Great expectations often lead to bitter disappointments. Contemporary political history in India is littered with examples. Back in 1977, when the badly underestimated and maligned Indian voter threw out Indira Gandhi in the aftermath of the Emergency, the new Janata Party government was expected to transform Indian politics, governance and India. Nothing of the sort happened. In 1985, a battered and bruised India looked up at Rajiv Gandhi as the new hope. Bofors killed those hopes and dreams. Then came the messiah V.P. Singh who was expected to clean up the Augean stables and banish corruption. He turned out to be a false prophet.
Is something similar happening with Akhilesh Yadav? For most of 2011, when the mainstream media in Delhi was obsessed with Rahul Gandhi and his plans to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, the 39-year-old Akhilesh Yadav was touring the state on a bicycle and connecting with both party workers and voters at the grassroots level. His low profile and unsung travels were similar to what the late Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy did in Andhra Pradesh when the mainstream media was obsessed with Chandrababu Naidu and his computer gimmicks. When results of the assembly elections were announced in March 2012, both the mainstream media and Rahul Gandhi were stunned. Suddenly, hacks in Delhi “discovered” how Akhilesh Yadav promises to transform the rotten state of affairs in UP. He became Shiela Dixit, Narendra Modi, Shivraj Chauhan, Raman Singh and Naveen Patnaik rolled into one.
And now, the same set of Delhi hacks seem to have written off the man. His first year as CM has been projected as a year of communal malice, of the return of the goons, of lawlessness and of the worst kind of corruption and governance. Many think Akhilesh Yadav has missed his date with history; his ambitions and plans gobbled and crippled by contemporaries of his father Mulayam Singh Yadav who just won’t allow him to deliver good governance. But hold on, has he been a failure all the way? Is he reaping the curse of great expectations? And is he a victim of the Delhi media that applies different yardsticks to judge the Congress and other governments? As it happens, there is an element of truth in all three presumptions. How much importance you give to each presumption depends on your ideological prejudices.
In a gleaming white kurta and pyjama and his trademark black jacket and sneakers, Akhilesh Yadav greets us effusively at his home on March 15, at 10.30 AM. The walls are adorned with paintings of Lucknow chikan work and the room is very simple looking without any gaudy displays of power and wealth. That typically impish and charming smile is intact, though the eyes clearly reflect shadows of the weight of power. But even cynical journalists can see that his earnest manner and his passion for the state is not a made for camera cameo. This man is real. He means what he says.
Akhilesh is no doubt perturbed by the manner in which the media in Delhi has slammed his performance as CM. He feels that even one law and order situation or event makes the media completely forget the intentions and achievements of his government. But in his quietly confident manner, the young leader says that the policies and steps he has initiated will have a transformative impact on the State in the long term.
Just a few days before Akhilesh met us for this story, he had unveiled one such transformative step. At a huge public function attended by thousands, he had distributed the first set of laptops to students who had finished their plus-two studies. About 10,000 laptops were distributed. Akhilesh gets emotional when he describes to us how girls wept with joy after getting their laptops. He is hurt by media reports that highlight only things like his image on the screen savers and how some students are selling their laptops. He says, “I am convinced this step and the one to provide all class ten pass students with tablets, will bring about a massive change. But that change will not happen overnight. It will be few years before the impact can be seen. Just imagine how the education and careers of an entire generation will be positively impacted. Not just that. The tablets and laptops will benefit entire families including poor farmers with weather forecasts.” The Akhilesh government is committed to providing free tablets to all students clearing the 10th grade and free laptops to all students clearing the 12th. This year alone, his government will distribute 2.6 million tablets and 1.5 million laptops. And this will happen year after year. One such beneficiary is Rambha Gupta, an 18-year-old physically challenged girl from Gorakhpur whose father Devi Prasad is a poor farmer. “I had never dreamt of ever owning a laptop,” says Rambha who still cannot believe her luck. Akhilesh has a committed voter in Rambha who gushes about how the CM walked up to her and personally handed over the laptop. You can do your electoral math and figure out how educated and laptop cum Blackberry lugging aides of Akhilesh describe this as a game changer. More than 4 million beneficiaries a year becomes tens of millions of voters if family members are added. Seeing the passion and conviction with which Akhilesh talks about this scheme, we have to grudgingly agree that the media in Delhi has only trivialised this policy. Another game changer is something that Akhilesh seems to have borrowed from Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh and Nitish Kumar of Bihar. And that is provision of cash incentives to girls for higher studies. One scheme is called Kanya Vidyadhan Yojana under which all girls from economically backward families will get a sum of Rs.30,000 on clearing plus-two. This is indeed a huge incentive. In the long run, tens of millions of young girls and their families will benefit from his scheme. According to aides of Akhilesh, Rs.30,000 may seem a small sum to the Delhi media, but has the potential to transform lives in rural UP. Another scheme for the girl student called ‘Padhen bitiya, badhein bitiya’ will have an even bigger impact. All girls from poor families will get a cash scholarship of Rs.30,000 on making it to class 11. These two moves will have a tremendous impact on human development indicators in the long run.
