The heartland of India awakes

Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is a man on a mission for his people, his state, and for his nation. It’s little wonder that he is deemed a visionary, who is determined, motivated and connected to the grassroots. Paul McNamara finds out his real agenda

The challenges facing Uttar Pradesh (UP) are both exciting and daunting. Trying to bring the state into the modern world with all the myriad of opportunities that it presents is a massive undertaking indeed. It would be easy to overlook how difficult a task it must be to become the modern face of politics in a nation as steeped in tradition as India. But it is a challenge that Yadav has taken on with boundless enthusiasm and energy and a skin that is far thicker than his tender years would suggest it should be.

The keen cyclist, cricketer and football enthusiast is used to obstacles and since being in politics used to criticism. It is the Indian way: stoicism in the face of carping naysayers. When asked about the criticisms and daunting tasks at hand Yadav in his calm and cool style simply smiles and says “it comes with the job. My only goal is to focus on the work that needs to be done for the people and my state.”

Despite the challenges and criticism Akhilesh has a relentless determination to keep moving forward and working on behalf of the millions who have put their faith in him. His vision for UP over the next three to five years is what allows him to keep soldiering on. “I was elected in 2012 by people who wanted their Government to work for them. Prior to that the Government was of a different ideology. They were more focused on wasting money on memorials, parks and the like. When we came into power, we had an agenda, a manifesto that we had promised to the people of UP so I had a very clear mission to implement the manifesto of our Samajwadi Party. When I presented the first budget in the house, I had the opportunity to outline policies that were very pro-poor.”

Yadav is determined to not fall into the same trap of politicians making promises and not keeping them and seems equally determined to deliver on his pre-election commitments. “Our Government budgets have all promised that the maximum amount of funds will go to the poor and help the farmers. There were other schemes in the budget also covering the social sector despite the fact there was less money available to me than the previous administration had. The budget was limited. In the first budget presented I tried to deliver everything that was in my election manifesto. That was the big challenge.”

With a genuinely different agenda from that of his immediate predecessor and both an old guard within the party and a burgeoning bureaucracy resistant to change persistence, determination and hardwork have been the only realistic avenues open to Yadav. Breaking new ground has made him as many enemies as it has friends. Some of his plans have been bold indeed: “We decided we would make irrigation free for farmers. And there was a laptop scheme where all students in UP who passed grade 12 would get a laptop from the state Government. Education is key to our state’s success. Finding so many laptops was a challenge in itself, but we had an international tender and HP won. We distributed 1.5 million laptops within a nine-month period. That was the biggest tender HP had ever had anywhere in the world.”

Initiatives such as providing IT hardware to students is something that most progressive western Governments could not afford to undertake and yet UP became something of a trail blazer and pulled off a major coup with HP as a partner in the process. This education and technology initiative was an indication of the progressive and visionary thinking of this tech savvy young Chief Minister.

One of his sharpest areas of focus, however, has been on improving infrastructure. “Funds from the budget were also given for infrastructure projects like highways and a feeder project that would distribute separate power to the industrial and agricultural sectors. This involved a lot of spend on substations. In the health sector, we had to make medicines cheap and affordable for the poor, so we have also invested in that,” says Yadav.

If this sounds rather idealistic and as if Yadav is simply trying to make the world a better place, or at least UP a better place, then that would be the case because he is. He is persistent, patient and passionate about improving the lives of the people of UP and empowering those less fortunate with the tools and resources to succeed.

“UP is the biggest market in India,” says Yadav. “We have a population of 200 million people. It is the heartland of India and we produce the best wheat, milk, potatoes and vegetables. Our youth population is huge, 65 per cent of the population is under 35 years of age. The challenge is to have the best infrastructure: this is an area that is lacking at present. With good infrastructure, the other sectors will follow: industry will grow, agriculture will grow, and people will get jobs. It will all flow.”

