Frustration is a common mood in Indian public life. But when it follows a rare cycle of hope, it breeds a particular sort of desperation. In Lucknow, it’s hard to miss this dark mood. Talk at every home swirls around the terrible riots of Muzaffarnagar. Close on this, swirl views on Uttar Pradesh’s 40-year-old chief minister.

Back in March 2012, Akhilesh Yadav could do no wrong. His election campaign had been run pitch perfect. He seemed to embody the new order everyone was longing for: he was young; his speeches were soothing; inclusive; positive. His dream-selling was bang-on. In his latter years, the old war-horse, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had squandered a lot of political capital. Akhilesh, on the other hand, seemed a space-pod that could make Uttar Pradesh jump a century. The people voted him in with 224 out of 403 seats.

Eighteen months later, even his closest aides have become doubters. “I wish he would read Stephen Covey,” said one bureaucrat in his inner circle. “He needs a high dose of auto-suggestion. He should remind himself: I’m the chief minister; I’m the chief minister. I have been voted in with a massive mandate.” Another said dryly: “We need to add one line to the Samajwadi Party manifesto: The chief minister must work.”

Over the past few months, as a disconcerting number of communal riots have flared up in the state, apart from the dark mood, a sinister theory has begun to take root in Uttar Pradesh. There is a sense that, in the run-up to the 2014 General Election, the Samajwadi Party is deliberately allowing Hindutva forces to stoke communal fires because it keeps the Muslim minority in a state of fear and, by extension, in need of the Samajwadi Party’s protection. The communal and the secular, people say, have become two grimy sides of the same hand.

On ground, however, there does not seem to be any direct evidence of such diabolical Samajwadi Party design. There is only a scary vacuum. Akhilesh is not being allowed to fly: he has been downsized and grounded by his patriarch and his uncles. The CM’s chair is being pulled by too many strings. This is little comfort for those who are suffering though: incompetence can be as bruising as evil. In the shadow of all this — in the shadow of Muzaffarnagar, 50 dead and thousands displaced, in the shadow of the clamour and criticism around him, in the shadow of an ascending Narendra Modi and resurgent BJP — Akhilesh agreed to meet TEHELKA.

In some senses, it was a heartening meeting. The mess of Uttar Pradesh is colossal, the relief camps of Muzaffarnagar are teeming with the poor and the devastated, and there is a mountain Akhilesh has to answer for. But still, there are things to be grateful for too.

Unlike BJP prime minister hopeful Modi, who has never allowed himself to be grilled by the media about the 2002 Gujarat riots; unlike Modi again, who has coldly and resolutely never expressed regret or admitted to any mistakes (set aside his active collusion) in the riots, unlike Modi (or indeed any other leader in the aftermath of a major riot), in a crucial differentiator, Akhilesh opened himself to a hard and detailed questioning about the riots, his role in it, and the flawed nature of his government.

Predictably, he defended many of his government’s moves. He also fobbed off criticisms about his father’s interference. But, significantly too, he expressed regret, acknowledged mistakes, and spelled out his vision for Uttar Pradesh’s development. He also gave a detailed account of the communal incidents that led up to the conflagration of Muzaffarnagar and the BJP’s allegedly insidious role in it. At one point in the conversation, he said, “Why do you keep saying I’m not in control? Am I consulting anyone before replying to your questions?”

Still, meeting Akhilesh in his palatial house in Lucknow, it was hard not to feel one was watching an understudy, playing out lines in a green-room, while the real act goes on elsewhere. As we sat, he kept getting calls about incidents across the state. His uniform response over the phone was: “Security laga doh.

Akhilesh has warmth: unfortunately, he lacks gravitas. But perhaps one should still not underestimate him. In displaying a democrat’s spirit, in at least acting like a true leader in braving questions frontally and affably, Akhilesh has once again showed his potential. The riots may be over, but the relief still has to begin. If only Akhilesh would catch his cue correctly now, perhaps he might yet turn out to be the space-pod he was meant to be.

He may yet redeem the cycle of hope.

Akhilesh, you came to power as a big symbol of hope for the people, but that has been badly shaken.
Does hope break so quickly? How can one function then?

