Monday, March 19, 2012

The motive force of the SP

Mr. Akhilesh Yadav is clear about the constituency to which he is catering - the MLA. And, like every good politician, he has his finger on their aspirations, in this case, a lumbering white SUV from which they can proudly let flutter the symbol of their party, which is ironically a cycle:

The UP assembly elections were completed earlier this month, and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party swept to a majority win, widely attributed to the appeal of Akhilesh Yadav, his son and political heir. Acknowledging that his party has allowed its goons to run riot in the past, the new Chief Minister has been keen to assure us that his SP will be a new dispensation, and will rein in its supporters.

It’s going to a slow and challenging process at best. Less than two weeks after the election results were announced, we were driving along NH 24, which connects Lucknow to Delhi, by way of Moradabad. Now that this highway has two channels, and we were returning home on a Sunday afternoon, we were expecting to make quick progress. Instead, as the road curved off the Moradabad bypass, and onto the long straight that crosses the Ganga at Garh Mukteshwar, the traffic deteriorated into a honking, chaotic melee of SUVs, cars, buses and open trailers. The cars which were honking in exasperation were clearly like me – Delhi drivers keen to get home. But another lot were blowing their horns in a distinctly different, defiant, attitude, which turned out to be one of celebration.

The green and red pennants that fluttered from their bonnets also carried the graphic of a cycle, the symbol of the victorious SP. A sticker on the back proclaimed their allegiance to Mehboob Ali, who had been elected MLA from Amroha. And the special occasion, it turned out, was the announcement that he had been appointed as a Minister to the UP Cabinet, for the third time. 

Every couple of kilometres, his supporters had formed knots of felicitation, each one marked by a banner, a garishly decorated carriage of the kind used to transport bridegrooms to their wedding, and crowds spilling on to the highway. The resultant funnelling of traffic slowed us to a crawl, and every time there was a gap in the divider, a few more drivers gave up on driving norms, and exited onto the wrong channel of the highway. At the 6th or 7th such gap, his supporters had decided that part of their show of strength consisted of purposively blocking the west-ward bound channel. I had spotted more than one police car in the celebratory convoy. Clearly, enforcing traffic rules was not part of their day’s duty.

One car from Mehboob Ali’s convoy stayed with us even as we finally exited the mess. At the next toll plaza, I was perfectly aligned to watch its driver as he refused to pay tax, and the toll booth attendant decided not to press the point.

The observed behaviour of Akhilesh’s followers underlines the mentality of those elected to power, and the more visible form of support they attract. Giving him the benefit of good intentions, it is clear he has an uphill struggle if he wants create a UP culture of good law and order.

Unfortunately, one of the first news items that caught my eye when I woke the next morning was that the CM has chosen ‘Raja Bhaiya’, arguably the most notorious of UP’s strongmen, to be Minister in charge of jails. I can think of two opposing ways to regard this development -  a strong signal to the ‘Liberals’ that he cares a snot for their values, or a maverick managerial move to hand significant responsibility to a person with hands-on experience of the sector.

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