Yadav is making sure that he has all of his ducks in a row with infrastructure, supporting industry, supporting education, supporting agriculture and tourism. “The challenge was how to develop infrastructure in UP so I took out money from the budget and prioritised roads and now we are building four-lane highways, and building the longest expressway in India that will connect Agra with Lucknow. We are connecting all the cities in the 75 districts in UP with four-lane highways,” says Yadav.

Great roads and railways would be of little value unless there were people and industries to use them and this is the next focus of Yadav’s Government. “The second biggest focus has been power, followed by agriculture through organised farmers’ markets. There was a lot of wastage because farmers were disorganised and this meant higher prices. We are managing assets and people to help organise this,” he says.

It could be seen as a dream scenario: a big home market and a well-educated labour force but there is a sense that nothing is ever very easy in India. The trick seems to be in carving a different kind of path that plays to the strength of the state and turns a deaf ear to critics and cynics alike. Yadav remains positive throughout: “UP can grow faster than other states because we have everything. We have fertile land; we have more universities, and more medical centres. We have huge reserves of human resources. If I put all the sectors together then we can build something great and this will lead to opportunities for international companies to come and do business here, ”

How did Yadav develop his leadership style and overcome the resistance to change that he comes up against? “I am a very simple leader. I ride a bicycle. I spend time with the people because that is the strength of democracy. Everybody wants change. All types of media are now here from TV to social media and people are demanding change. I have seen what the west has done and if we can learn from this then we can achieve similar results in UP,” Yadav says. “Previous Governments were too involved in social structures and negative politics and I am trying to bring a focus on development and positive change. I am showing people that if the development is there, then growth will come automatically. When I show them what has happened overseas it helps them to buy into the vision and want to be part of it and change.”

In the west it is easy for politicians to lose sight of the plight of the needy because they are often few and far between. But in a nation like India that is really only at the start of its growth curve there are constant reminders of the need for change. “When I look around and see so many people who don’t have houses, and can’t buy good clothes, they are still poor. This makes me determined to work for them and for my party. If I am in power then I know that I can help poor people. With small efforts, their lives will change. That is what motivates me,” says Yadav with that characteristic fierce resolve.

Yadav is no stranger to politics and comes from a family with a track record in Government. His father is none other than Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose political career spans almost 50 years having served three times as the Chief Minister for UP, as well as India’s Defence Minister. Despite some commentators saying that Yadav junior is somewhat standing on the shoulders of a political giant, Akhilesh has emerged from his father’s shadow and is very much his own man. Many in India’s political circles give Akhilesh credit for taking his party to victory in the previous election.

Akhilesh is fully aware of how the political scene has changed since his father was CM. “My father started very early in politics and he had no prior experience since his father, my grandfather was a farmer. He went from that point to become Defence Minister for India. He worked hard and also tried to help poor people all the time and that became his strength. His focus was on rural India but times have changed and urbanisation has taken place so I am trying to strike a balance between urban and rural. People living in both environments need support from the Government,” he says.

Striking a balance between urban and rural is only one of the juggling acts that Yadav has to be proficient at. “Farmers need water, electricity and medical support. Urban dwellers have different priorities. We are focused more on villages because if they grow then their purchasing power increases and the economy will boom.”

Despite the picture of relentlessly positive development, a very strong cultural bias exists in India and in UP of a women’s role in society and treatment as second-class citizens. While this kind of narrow-minded thinking is hardly unique to India and the subcontinent, it does pose real developmental challenges for all modern Governments, especially those in fast-developing regions.

Yadav is acutely conscious that issues impacting and affecting women such as cultural and traditional bias, safety and security, education and employment are not ones that can be solved overnight. “Women’s issues will always remain. I need to keep trying and to bring positive change. In UP and in India, incidents have happened which made people angry with the Governments. In UP if any incident does happen then it is highlighted in a big way. The media doesn’t focus on remedial steps we implement or actions I take they only focus on the negative events. I try and take immediate and stern action against any incident against women that I become aware of. I am a father of two young girls and the safety and security of women in my state and my nation is important to me.”

