Ideals and despair: An afternoon with Akhilesh Yadav

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 28, 2014 07:35 hrs

Matters of statecraft seem very far from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's mind as he sits in his office playing with his mobile phone in near freezing conditions.

It is a hot day and the air conditioner has been cranked up to maximum - the power never fails at Kalidas Marg in Lucknow, Yadav's official residence.

Outside the gates people jostle in the heat, seeking a meeting with him, pleading with and threatening the sweating security personnel.

Inside, everything is tranquil until India's youngest ever chief minister suddenly picks up the phone and tells somebody, "If they're there, send them in."

The 'they' turn out to be his dog, followed by a breathless tubby girl ("Timmy, my daughter," he says, referring to Aditi by her pet name) and Dimple, his wife.

"So, what have you been doing?" Yadav asks his eldest offspring in English. His wife explains the reason for the state of high excitement: "We found a bulbul that had injured its wing. It couldn't fly so we've telephoned the zoo to send a doctor."

Yadav laughingly says that Timmy does this on a regular basis. "Last time, she discovered a cheel (kite) that had got injured. She called the zoo. The doctor must have been busy with other things so he took time coming. She called him again and demanded, 'Are you coming or not?'"

This is 40-year-old Akhilesh Yadav at his most natural and it is impossible not to like him. Later, less than a kilometre away, in Hazratganj's India Coffee House, a journalist shrugs. "It isn't as if I'm looking at somebody who's going to marry my daughter! This is the chief minister of India's largest state. One doesn't have to like him. But one doesn't have to suffer him either. Why can't he just get off his @&$% and get down to some serious work?"

All Yadav wants to be is an indulgent father, a romantic husband and an efficient leader of a backward, feudal state. All he's managed to do is lose the 2014 Lok Sabha elections comprehensively, destroy the goodwill that brought him to power, and so alienate the press that it is just short of spitting at him.

Yadav says the media has turned against him, that's all. In fact, Yadav has so many problems that he's just opted to bury his neck in the sand.

One problem is evident from a phone conversation he has when he is talking to Business Standard. He listens to the voice on the other end briefly and then says affably: "Theek hai, aap kehte hain to unse nahin milenge (Okay, I won't meet him since you say so)."

Then he calls someone else to inform him that the previous caller had asked him not to meet Mr X. A staccato exchange of words that follows makes Yadav change his mind.

The chief minister is going to meet Mr X after all. There are layers of influence in his government, and he is not free to tell anyone to take a hike.

Yadav insists he's still a man of the people who doesn't care what the newspapers say about him. To prove his point, he has a long conversation with a man who works as a cleaner in the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.

On speakerphone, he quizzes the lowly temple functionary about politics, religion and life. "See, my sources of information are people from all walks of life," he says.

Yadav concedes his Samajwadi Party has done badly in the elections. But he retorts, "What about the Congress? We've gone down, but the Congress has disappeared."

He continues, "We have done a lot for the people of the state. Let me give you an example. Uttar Pradesh is a huge state, but it has only two all-weather swimming pools - one in Saifai (hometown of his father and party chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav) and one in Lucknow. The other day a group of students from Noida met me. They want to hold a swimming competition but they have no pool. Why should this be the case?"

Swimming pools? But didn't the state need more things than a swimming pool on a more urgent basis - water, electricity and roads?

"Sure, that's why I am building an eight-lane Agra-Lucknow Expressway that will touch Kannauj and Mainpuri. I read somewhere that if there is no road, there can be no economy - double the speed, triple the size of the economy. You will see the amazing results of this road. And, the state government is building it using its own resources."

Of course, he does not mention that when first publicised, the road project found no bidders, forcing the state government to take over. Government officers are openly sceptical about the possibility of the state raising the resources to build a road that will cost Rs 7,000 crore to complete. The outlay in the 2014-15 budget for the project is Rs 3,200 crore.

Yadav also has big plans for energy. "I want to develop energy out of refuse," he says. But in Noida, all rubbish dumps are being demolished, supposedly to make way for new modern structures that would do precisely what he has promised - except that pigs and cattle continue to feed at the dumps. All that's been done is retiling of the dump surfaces. "Yes, well, there was a problem with that," Yadav says evasively and calls up the chief executive of Noida to ask about the bio-gas proposal.

The young man who studied environmental engineering before joining politics is candid about his frustrations. "How many roads are enough roads? Look at Lucknow, look at Noida. There cannot be two more urban settlements. But they still have a look of a village about them. There are traffic jams even on highways and flyovers. Certainly, rivers have to be cleaned. But how can you have clean rivers when the thinking is that rivers are where you dump waste?"

He calls for the day's newspaper. It has a picture of a woman drinking water from the Ganga - with a dog lapping the water adjacent to her. "Can anything ever change in our country?" he despairs.

One of his officers says it can't - not until the chief minister shows more political will. "But he is not a free man," another officer contends, citing the recent case of the state home secretary being appointed and then replaced by another within 15 days as a case in point.

It was done, he feels, due to external influences in the shape of PWD Minister Shivpal Yadav, the uncle who used to take Yadav to school every day as a child. "How can the CM refuse him?" asks an officer. "He is idealistic and sincere, but even he knows when it is better to just be a doormat."

The constraints under which Yadav functions have infuriated industry in the state. "I went all over the state saying what a good chap he is when he was first elected," says Pradeep Agarwal, owner of Ventura Airconnect, an inter-state airline. "But he is not his own man. He can't crack the whip."

Back at the house Timmy is throwing a tantrum. She doesn't want to go for her ballet class. Her mother sighs. "There are two British girls there and they have tutus. I want Timmy to learn ballet. But these children…"

Yadav has to leave. He has to meet the great unwashed waiting for him. The dog is tied up. Timmy and her mother begin negotiations.

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