Not quickly; you have been CM for 18 months. But let’s talk about the Muzaffarnagar riots first. Your government has been condemned for this by everyone. What is your own assessment? Where did you go wrong?
First, I want to say, it’s a terrible tragedy. It shouldn’t have happened. I have condemned it myself in the House. See, whenever the history of UP politics is written, or the story of my personal political journey is written, the Muzaffarnagar riots and the Durga Shakti Nagpal incident will always come up as black marks. Whatever mistakes were made, an inquiry has been ordered, there have been suspensions, more action will be taken so it does not happen again. We are constantly working towards that.

But my greatest concern now is that the people who are displaced should go back. The government should provide security. More than that, the government has to create a sense of trust between the communities.

But equally important, we have to keep an eye on those forces that are turning small skirmishes into major incidents; who are politicising everything with a Hindu-Muslim colour as election approaches. I can give you many examples.

Let’s start with Kannauj. There was a farmer who has been tilling a piece of land for many years. One day, someone told him his land was going to be taken over by the DM, so he set up a chabutra and put a religious flag on it. After this, someone complained that he was squatting on the land so the DM and SDM came and broke the chabutra. The farmer accepted this peacefully enough when he was told he could go back to tilling the land. The chairman of the town council, who is a Muslim, was fine too, but suddenly the BJP and BSP got involved and the situation flared up. There was stone-throwing and lathicharge, only then did the issue get settled.

Let me give you another example. In Jhansi, there is a mandir in which Hindus and Muslims have been living together in the same compound from before Independence. No one even knew of this mandir. But suddenly the BJP dug it out and said the Muslims have to be removed so that the temple can be made holy. Again we had to resort to strict action. We arrested a big BJP leader like Yogi Adityanath, only then did things settle down.

Then, see what they did with the 84 kosi yatra. Everyone knows this is not the correct time for it. It’s true they met us for permission. But they were asking for an extra 100 kosis and this was not the correct time, so the government stopped them.

You first gave permission, then withdrew it; so you helped to make it a bigger issue.
No, no permission was given. This is just a false claim they make. Now come to the Muzaffarnagar area. In Loni, there was a big incident, when someone wrote a mobile number on a Koran. One Muslim group attacked Thana Masuri; another group of Muslims protected the thana. The police took some time but they got the situation under control. In Meerut, too, there have been many incidents, where the BJP’s hand has made simple incidents into communal flare-ups. Some animal was killed; they put it on a buffalo- driven cart and took it around town. The same thing happened in Ambedkar Nagar. An animal was killed, and the VHP burnt and smashed shops. In the Shamli incident, the girl had come from Roorkee with some Muslim boys who were known to her. When some incident happened between them, the BJP turned it into a Hindu- Muslim issue. The same thing in Shorum. A girl was teased by some youth from a different community. The guilty were arrested and then both parties came to an understanding between themselves and it was sorted out.

My point is, in these areas, such incidents keep happening. Normally, elders of the village or the parties concerned can get together and sort things out. But because it’s a crucial election year, these are being ballooned out of proportion on purpose.

We will come back to these incidents. Let’s talk of Kawal first. Why were the seven arrested Muslim boys let off, and on whose instruction?
In Kawal, some say a motorcycle and cycle collided; some say a girl was molested. This is subject to inquiry. What we know for sure is one boy was killed; then the other two. The police should have arrested people and they did. You are right, there is an allegation that the seven Muslims who were arrested were let off. The judicial inquiry will establish who ordered this. Whoever did will definitely be punished but, to my knowledge, the leaders that are being accused — like Azam Khan — had no role in it. I’m told it was a small local leader but I would not like to name anyone until the inquiry is over.

But that day, after the last rites, there was a lot of breaking and looting of houses, even a masjid, in Kawal. One panchayat happened, then other small panchayats happened. At first, they didn’t allow any politician to speak. Then on 30 August, one political leader set up a panchayat in front of a masjid. Section 144 was on, and the leaders said they would march to the DM’s office to submit a memorandum.