So what has Yadav done in practical terms to start solving these problems? “I have started a number of initiatives to tackle these problems such as the phone hotline 1090. Any female who gets a threatening or inappropriate telephone call, message, email or is being harassed in any way can call 1090, file a complaint and there will be immediate action.

Full support of the police and the Government is provided. I am very proud of this helpline, as it has helped thousands of women in distress. This
helpline is a model for other states and other nations,” he says.

Even though initiatives such as the 1090 helpline address the issues once they have occurred, efforts need to be made to stop them from happening in the first place. “The second major step lies in educating society and we have already implemented projects to empower and support women. We have introduced a pension where we give 500 rupees to the female of the household. This pension used to be given to the head of the family but I have changed
that to make it payable to females only. I have supported education for women as well as giving financial support to them by making education free for all girls from underprivileged families. They will also be given 30,000 rupees if they pass grade 12. Any girl from a poor family who wants to further pursue an engineering or medical education will get support from the Government. We also give them financial support for their marriage of
20,000 rupees.”

Another endemic problem that UP, like the rest of the nation faces, is corruption. Again Yadav is realistic: “I cannot finish corruption altogether. I can reduce it. Every time I have heard of corruption I have taken action.” And Yadav is certainly a man of his word and takes no prisoners; back in November he sacked 70 persons holding the Minister of State (MoS) rank allegedly for non-performance and serving their own interests.

Yadav is adamant that he won’t let corruption affect potential overseas investment. “We do not let it stand in the way of foreign direct investment. We have set up a special cell for investors; we have introduced a system of single-window clearance for businesses that want to set up here. Full support is given. That is the main aim. We can assure them of security and speedy decisions and this has already led to increased foreign investment in Agra, in Lucknow and elsewhere.”

Job creation is a natural part of the UP growth story. “In the health sector all the way from doctors to paramedics, we have created jobs. Over 30,000 young people have been found new jobs in one Government department alone. I have started police recruitment that has led to 40,000 jobs. I have employed another 20,000 teachers. Altogether around 300,000 youths have been employed in the past two years since my Government has come to power. We are focusing on the youth of the state and opportunities for their success.”

With our interviewing drawing to a close I find myself having distinctly warmed to the young CM. He has been sincere, open, frank and earnest in his answers and seems genuine in his priorities to improve the lives of those less fortunate. He comes across as a man on a mission who is dedicated and determined to make a difference with not a nuance of wanting to enrich himself, which in India makes him an exception to the norm. He is humble and sincere despite the magnitude of power he possesses. He is also fully aware of the mammoth task he has taken to hand and despite the media backlash he receives, he remains positive and focused on working for the people of his state and bringing forward change, efficiency, accountability, transparency and governance reforms.

Akhilesh seems to have developed a unique ability to connect with the masses and party members both young and old. Even though progressive in his thought he is acutely aware of the challenges and struggles of the people in the state he leads. His accessibility and availability are key to his success giving him a continuous perspective of what ideas, programmes and policies need to be implemented. Only time will tell if this dynamic young leader is successful but at present he is flying the flag for UP on the world stage and in the process is making the rest of the world stand up and realise that UP has more to offer than just sight-seeing at the Taj Mahal.

To unwind Akhilesh is known to turn on the iTunes shuffle and relax listening to his favourite musicians, among which include Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and Metallica, A.R Rahman and Mehdi Hasan.

Akhilesh’s other hobbies include football, cricket and cycling. The latter of which played a key role in his ‘energetic’ election campaign. Some say that Akhilesh has learnt his politics while riding his bike from one village to the next on the dusty ‘kuchcha’ roads of the state’s heartland. Earlier this month he was quoted as saying, whilst taking part in the Cycle Marathon at Saifai Mahotsav, that, “Both life and politics are like riding a bicycle. One has to maintain balance and keep on moving.”