises nor falls. This means Uttar Pradesh’s population will continue to rise, and Tamil Nadu’s will fall (although migrants will boost numbers in the southern state). Uttar Pradesh will continue to have a youthful population, with 34% under 15, compared to 23% in Tamil Nadu.

People in Tamil Nadu are healthier. At least 64% of them are covered by a health scheme or insurance, compared to 6% in Uttar Pradesh. Tamilians have more employment options than possibly any other people in India. Tamil Nadu has more than double the number of factories as sprawling Uttar Pradesh, its factories employ more people than any other Indian state, including the industrial powerhouses of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Tamil Nadu’s economy is larger than Uttar Pradesh’s, and the average Tamilian is three times richer (although, curiously, people in rural Uttar Pradesh have more household assets than the average rural Tamilian – perhaps the Tamilian is more frugal?).

Diverging paths

I carried out this exercise as a reminder that Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu represent alternative visions for India’s future. In the run up to the upcoming general elections, these diverging paths will not be talked about as much as they should. But these are worthwhile statistical explorations in a country more ridden by schisms than ever, although the approach to economics is quasi-socialist. It is apparent now that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slogans of maximum-governance-minimum-government and “sabka saath, sabka vikas,” with everyone, development for everyone, are, in practice, little more than Congress-style populism, heavily tinged with religious bias against minorities.

Since the Babri Masjid was torn down in 1992, Uttar Pradesh’s society has been riven with religious tensions and identity politics, which have subsumed all else. This is indeed about the time that the fates of the two states diverged.

Tamil Nadu, which is also a social battleground, but of caste not religion, was not always this far ahead of Uttar Pradesh. In 1994, 45% of Tamilians lived below the poverty line, compared to 48% in Uttar Pradesh. By 2011, that gap of 4 percentage points had widened to 18 percentage points (11% in Tamil Nadu and 29% in Uttar Pradesh).

To be sure, the Ram Temple movement is not the sole determinant of Uttar Pradesh’s fate, but it is likely to be an important factor that is holding it back. To push back the BJP, its rivals focused the political narrative in the state around caste, which for years has determined everything from bureaucratic appointments to road contracts. Tension has eaten away at its vitals, and there is no sign of a let up, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads a divisive battle built around religious identity for the state, which elects more MPs – 80 – than any other.

In Tamil Nadu, the conflict has been between mildly differing political ideologies, which swapped power every few years but kept the administration largely untouched, although political loyalties have for long decided appointments. Tamilian politicians set the benchmarks for Indian populism – free fans, food, houses and laptops – and corruption, but they ensured these sops reached their targets, the poorest castes, who were left with enough surpluses to pull themselves up by the bootstraps over the last 25 years.

As general elections approach, there is some irony in the fact that Tamil Nadu is, for the first time in decades, without a mass leader, leaving the field open for a BJP alliance. The BJP has a solitary parliamentary seat in Tamil Nadu, and it will hope for more to compensate for expected losses in the North. The BJP’s campaign is likely to borrow, in part, from the aggressive Hindus-in-danger campaign it is now rolling out in prosperous Kerala. There will be no mention made of Tamil Nadu’s advances, as attention is focused on corruption, caste and religion. In the heat and dust of electoral battle, it may be hard to discern the Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu models, but Indians owe it to themselves to take a closer look.