The mistake of the administration — or you can call it their decision — was to go to that manch to allay this mood and say, “Please don’t march to the DM’s office because other big processions will come out.” They wanted the issue resolved right there. But the media wrote this up in a big way, photographs were published, and things began to spiral. The next day, there was a panchayat and then the mahapanchayat on 7 September. The gap on our side is that the administration did not realise so many people would turn up for this. What made it worse was that, in the days running up to this, there were SMSes, MMSes, leaders were putting up fake videos on Facebook, so passions were being deliberately stoked and an atmosphere of mistrust was created. At the mahapanchayat, Prachi Sadhvi and some BJP leaders gave fiery speeches. After this, one of the Muslim drivers was killed, then at Jolly Canal, there were many killings. The mistake we made is that the precautions we should have had were not put in place. We did not assess the situation correctly, we did not realise the impact all these SMSes and MMSes were going to have.

As things began to spiral, we called in the army so the situation would not get worse. By 9 September, things were under control. The most affected were the really poor Muslims living in interior villages, people who have lived together for generations with other castes as someone’s barber, mali, tillers or looked after their animals.

You are saying your administration did not realise the mahapanchayat would become so big. But as Section 144 had been enforced, why did you allow it in the first place?
Many panchayats had already happened. But nothing bad had happened, no incitement, no khoon kharaba (bloodshed). As a rule, panchayats discuss issues, come to some resolution and present that to the administration. They have never taken on this colour before. So that day, we had no idea things would turn so ugly.

Several political leaders — from the SP, BSP and Congress — had already made hate speeches at the Muslim panchayats. How can you say you had no idea?
These questions are rising today, in retrospect, after the event has happened. The police was there, things kept happening, they tried to stop it. Now an inquiry has been ordered; derelict officers will definitely be punished.

On 5 September, the BJP had called a bandh. Mukul Goyal, ADG Railways, was there, the DG police was there, DGP Law & Order Arun Kumar had reached. They were there until the 7th. With three such senior officers on the spot, how can one accept they were not aware of the gravity of the situation?
No, a couple of officers had come back. ADG Mukul Goyal was sent because many incidents were happening on trains and bus stands. He was sent to stop these. As far as the panchayats and mahapanchayats go, in the history of UP, they have never taken such a colour, that political parties will come and give such incendiary speeches. If I’m wrong and you know of such an example before, please tell me.

Panchayats have always been on farmer issues, khap community issues, on water, electricity. It has never taken such a communal colour, never led to such declarations — so much so that the very Muslim driver that had driven some people to the rally, who had been hired by them, was attacked.

Why were the DM and SP transferred on 27 August?
When people were returning from the last rites, there was looting and arson; houses, shops, masjids were targeted. The DM and SP could have used force to stop the looting; they didn’t.

The perception is they were transferred because they had arrested seven Muslim boys.
I’m telling you the truth of what happened, but you are returning to the perception. There may be any amount of perceptions, but haven’t you come to me to hear the facts? I’m telling you the facts. Anyone can create perception.

If this had been the first incident that had suddenly flared and gone out of control, you wouldn’t have been criticised so much. But there have been so many in the past 18 months. You yourself accepted there have been 27 small and medium communal incidents; media reports say it’s close to a 100. Why is the atmosphere so vitiated? Didn’t you take this seriously? Wasn’t it a sign that things are going wrong? Why couldn’t you control it in 18 months?
But we have already taken action in all these incidents. Perhaps you don’t know the details. If you go into each incident, you will see the government has been doing what is needed.

As far as I know, sufficient action hasn’t been taken.
There has been action taken.

In the Faizabad riots, for instance, Ram Chandra Yadav, a BJP MLA, has Section 153 slapped against him for hate speech, the same as Varun Gandhi, but he has neither been arrested nor chargesheeted.
Action will be taken. Do you know how many are in jail for the Faizabad riots?

Yes, but the main accused are still free; Yadav, and another BJP MLA, Laloo Singh. There were riots simultaneously in five towns of Faizabad district. This did not happen even after the Babri Masjid demolition. That’s why the feeling has grown that the SP and BJP are fixing this match. Your government was letting this happen to keep communal fires on slow boil.
No, there is absolutely nothing like that. How could my party gain from doing this! Those who were actually present at the incidents, the police have caught them. The rest, the law will catch up with them.

There is a widespread sense that there are too many power centres in your government and you are not in control.
Whatever big decisions need to be taken, the government is on top of it. I understand that just now no one wants to hear about the development work the government has undertaken. It’s very difficult to calm people down and make them understand, it’s very easy to provoke and fan the flames. Being secular is very hard business, being communal is easy. But we have been focussing on development schemes and a very progressive agenda. I have started this tradition that all my officers should confront the press. Along with me, they also have a responsibility, don’t they? The press should ask them what is happening in each of their districts, that’s how they will know what are the lacunae. I also listen, I get to know; when the time is right, I act.

