Durga Shakti's suspension: Akhilesh's popularity takes a beating

Lucknow, Aug 10 (IANS) The suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal by the Uttar Pradesh government has eroded the credibility and popularity of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. By his own admission, Yadav told reporters earlier this week he had received an SMS informing him of the "serious dent" in his popularity ratings.

Government officials too admit that the suspension saga is the worst crisis faced by the 17-month-old government after the killing of deputy superintendent of police Zia-ul-Haq in Kunda in March. But while senior Samajwadi Party (SP) leaders and senior bureaucrats admitted in private that the issue was "mishandled", the state govvenment ministers went ballistic on Nagpal and even warned other IAS officers rallying behind her "to fall in line" and "know their limits" or face similar action.

The rattled 41-year-old chief minister has refused to revoke the suspension of Nagpal, who took on the sand mining mafia in Noida and has gone on to defend the act, alleging that her "immature conduct" in demolishing a wall of an under-construction mosque in a Noida village had "almost sparked off a communal flare up". Nagpal was suspended July 27 for allegedly razing the wall.

Close aides told IANS that once the chief minister took a stand on the issue that this was purely an "administrative decision", there was no way he could backtrack. And that is what exactly happened. Despite damning disclosures in the form of reports of the local intelligence unit (LIU), the distric magistrate's report, video footage of SP leader Mahendra Bhati bragging of getting Nagpal suspended in 41 minutes and the local police report, all exonerating Nagpal of demolishing the mosque wall, Yadav has refused to budge.

He tactfully let loose his ministers on the IAS officer and they did their job well. While Urban Development Minister Azam Khan called her an "over-rated but ordinary official who deserved harsher punishment," the PWD minister and chief minister's uncle, Shivpal Yadav, asked the state bureaucracy to stop the ranting or face action. The usually sober and suave health minister, former IPS officer Ahmad Hasan, too joined the anti-Nagpal voices and cast aspersions on the 28-year-old Nagpal, even dragging her family into the mess.

Calling her a liar and an immature officer, Hasan gave the entire issue a communal colour by pointing out that Nagpal was out to disrupt the communal harmony in the state, which already was on the edge. Political observers feel the communal angle is being played out by the SP leaders for garnering minority votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in which the state is set to be in the throes of an unprecedented communal polarization.

"We see this whole issue as an opportunity. Our leaders have a good image among the Muslims and now we are being seen as the saviours of a mosque," an SP leader chuckled.

Party spokesman and state Prisons Minister Rajendra Chowdhary also justified the suspension, saying Nagpal's action could have triggered communal strife in the region. Uttar Pradesh, as it is, has seen 34 communal riots and flare ups in the last 17 months of SP rule.

It was the tough posturing of the state government that forced the UP IAS Association to beat a hasty retreat after initial bravado where they petitioned the chief secretary, called Nagpal's suspension "unfair" and urged a rethink. Once Akhilesh Yadav reminded them of the Mayawati days when they were all gagged by her diktats and were humiliated, the IAS Association thought it prudent not to take the issue any further.

The intervention by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, further angered the SP leadership, sources say. After this, a leader told IANS, the SP bosses decided not to "give an inch" on the matter. The SP general secretary and party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav's cousin, Ram Gopal Yadav, dared the union government to withdraw all IAS officers from Uttar Pradesh. The SP's Rajya Sabha MP, Naresh Agarawal, made personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi and her son-in-law Robert Vadra.

BJP spokespan Vijay Bahadur Pathak admitted to IANS that this was "by far the biggest blot on the Akhilesh Yadav government. The people of the state gave a mandate to the SP by seeing the clean image of Akhilesh Yadav but (that) began to crack as soon as images of lumpen SP workers ransacking the stage where the swearing in of the state government took place were flashed across TV channels. It is only coming full circle now," he opined.

Whatever be the political consequences of the ongoing battle of nerves between Nagpal and the state government, what is crystal clear is that Akhilesh Yadav's image will never be the same again and so would be the morale of the bureaucracy in country's largest state (by population).

(Mohit Dubey can be contacted at mohit.d@ians.in)

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