Akhilesh Yadav: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

The rancour within the Samajwadi Party today is in sharp contrast to the bonhomie when the young Akhilesh Yadav became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh

GN Bureau | October 27, 2016

#Assembly Polls   #Mulayam Singh Yadav   #Uttar Pradesh   #SP   #Akhilesh Yadav   #Samajwadi Party   #Samajwadi Smartphones  

Akhilesh Yadav may never have visualized that things will come to such a pass. He is today pitted against his father Mulayam Singh Yadav who had built the Samajwadi Party and the virtual split in the party does not augur well ahead of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

The SP came to power in 2012 with 224 MLAs and Akhilesh has the necessary numbers in the 403 member assembly. But, the bitter battle with his uncle Shivpal Yadav has left the party scarred.

Akhilesh Yadav hopes to come back to power on the strength of the development that he has carried out. For now, he continues to be the chief minister with Mulayam Singh Yadav making it clear that he will not take over.

The large-scale sackings have dented the image of the party and the road ahead looks quite uncertain. This was not so when Akhilesh Yadav had just taken over.

We are again running our 2012 cover story on Akhilesh Yadav.

His time is now

This other scion of politics is the cynosure. The way he led his party to a landslide victory in UP silenced some and worried some more. Despite being in the shadow of many, this new man of old politics in the state knows he and only he would be the master of his fate — for better or worse. The buck stops with him

By Ajay Singh and BV Rao

Kalidas marg, Uttar Pradesh’s veritable power avenue, is quite anachronistically named after the great Sanskrit poet of the 4th century. It lines up sprawling bungalows of the state’s power people – ministers, legislators and dyed-in-wool politicians. Beyond this symbolism of his name, there is no evidence that Kalidas is particularly relevant either to the place or the times.

But, for the latest incumbent of Bungalow No. 5, Kalidas is not completely irrelevant. At 39, Akhilesh Yadav is Uttar Pradesh’s newest and youngest ever chief minister. That is quite an achievement in itself but it will mean nothing if he does not magically transform from a political greenhorn into a wily leader and master administrator. Just like Kalidas transformed from an unlettered village bumpkin into a literary genius in just one moment of divine indulgence. 

Akhilesh has to cover the million miles between what he is and what he needs to be in double quick time. His time started four months ago (March 16) and the country, thirsting for the emergence of fresh new leaders, is itching to jump to judgement on its latest hope, with or without much evidence.

On July 4 we arrived at 5, Kalidas marg, to look for some signals, if not evidence, that Akhilesh is on course. Instead of a regular question-answer interview, we were offered an interaction and we grabbed it. We could talk to the chief minister, watch him work and interact with officials, legislators, party workers and visitors over a three-hour period. It would give us a glimpse, albeit a fleeting one, into the mind, manner and matter of UP’s man of the moment.

At 39, even though he worked tirelessly and contributed in no small measure to the Samajwadi Party’s thumping victory in the election, Akhilesh is considered a novice given the lack of administrative experience. That he has been directly catapulted into the chief ministership of the country’s most populous state (sixth biggest in the world if UP were a nation) is attributed to political inheritance from father Mulayam Singh.

Hence, Akhilesh’s grasp of the fossilised structures of governance, his grip on the hard-boiled bureaucracy and the dynamics with his council of ministers – packed as it is with senior leaders of the vintage of his father’s generation – are being critically examined to assess his efficacy as a future leader. And they also provide the grist for all political discussion and gossip in Lucknow and elsewhere.

The first sight we see as we arrive outside his official residence is rather unusual. Loads of aspiring leaders in imposing SUVs are driving up and down the road with stickers of Mulayam and Akhilesh proclaiming “Lakshya 2014”, signifying the surge of ambition within the party, leader and cadre alike. A huge crowd of party workers and hoi-polloi is waiting for an audience with the CM and cars of ministers, legislators and bureaucrats are driving in at steady intervals. This is a complete change from the last ten years when Mayawati would not allow as much as a casual peek into her fortress and Akhilesh’s own father surrounded himself with the Amar Singh coterie and cut off public access to the chief minister’s office-residence.

Double the speed, triple the economy

On dot at 10 am, when Akhilesh’s carcade reaches the bungalow (he lives nearby on Vikramaditya marg and works from Kalidas marg), we are ushered into a waiting room where some bureaucrats and political activists are seated. “The chief minister will see you in a few minutes,” says one of his senior staffers.

The waiting room is tastefully done up with pink tiles and neatly arranged wooden furniture – a rather pleasant legacy of the Mayawati regime which Akhilesh has chosen not to disturb. This is our first formal meeting with Akhilesh so we are playing our introductory lines in our minds are we are led into his chambers. But it is unnecessary. “I told you,” he says as he receives us warmly, “that we would win hands down but you were sceptical.” He is addressing Ajay Singh and recalling not only a chance first meeting with him at the Shibli academy in
Azamgarh six months ago in the midst of intense campaigning but also the details of the brief conversation. 

