Akhilesh shuns populism, shifts focus to infra projects

Barely two years ago, free laptops and tablets and the unemployment allowance had been dubbed as ‘game changers’ and were touted as catapulting chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) to a historic victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

The priorities, however, have changed drastically, after the rout of SP in the state in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls. The SP could win only five seats out of 80. The same populist schemes could not fetch votes to the party.

After the poll debacle, senior SP leader and UP minister Gayatri Prajapati had said that the free laptop and tablet scheme must be shelved as they had not been able to fetch votes of the youths to the party.

 “Why should we continue to give the youths free laptops and tablets when they did not vote for us,” Prajapati had said at a party meeting last month. The chief minister, however, had then said that the schemes would not be shelved. Things changed within a span of days.

Apparently realising that the populist schemes could bring votes only in the short run and were also a drain on the state exchequer adversely impacting the financial health of the cash-starved state, Akhilesh, in his 2014-15 budget, shelved almost all the populist schemes, including the free laptops, tablets to the intermediate and high school pass students. 

Besides, the other populist schemes to be shelved included ‘Kanya vidya dhan’ (cash dole to the girls, who cleared the intermediate examination), free saris and blankets and the unemployment allowance.

Incidentally, Akhilesh gave these populist schemes a quiet burial. There was no official word on shelving these schemes but there was no monetary allocation for them in the budget.

Akhilesh, for a change, shifted his focus on infrastructure and development of the villages and education. While some criticised Akhilesh for ‘betraying’ the electorate by going back on his promises, many others, including the economists, praised him for shunning populism and instead according priority to the development.

Political analysts say that Akhilesh was forced to shun the populist schemes as they were ‘bleeding’ the economy of the state and also did not result in any electoral gain for the SP. “The state was in no position to carry on with the schemes... they were nothing but a huge drain on the exchequer,” said an official in the UP finance department while speaking to Deccan Herald.

Though doubts had been raised when Akhilesh had announced the schemes if the state government would be able to continue with them for long, he had stood firm. Since 2012, the UP government had distributed lakhs of laptops to the students and it cost the state hundreds of crores of rupees.

According to the official figures a whopping Rs 2800 crore had been spent on distribution of free laptops in 2012. As many as 15 lakh laptops were distributed in 2012. Though an allocation of Rs 2700 crore had been made for the scheme in the budget for 2013-14, no laptops were distributed in the previous financial year. Incidentally, the free tablet scheme was yet to be launched. 

Whopping costs

Similarly, the unemployment allowance had cost the government Rs 1386 crore, while the ‘kanya vidya dhan’ scheme had cost the state exchequer Rs 446.35 crore. The government had, however, not launched the “free saris and blanket scheme” though it had made an allocation of Rs 800 crore for the same.

The shifting of priorities was clearly visible in this year's budget. The allocation for infrastructure was to the tune of Rs 49,108 crore while a provision of Rs 23,928 has been made in the budget for power projects.

The allocation was almost doubled from the last year. In the 2013-14 financial year, the allocation for the power sector was Rs 11,732 crore. The state was undergoing a severe power crisis and it has also threatened to turn into a law and order issue.

The education sector also got a big boost with an allocation of Rs 41,538 crore. A provision of Rs 14,377 crore was made in the budget for the improvement in and expansion of the medical health and family welfare sector.

The government also seems to have learnt a lesson or two from the recent gangrape and murder of two teenaged girls in state's Budaon district. The two girls had been gangraped while they were going to the fields to answer the call of nature. There was no toilet in their house. Akhilesh made a provision of Rs 359 crore for construction of toilets in village houses.

Economists have praised the chief minister saying that the budget will herald development of the state. “The budget is growth oriented'', says Prof Arvind Mohan, a faculty in the department of economics in Lucknow University.

While the opposition parties have attacked the SP regime for ‘cheating’ the people, many in the SP also say that the decision to shun populist schemes was ‘risky'. “In 2012 assembly elections, the youths had voted for us in large numbers because of the unemployment and laptop and tablet schemes... they may not back us in the 2017 assembly polls,” said an SP leader.

Akhilesh is, however, certain that the shift would show result in the days to come. “The assembly polls are a still more than two years away... the change of priorities will start showing results by then,” said SP spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary. It remains to be seen if the pragmatism pays Akhilesh in the next assembly polls in the state.

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