Yes, one had heard about your free laptop scheme…
New universities, 500 new MBBS seats, two new medical colleges, irrigation water is free, seeds and manure you are getting everywhere, all the Bundelkhand packages have begun, mandis are being made, whatever private-public road projects were waiting, we have cleared without condition. There are four-lane highways being made from Benares to Sonbhadra, Delhi to Saharanpur, Haldwani to Bareilly, all through private investment. Sixteen other highways are under consideration.

We won’t deny what your positive interventions may be. But we have spoken to people across the bureaucracy and the sense is that you lack grip.
Where? How? Where do you see that? Look, you have asked me all these questions, am I consulting someone before answering you? Don’t I look like I know what is going on?

Even if you assert this is not the truth, there is certainly a perception. That you may be on the CM’s chair, but even your secretariat is not under your control. Your father, uncle, bureaucrats like Anita Singh call the shots. You are just a puppet leader.
If you say there is a perception, I will accept it. But look at the facts on ground. All these schemes that are underway, are they not being actioned by the bureaucracy? There will always be good officers and incompetent ones. Those who are good will be given more work, those who are not good will be censured and fixed.

Are you saying, in your own assessment, there have been no shortcomings in your 18 months in power?
I’m sure you know the condition of the UP I inherited. To bring many things on track; to move it away from the obsession with memorial parks and statues and give it a new development direction, to stem corruption if not outright eradicate it… Access to electricity is a huge crisis here. We have been working on power generation, transmission and distribution. We have accepted many Central schemes; we have big investments in transmission lines, almost 10,000 crore. From Lalitpur to Agra; Barra to Agra and Kanpur. We have two 650-650 supercritical generation plants coming up, one in Lalitpur by Bajaj; one by Jaypee. We have created new policies for sugar mills, poultry farming, solar energy, and investments have begun into all this. We are making new housing for the poor, we are making Lohia grams, we are creating employment and paying a non-employment allowance, giving out computers. Which state is doing this?

If you are doing so much, why is the mood on the street shifting to Narendra Modi and the BJP?
It’s very easy to be communal. Please think deeply about what I’m saying. I keep reading he is done great development. If he has, why are he and his party walking the communal line? Give me an answer for this. If he has done so much development, why aren’t they confident of winning polls on the basis of that? Why are they adopting communal tactics here?

If you are both secular and focussed on development, why is this accusation coming at you repeatedly that you too are playing a dangerous communal game?
See, I said this in the Vidhan Sabha in front of every party. We have to work at fixing the communal atmosphere that has been created. We have to keep some of our media friends on the right track as well.

Are you blaming the media? You hardly seem to care about it. There was so much noise about your suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal.
See, that’s a different episode. It became an issue because the television media blew it up so much. A government can take action against any officer. Are officers not supposed to follow rules? You can just break down anything? You won’t give a notice to people? You won’t give them time to respond? Even if people have encroached, there’s a process through which things are done — you give a notice, you spell out the consequences, you hear their response. But if you break down a masjid wall in the middle of Ramzan, who is going to handle this sort of sensitive situation? What were we supposed to do?

Unfortunately, we only have more critical questions for you. The SP has always had a bad reputation for its goonda raj. You earned huge goodwill when you denied the criminal DP Yadav a ticket. Everyone thought things are going to be different. But just months into your regime, everyone was saying goondaism is back. Petty crimes and extortion have gone up everywhere. Your cadres just have to take your names — Bhaiyya or Netaji — and officers are too scared to act. Your ministers have publicly told party cadres if officers don’t do your bidding, lock them in a room and bash them, strip police officers of their uniform.
Where has this happened?

Surely you have heard of Javed Abidi, Shiv Kumar Behria, Shankh Lal Manjhi?
Where do you find Behria? Is he important in my government?

That’s not the point. They may not be important. The question is they feel they can say such things, that too from public platforms.
I accept they should not have said that. The leaders you are naming are no leaders. The cadres and public will not listen to them. But yes, because they have said it on a stage, we are accountable and must answer for them. But they have no stature. They just say all this to exaggerate their importance.