“Journalists are trained sceptics,” we say trying to explain it away and pick up the conversation thread. “There is an impression that you are too young to shoulder this responsibility. How do you propose to carry this burden?”

“Look Uttar Pradesh is in a bad state. There is no doubt that the legacy bequeathed to me was quite perverse. But I cannot be pointing fingers at what the previous regime did not do, because that is precisely the reason why I am here today. So, instead of finding faults, I have decided to focus on rebuilding the state. For instance we are focusing a lot on infrastructure. Recently we cleared 21 highways under what is commonly known as public-private partnership (PPP) model. There are certain other models under the VGF (viability gap funding) which we are adapting to hasten road construction. Our highways will be comparable to national highways and speed up movement. I believe in the maxim: double the speed, triple the economy.”

By now an elderly socialist leader of the party, probably a colleague of his father, joins us and is watching Akhilesh silently as he moves on to the next big-ticket item on his growth agenda: agriculture. “The pre-requisite of developing UP is the growth of agriculture. We are committed to investing heavily in this sector. For instance, we are going to set up 26 new sugar mills and will expedite the payment of dues to farmers. The sugar industry got a major boost during Netaji’s (father Mulayam) tenure and now contributes about 900 MW power to the grid. The new mills will add another 1,000 MW of power generation in the state. It will be a big boost to the agriculture sector.”

Unlike father Mulayam Singh who is known as “dharti putra” (son of the soil), Akhilesh has consciously cultivated an image of a new-age politician; suave, computer-savvy and urbane. But while this image might serve his future well by appealing to the burgeoning middle class, he is aware that his power base derives from kinship, caste and conventional politics (see box). Thus this tirade against the centre: “If the agriculture sector is to be improved, we need the centre’s help which is not forthcoming. You see, the FCI (food corporation of India) has been dumping wheat from Punjab in UP’s godowns. As a result, our own wheat is lying in open in this season, causing severe hardship to farmers. We are planning a huge expansion in storage capacity and to augment mandis (rural markets) to facilitate preservation and marketing of agriculture produce.”

But isn’t investment in agriculture declining?

“Yes, but we are trying to augment it by creating silos in villages to improve storage of food grain. Silos are not good for storage of certain grains like rice, but we will work out something,” he says acknowledging that spurring agricultural growth is not going to be easy. “We are keen to develop separate power feeder lines for domestic, industrial and agriculture use so as to be able to ensure power supply to rural areas.”

That brings him back to what was not done or how badly it was done during the Mayawati regime. “Corruption in power reforms and power equipment purchase in the previous regime has virtually subverted the energy sector,” he says reeling off statistics about production, productivity, demand and shortfall with ease.

“Look, UP being plain land, it cannot produce hydel power. Solar power is still the costliest, so we can go only so far with it. Wind energy is ruled out. That leaves us with only one option, thermal power. So, we are trying to fix the problems by getting some projects quickly off the ground. We have decided to import coal as the centre is not giving coal linkages. The cost of generation will go up but we will at least have power. Of course, as I said earlier, we are relying heavily on co-generation from sugar mills which is green energy,” says the environmental engineer.

As the chief minister is talking earnestly, the group of party activists waiting for his audience is getting restless. “How has it been so far,” we ask him quite aware of the controversy he has just landed himself in. The previous day, he had announced in the state assembly that all MLAs would be allowed to dip into their local area development (LAD) fund to buy a car worth '20 lakh. It was severely criticised in the media. All opposition parties pounced on it and announced that their MLAs would reject the offer.

“Often I face criticism and I learn from it. For instance, I am going to withdraw the decision to give cars to MLAs. Legislators are on call 24x7 and 365 days of the year. I know many MLAs who have really rickety cars. This scheme was going to be optional. We wanted to give something to the MLAs. But if they don’t want it, ok, let them not have it. I have called a press conference at noon to announce the withdrawal of the scheme.”

This is the second time he has had to withdraw a decision within 24 hours. Just a week ago he was forced to roll back a decision to cut off power supply to malls and shopping complexes at night. Obviously, media criticism matters to Akhilesh, a personality attribute in sharp contrast to his father’s legendary obstinacy.

It is now time for Akhilesh to go out and meet his party people. He knows most of them by name, matching his father’s phenomenal capacity to strike a rapport with his loyalists. He seemed quite at ease with them, at times summoning officials to give specific instructions and at others, quickly fobbing them off with assurances.

