In the rider's seat
The young CM may have got a earful from his father recently, but he insists he takes his own decisions when it comes to charting UP's development agenda
The official residence of the new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav (39), where I am invited to lunch, smells overwhelmingly of fresh paint. Although Yadav has been chief minister for four months now, the Kalidas Marg mansion in Lucknow is being renovated because “we don’t think it is appropriate for the chief minister of India’s largest state to receive visitors in a room with pink bathroom tiles on the walls,” one of his aides says disdainfully. Some rooms are ready but you can hear the drills going and the slap-slap of wet paint, writes Aditi Phadnis.
I am ushered into a room that screams “Uttar Pradesh” (UP) and “Samajwadi Party” (SP). The walls are blazing white, dark stone on the floor and a little alcove with a glass-topped table that has shiny, new bicycle wheels for legs. The bicycle is the election symbol of the SP. Sheer white chikan work drapes, a modern chandelier made from Firozabad glass, and sophisticated white marble inlay work inspired by the Taj is ubiquitous. Nothing is blingy, everything is tasteful and new — one set of lights has been mounted on the ceiling but is still wrapped in newspaper.
Yadav looks cheerful, without a trace of the hangdog look he should have worn after the earful he’d got from dad. Netaji, as Mulayam Singh Yadav is known, had just 24 hours before, collected members of the Legislative Assembly and ministers and shouted at them for not working hard enough to communicate to the people the changes brought about by the new government. Get a move on, he’d told them.
It couldn’t have been easy to introduce new ideas and junk the old ones when your chachas and taus were standing around and glaring at you balefully as you told them they were behind the times: so, was he his own man, or a captive of people who lost no opportunity to tell him he knew nothing?
Yadav smiles: “They’ve been saying this for years. They said this when we ran the SP campaign for the Assembly elections. Mayawatiji is known as a strong chief minister; the Congress is a big party — but our result speaks for itself.”
He is talking about the 224 seats the SP got out of 403 in the Assembly elections in March 2012; SP ran the campaign according to a plan made by Yadav, so he’s subtly saying he’s not as innocent as he looks.
“And in any case,” he continues, “why shouldn’t our elders correct us if they think we’re going wrong? After all, wisdom is no single person’s monopoly. The Centre relies on Groups of Ministers to take crucial decisions. We are a democratic party, our government does things by consensus…”
Yadav is now on a roll, previous diffidence forgotten. He talks with pride about the first Budget he has presented as chief minister that translates the SP manifesto as government policy. The outlays are largest for schemes relating to the education for Muslim girls, provisions for an unemployment dole and several big infrastructure projects. Every district is to have four-laned highways, mandis are to be modernised and 26 services offered by the government have already been computerised. “Yes, it takes time for me to understand the complexities of administration. I do have to ask officers for the practicality of some ideas. But these are all my decisions,” he says.
I ask him what magic he worked on Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia: UP got a 20 per cent increase in Plan outlay last month. “I had an interesting meeting with him. Our target for state GDP growth over the next five years is 10 per cent. I am determined to achieve this. He asked me: ‘How do you expect to reach a growth target higher than that of the government of India.’ I told him: ‘In the darkest days of UP, its rate of growth was still 6.2 per cent. It can be done.’”
Our lunch arrives and it is frugal: a bowl of sweet corn soup — not the usual thick gloopy mess but a clear corn soup, followed by potato tikkis served with a chutney that I can eat but that Yadav finds hot. The tikkis are fried in minimal oil. I ask him what he usually did for lunch: “This,” he says waving his hand over the spread. “I eat to live,” he says grinning. There is fresh papaya for afters, which I pass.
Yadav faced his first political crisis recently: a band of youth – not from SP, partymen claim – tried to behead some of the statues of Mayawati that are dotted all over the countryside in UP, claiming she embodied corruption and that they wanted to remove all vestiges of the symbols of corruption. Yadav took the young men in custody and quickly replaced the damaged statues with new ones. He also transferred police officials. “The action was not by cadres. Not all police officials know their job. We have suspended 13 and more heads will roll,” he says. The quick thinking – replacing the statues – prevented wounds from festering that could have escalated into a law and order problem because edgy cadres of the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party would have clashed in villages, without any doubt.
Yadav is not in the least bit defensive about criticism of UP for drawing more than its share of power that led to the collapse of the entire Northern grid recently. “I am concentrating on stabilising the power situation in the state now,” he says. “The equipment our power stations use is old, plant load factor [PLF] is low, transmission losses are high and the state is deficit in power,” he says. “I have decided to raise power tariffs and new tariffs will soon be announced,” he says. He says the previous government had signed memoranda of understanding with private sector power producers that will be revived. “But the per unit cost…” I say. He’s anticipated the question and has the answer. “People from Noida, for instance, come and tell me: we’re ready to pay higher prices for quality power. So why not buy power privately and give it to them and cross-subsidise poorer domestic and farm consumers?” he says.
I hold my peace. There are obvious problems with this differential pricing proposition, but he’s thinking about it and will discover them himself, I think to myself. The state government, he says, is even considering buying imported coal because whining about inequities in coal linkages is all very well, but the state doesn’t have the time to keep complaining…
Unlike Bihar, UP has a good network of roads. A new public-private partnership project for a road between Agra and Lucknow is on the anvil and is already attracting expressions of interest. This will be UP’s most ambitious road project. The Yamuna Expressway is going to be inaugurated by “Ramgopal chacha”.
“What I’ve discovered is: transfers and postings take up the biggest chunk of the administration’s time. So, I’ve drawn a red line. After August 31, there will be no transfers and postings. So, whatever has to be done has to be done now. The Budget has been passed so the money will start coming into departments now,” he says.
He is most enthusiastic about education — facilitating Muslim girls’ education, setting up new medical colleges and reviving existing ones. “Medical colleges in Maharashtra and Karnataka are full of boys and girls from UP. Why send them away? We can create training and education opportunities in the state itself. UP is such a big state but for cancer treatment people have to go to Delhi and Mumbai. I am going to create a cancer research institute here.”
We turn to personal stuff. I mention the Kannauj election that his wife Dimple fought and won, after losing a Lok Sabha election earlier. “That was necessary,” he answers elliptically. “One victory was necessary. I leave it to her. If she wants to join politics, it is up to her.”
I ask him the last question that to me represents the difference between a sensitive human being and a hardened politician. “Have you met Rahul Gandhi?”
He looks away and shakes his head once: “It would not be appropriate for me to call on him. He has to invite me and I will go immediately.”
I can feel the daggers waiting bureaucrats are sending at me through the door. Yadav escorts me to the door. I normally give thanks at least once a day because I’m not young any more (people are so incredibly solicitous to dumpy grey-haired ladies). But for just one fleeting moment that afternoon, I couldn’t stop myself from wishing I could be young, idealistic and energetic again.
He may be a maharaja but he is the most courteous, polite and soft-spoken minister in the Indian cabinet. He has been a Member of Parliament, or MP, ...