Says Abhishek Mishra, former professor of IIM Ahmedabad and a Cambridge University alumni who is now a minister in the Akhilesh government, “Parents used to traditionally stop the education of their daughters after class 7 or 8. This one scheme will transform an entire generation.” According to Mishra, all poor girls getting admitted in engineering and medical colleges in UP will be exempt from fees, apart from getting cash scholarships. Quite clearly, this is a win-win situation for everyone and will definitely change the social structure of the State in about a decade. And of course, Akhilesh and his team are banking on the fact that like laptops and tablets, cash scholarships for girl students will create a constituency of committed voters.
Yet another potential game changer is the unemployment allowance that is being provided to the youth of the State. According to this scheme, all educated and unemployed youngsters are entitled to a Rs.900 per month allowance till they get a job. This will be applicable to all those who have registered themselves as unemployed with the State. There is little doubt that this is a populist move aimed at creating new vote banks for the Samajwadi Party. Says Professor A. P. Tiwari, Dean – Academics, Dr. Shakuntala Mishra Bishwavidyalaya, “The dole is a good idea. But in the long term, what will really matter is the creation of employment opportunities that can come manly in the farm sector.” Many think that this dole will reduce frustration and crime, and create a positive scenario for volatile youngsters.
Akhilesh, who is himself a computer and Internet buff who likes emails and working on his Blackberry, seems to have learnt some lessons from the experience of former Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu whose political career seems to be in the doldrums. While emphasising the importance of computers and e-governance and e-initiatives, Akhilesh seems to be betting on agriculture and the farm sector to boost the economy of the State. Says Akhilesh, “In our budget, we have allocated 74% of funds for poor farmers and villages.” With this move, he seems to be taking a leaf out of the book of Chhattisgarh CM Dr. Raman Singh who has invested heavily in agriculture and reaped handsome electoral dividends. Also taking a leaf out of the UPA regime, the Akhilesh government has waived off farm loans worth about Rs.10 billion.
There seems to be some innovative thinking going on here. In a unique scheme, the government has promised two free sarees to all women above 18 years of age who belong to BPL families. There is a twist in this tale. All the sarees will be procured from traditional weavers who have been battered into economic ruin in UP over the decades. Not only will this help poor women from all communities, it will also provide a livelihood to thousands of weaver families. Clearly, another policy that attempts to marry social welfare with economic and electoral success. Says Dr. Suvro Kamal Dutta, a well known economist and analyst, “There is little doubt that the policies being adopted by the government have a clear long term vision. Not surprisingly, it will take a decade for the impact of these policies to be visible in the State.” And despite an avalanche of adverse media reports – the latest being the controversy surrounding Raja Bhaiyya, aides of Akhilesh claim that his government is systematically delivering on all electoral promises. Says Sanjay Lathar, a youth leader who is trying to energise the Samajwadi Party in Western UP, “Ours is the only government in recent times that has delivered more than 80% of its electoral promises in less than a year.”
But there is a crucial point here: and it is the perceived weakness of the Akhilesh regime when it comes to law and order. Ever since this young scion who artfully humiliated the crown prince Rahul Gandhi in the 2012 assembly elections, there have been persistent reports about lawlessness in the State. There have been numerous communal riots and incidents in UP in 2012 alone. And there is a growing perception that goons of Samajwadi Party are making merry after the historic mandate given to Akhilesh. Many say that the young CM has been unable to tame his father’s contemporaries who still indulge in the old world politics of vote banks and muscle power. In fact, Akhilesh doesn’t even stay in the official residence of the CM in Lucknow. He stays in his father Mulayam Singh Yadav’s house. The CM is aware of this and knows that his policies will not convince voters of his right intentions and passion for the State if the law and order situation doesn’t improve or is perceived to improve. “We are worried about the law & order situation. But can say with confidence that we are taking concrete steps on that front,” says he.
As we started to leave his room, Akhilesh winked at us and asked: “Where did you get down from the car this time?” “Right at the doorstep of your residence…” was our reply, following which Akhilesh smiled and said that he is trying to change a system where in the past, people – including journalists like us – were stopped about a kilometer away from the CM’s residence.
As we got drove away, we realised two things. First, the media in Delhi seems to be ignoring the good that Akhilesh is trying and doing. Second, law and order has to be his priority in the coming months.