Virendra Singh Rawat; With Cabinet reshuffle, Akhilesh signals he is the boss

For long, he was relegated to being a ceremonial CM as his father and uncles held the real reins of power. But by sacking ministers he deemed non-performers and inducting young leaders into his Cabinet, he is gearing up for the state Assembly polls in 2017

For long, Akhilesh Yadav, the youngest-ever chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had been the subject of ridicule for appearing to be only in partial control of his government and a novice in politics.

His opponents attacked him using his lack of experience as a weapon. He was the 'half' in the 'four-and-a-half chief ministers' ruling Uttar Pradesh - a reference to the multiple power centres around Akhilesh Yadav that rendered him a ceremonial chief minister. The four 'chief ministers' were Mulayam Singh Yadav, Shivpal Singh Yadav, Ram Gopal Yadav and Azam Khan.

This mocking sobriquet was so commonplace that even Akhilesh Yadav would joke about it during many of his media conferences, with his signature smile.

Apart from the bad press on incidents of crime, communal riots and murder in the state since he took over in March 2012, Akhilesh Yadav has also been pulled up at public forums by his father and political mentor Mulayam Singh Yadav for tolerating non-performing ministers in the state government and his slack grip on the bureaucracy.

A few weeks ago, Akhilesh Yadav's uncle and powerful state Cabinet minister Shivpal Singh Yadav started criticising officials for delaying developmental projects in his portfolio. The officials he blamed belonged to the departments held directly by Akhilesh Yadav. This included the finance and forest departments.

Notwithstanding questions raised about his administrative acumen and wisdom in comparison to his father, Akhilesh Yadav continues to enjoy a clean image, without any smear yet of personal corruption, nepotism or impropriety.

He was credited with scripting the success of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, which helped the party wrest power from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Yet two years later, the SP experienced a near rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in the face of a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a 'Modi wave'. Of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, the SP won only five compared to its tally of 24 in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP got 73 seats in the 2014 polls .

Soon after the elections results of May 2014, the SP started to crack the whip on non-performers. Thereafter, voices within the party, albeit faint, started demanding Akhilesh Yadav's scalp for the poll reverses, but died down eventually. He never offered to relinquish either the post of CM or that of the party's state president.

He did sack 36 party leaders holding ministerial ranks at that time. These leaders were given the positions in the run-up to the polls, in the belief that this would help the party politically. But several of the sacked leaders were later reinstated. This was no surprise: they were close either to SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav or other top party leaders.

Such flip-flops only reaffirmed the perception that Akhilesh Yadav was not in full control and that his father, uncles and even Khan could have their way if there was a difference of opinion.

However, with the 2017 polls just over a year away, on October 29, 2015, Akhilesh Yadav sacked eight ministers and stripped nine others of their portfolios. Some of these leaders were quite senior and were removed without being given any specific reason.

The eight sacked ministers are Ambika Chaudhary, Narad Rai, Shivkant Ojha, Yogesh Pratap Singh, Aridaman Singh, Bhagwat Sharan Gangwar, Alok Kumar Shakya and Shiv Kumar Beria.

The nine ministers whose portfolios were taken away from them are Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiyaa, Ahmad Hasan, Awdhesh Prasad, Paras Nath Yadav, Ram Govind Chaudhary, Durga Prasad Yadav, Mehboob Ali, Iqbal Mahmood and Brahma Shankar Tripathi.

A political commentator said the sacking was a conscious decision by the party to signal that Akhilesh Yadav was indeed in full control and enjoyed the unequivocal support of his father and party president.

In the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, Akhilesh Yadav tried to strike a balance between experience, youth, caste, religion and region. He rewarded both top performing ministers and promising young leaders. He is gradually building a 'Team Akhilesh' for future polls. This includes young leaders such as Nitin Agarwal and Yasar Shah, who have been elevated to ministers of state with independent charge.

Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers Raghuraj Pratap Singh and Ahmad Hasan were relieved of the important portfolios of food and civil supplies and health and family welfare, respectively and allocated lighter portfolios of stamps and registration and basic education, respectively.

With the Bihar polls now over, the focus shifts to UP. The results of the Bihar elections are expected to largely guide the poll strategies of the parties vying for power in UP. After stamping his authority on the state Cabinet with the reshuffle, Akhilesh Yadav is gearing up to for a 'Modi versus Akhilesh' battle in 2017.

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