His next scheduled meeting is with a group of international students in Lucknow to attend a camp organised by Jagdish Gandhi, a noted educationist and head of the City Montessori School (CMS). This is another departure from the past when the CM’s office was completely inaccessible and has been choreographed to project the young chief minister as amiable. Akhilesh’s two daughters and son also join the group in a dance routine. Akhilesh politely declines Gandhi’s repeated invitations to join the jig. “This is not our culture,” he says from the safety of his corner chair.

It’s a good setting to bring up the question of the urban-rural divide. “How do you feel when you see well-groomed children in the city and pitiable conditions of students in rural areas of the state?”

“It troubles me no end when I see that even basic infrastructure for education is lacking in rural areas. We talk of giving laptops and tablets but there are no school buildings there in the first place,” he says and narrates a small story of his brush with the realities of rules. “On a recent tour, I was struck by the haphazard construction of classrooms in primary schools. Each classroom would stand alone, separated from every other classroom. I asked the officials accompanying me why we couldn’t get them all into one building with many rooms rather than have multiple buildings with one room each. It was then that I was told that the central government releases money for constructing classrooms and that a classroom is defined as having four walls and a roof. So they can’t share a common wall!”

At this stage, Akhilesh is joined by Abhishek Mishra, an IIM graduate-turned-politician and legislator. The conversation goes back to the '20 lakh car scheme. “I’ve decided to withdraw the scheme,” he informs Mishra. “But why,” Mishra asks, “every police inspector in Lucknow gets a jeep, why not MLAs?” Akhilesh nods but insists, “Yes, they don’t want it, so I’m taking it back.” Mishra realises the decision is made and doesn’t push the envelope, but Akhilesh soothes the nerves: “We can always devise other ways of doing it.”

On way out of the hall to the jostling media contingent waiting outside under the mid-day sun, Akhilesh is introspecting. “I made a mistake. I should have consulted other political parties before unilaterally announcing the decision. I wouldn’t have got such bad press then.”

The humility to admit to mistakes is commendable in a chief minister but with two mistakes and two public confessions in a week he could be close to expending his quota. It does seem so, too, from the hard grilling by the media which wants to know what changed his mind in 24 hours. “See what you have done to me in the papers,” he says only half in jest, “in a democracy there’s nothing wrong in rolling back a decision which is unpopular.”

The media didn’t get much else from Akhilesh, but the fact that they got so far into the CM’s office and thrust their mikes and cameras in his face is in itself quite a drastic departure from the recent past. Mayawati and Mulayam hardly allowed the media in their regal presence.
Back in his chamber, we settle down for a final chat. “You are young and there is expectation that you will take UP beyond the Mandal-Madir politics. Do you think caste politics will ever outlive its utility?”

“There are certain issues which are reflective of social realities and will always remain relevant. Yet, development is the new aspiration of the people cutting across caste and communal lines. You just saw at the press conference, all the questions were about power. Actually, there is no shortage of power in Lucknow, but the previous regime bought so many substandard transformers that we cannot distribute the power we have. Still, we are so committed to development that we are fast-tracking some of the good projects of that regime such as the early opening of the Yamuna expressway.”

The answer to the final question reveals that Akhilesh knows that this is his moment. “A young country is looking for young leaders. There have already been some false starts by some young leaders. How will you get past the ‘system’ to deliver?”

“I know I have no option but to succeed. This is an opportunity I cannot squander. If I fail to fulfil the hopes of the people, it won’t just be the end of the road for people who put their trust in me but my future is over. I also know I cannot get away by blaming my predecessor forever. Whatever goes wrong, the buck stops with me. I have to work with everybody. I have to deal with the system as it is. You cannot change everything overnight. There are seniors in my cabinet with political and administrative experience that equals my age. I will benefit from their experience. They have worked with my father for decades and they are valuable,” he says, without directly referring to the insinuation that he is refusing to step out of the shadows of the old guard.

“I know I have to deliver. And all the leaders and party workers also know that. You see, this question came up earlier also when I became the president of the Samajwadi Party. It was generally thought that I had got it before my time. I was also unsure of how I would fare. At that time a respected leader of our party told me, ‘Akhilesh, don’t worry if people do not see you as a leader today, because you are tomorrow’s leader’.”

We did not see Akhilesh attend to much administrative work. Though he is tentative about rocking the boat too hard too early, he is taking some welcome steps to bring institutions of governance back to life such as convening the state planning commission meeting after 21 long years and ensuring that the state assembly met for 24 days in its first sitting (as against the annual average of 64 days in previous years).

It all boils down to one truth: Akhilesh has to rise over his kinship to be king. And he has to do that fast and he has to do it himself. Unlike in the case of Kalidas, he will get no divine assistance.


(The story appeared in the July 16-31, 2012 issue)



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