A top Samajwadi Party leader confided in a bureaucrat last month that in hamari sarkar everything was going horribly wrong. Mayawati, the former chief minister, acted with great speed. “This government, on the other hand…” he shook his head. He was one of the many who expected Uttar Pradesh to blaze a new trail under Akhilesh Yadav, the new chief minister. Now, he is doubtful. This lack of speed was lambasted by none other than party chieftain Mulayam Singh Yadav on August 1. “On the day we formed the government, I had asked you to make sure we deliver what we have promised. I had even assured you that those who took the initiative would get support from government. But I don’t see any particular change,” he told a meeting of party legislators and ministers. At that moment, the lights went out — a precursor of the grid collapse that followed — and the meeting had to be adjourned for 15 minutes.
Power failed because the government had less of it at its disposal. Uttar Pradesh didn’t add a single megawatt to its power-generating capabilities between the 1980s and 2009. Between 2009 and 2012, when Mayawati was voted out, it had doubled its capacity. And the state was also drawing power from private producers (largely sugar mills). When Samajwadi Party came to power, it annulled those agreements. This caused the power deficit to widen sharply. (Grappling with the problem, the state government in June ordered all shops and malls to shut at 7 pm sharp, which would “benefit farmers and people”. Such was the furore that the government had to hastily withdraw the diktat.) Few know this was the reason behind the double grid collapse this month — Uttar Pradesh began to draw more than its share to bridge the gap. Now, quietly, the government has reinstated the agreements with the private power producers.
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Akhilesh’s five months as chief minister have been a queer mix of populism and pragmatism. Chief ministers in the country spend no time to undo the works of their predecessors. Thus, Akhilesh has restored the names of the districts renamed by Mayawati, tweaked some projects, changed the trousers worn by traffic policemen from blue (decreed by Mayawati in April 2008) to khaki, scrapped the 27 per cent reservation for schedule caste and 2 per cent for schedule tribes in all government contracts of less than Rs 25 lakh, and renamed a rural development scheme from Ambdekar Gram Sabha Vikas Yojana to Ram Manohar Lohia Gram Vikas Yojana.
On the other hand, he has not mothballed Mayawati’s showcase project, the Delhi-Agra expressway, which opened a few days ago. The earlier Samajwadi Party government (2002 to 2007) had held up the construction of all flyovers commissioned by Mayawati on the charge that her government had allowed contractors to over-bid. Akhilesh has so far desisted from such wanton disruption. In June, he gave a fresh lease of life to nine power projects (of 10,500 megawatts, with an investment of Rs 50,000 crore) announced by Mayawati when he extended their deadline to secure coal linkages from the Centre by 18 months. Also, when four youths of the Uttar Pradesh Navnirman Sena recently vandalised a statue of Mayawati in Lucknow, Akhilesh located another statue to replace the defaced one within hours. The young men who may have been put up to the job (this is yet to be fully investigated) were arrested. What could have snowballed into a serious law and order problem in the streets was averted. Mayawati, realising in enlightened self-interest that the time is not yet ripe for a street fight, played down the incident.
Vengeful he may not be, but Akhilesh has shown traits of populism. In July, he had announced that all MLAs will be allowed to use Rs 20 lakh out of their local-area development funds (raised from Rs 1.25 crore per annum to Rs 1.5 crore) to buy cars. After five years, the legislators can pay the depreciated value of the car and keep it. The idea, Akhilesh said, was to help MLAs travel to remote corners of their constituencies; but there was such uproar that he had to scrap the scheme in one day!
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Uttar Pradesh, under Mayawati, was financially well managed. The state had a revenue surplus (one of the few states in the country to be in the positive), and the fiscal deficit was under control (below 3 per cent). But all that, experts have warned, could be undone by the long list of freebies Akhilesh announced in the run up to the state elections: free tablets for all students who pass the 10th standard and free laptops for those who clear the 12th standard, free education for girls up to graduation, waiver of farm loans, pension for farmers, free water for irrigation, subsidised credit, free power to small farmers and weavers, and unemployment allowance of Rs 1,200 per month. The Giri Institute for Development Studies, based in Lucknow, has calculated that the loan waiver will cost Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore. But it will be a one-time outgo. The other expenses are recurring in nature. The institute reckons that the tablets and laptops, free power, free water for irrigation and unemployment allowance will cost the state government Rs 5,100 crore per annum — just Rs 500 crore short of the budget surplus for 2011-12.
Akhilesh has appointed a consultant for the free tablets and laptops and made a provision of Rs 2,800 crore for it. He has also kept aside Rs 1,100 crore for the unemployment allowance. That’s serious money. Of course, Akhilesh has been helped by the friendly Congress-led government at the Centre. Short of allies, it is ready to forget that Akhilesh worsted Rahul Gandhi in the Uttar Pradesh elections. Thus, Uttar Pradesh’s annual plan allocation has shot up from Rs 47,000 crore in 2011-12 to Rs 77,800 crore this year. Strange as it may sound, Akhilesh is also being helped by Mayawati’s refusal to join issues with him. She has so far kept her supporters on a tight leash. Maybe she is keeping her powder dry for the 2014 general elections. Those who could harm his prospects are his uncles and cousins. Shivpal Yadav, an uncle, on Friday caused national outrage when he told state officials in Etah that they could “steal a little” so long as they worked hard for the people. He subsequently said that his comments were twisted out of context and what he had said was that the earlier government (of Mayawati) “had indulged in large-scale corruption… which should be stopped 100 per cent.” Incidents like this have been chipping away Akhilesh’s halo.
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With this political tightrope to walk, has Akhilesh had the time to develop an economic agenda? For one, he is moving fast on roads. His signal project is going to be the access-controlled 350-km Agra-Lucknow Expressway. Within weeks of taking over, his government commissioned and obtained the first draft of a feasibility study which foresees the project up and running by 2016 at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore to Rs 30,000 crore. “The chief minister is fond of saying: ‘Double the roads, triple the economy’. We have already got expressions of interest. The project will have a big impact on several underdeveloped areas,” Uttar Pradesh State Highways Authority and Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority CEO Mukul Singhal says. Akhilesh has also laid the foundation stones for four state highways for which developers have been selected and concession agreements signed. An airport is coming up at Kushinagar for which bids have been invited. A new airport at Agra is being aggressively promoted, although environmental clearance is still a problem.
Akhilesh’s swearing-in was attended by top businessmen like Anil Ambani, Sanjay Dalmia and Subrata Roy. But what'll he do for business? The acid test will come soon when it is time for Uttar Pradesh to announce the price at which sugar mills must procure sugarcane from farmers for the next production season that begins in October. On account of the high prices announced by Mayawati last year, mills have run up arrears of Rs 1,500 crore in payments to farmers. So, will Akhilesh go for pragmatism and help the sugar mills, or will he settle for populism and announce a high price to keep the farmers happy?
It will be clear in a matter of weeks.