As far as law and order goes, of course, we have to keep working. In Kanpur, through GPS and cameras, we are soon going to get that city under control. Over the past 8-10 months, you wouldn’t have heard of any big incident in Kanpur. If there has been any, the offenders have been caught. The police, in fact, have done a drive and caught a whole lot of criminals. Some officers are doing a great job in some districts. But UP is huge — sometimes things do happen, or else they get extra highlighted, so one has to watch out for that.

In Ferozabad, for example, we had an incident where a child was killed. The BJP said some Muslims have killed the child and turned it into a Hindu-Muslim incident. But the inquiry revealed that actually it’s the father who had killed the child. But BJP leaders had even stopped the Shatabdi Express in protest. We had to do a lathicharge, only then did the situation come under control. You won’t say anything about that?

I remember another incident in Ghaziabad when I went there for a programme. Another child had been killed, there was a rasta roko. Later it turned out the guy who was at the forefront of the protest was the man who had killed the child! But you are not aware of these things. So there are enough officers doing good work. But see, in Delhi, there’s a cop for almost every house — has crime stopped completely there? Give me an answer to that.

But let’s be very frank, Akhilesh. The sheer level of extortion on the road was not there under the earlier government. Buses, trucks, taxis, autos, Boleros, every car. Even on Shaheed Path and Faizabad Road in Lucknow.
See, if we get to know these things, we will act against it. Like you have just told me about Shaheed Path — cops must do their work.

You said the Muzaffarnagar riots are a political conspiracy. Who was responsible for the ones before?
Do you not understand what’s happening in UP? Do you think the parties I have mentioned are not meddling with all this?

Agreed the BJP and RSS are playing a dirty game here. Let’s even accept your party has no hand in it. But in that case, if only the BJP is involved, why are Muslims turning away from you? Why is your core constituency feeling betrayed?
I also want the truth to come out. Why isn’t the truth coming out? Why don’t you investigate all the incidents I have narrated to you and see the sequence of events and who created trouble. Investigate it personally and tell me if I’m saying something wrong.

But it is a fact that Muslims are alienated from you after Muzaffarnagar. Is this not a matter of worry for you?
We have to work on that issue. But was even Muzaffarnagar a Hindu-Muslim issue to begin with? How was it turned into that? I’m telling you again. It’s hard to be secular, easy to be communal. But the Samajwadi Party (SP) has stopped communal forces in the past and it will do so in the future as well. Our party organisation, secular people in general, and the government’s successes will stop it.

Apart from just saying this, what concrete strategy do you have?
Starting from 23 September, we are going to have sadbhavana committees in every village, peace committees who can solve small incidents by sitting together.

Your own bureaucracy says you still act like a party chief rather than a CM; your well-wishers say you don’t seem to realise you were made CM with a huge mandate.
You must have been speaking to my enemies. For how long have I been in public life? Fourteen years. Ask old UP hands, ask veteran journalists how much I have changed.

Your image is of the reluctant chief minister…
Why do you say that? In nine months, I have finished a flyover.

…that you are often distracted on your BlackBerry rather than focussed on government files.
Shouldn’t I answer calls and SMSes?

Your own father has criticised you from public forums. This has added to the sense that you are still the novice prince. UP is the most crucial state in India, Akhilesh. What you do will impact the whole country.
There is no power centre. I can’t change the perception. Do you know what time I’m working from? I never sleep beyond 5 to 6 am. I read the papers before Netaji, so that in case he asks any questions, I’m on top of it. I gym for an hour. After that, I work until 8-8.30 pm, then there are callbacks. Then I eat dinner — am I allowed that or not, should I interact with my children or not? Should I send them away to another house?

Okay. We won’t throw what others say at you. What do you think is inadequate in you today? Speak like a new young leader. Give us an honest answer.
See, this is a very difficult question. If you don’t think big — this is not just a state, it’s a nation. There’s a lot to do. And after that still more. If you look back now, it seems as if we have done nothing. But lots of ground work has been done whose results will show in six months to a year. A lot of homework has been done. Tell me how would we have got solar investments if we had not worked on a solar policy? In UP, daily, there is a demand for two crore eggs. This used to come from the south, now we have a huge investment, we have a robust poultry scheme. On dairy, I keep hearing about the milk production in Gujarat but actually UP is the biggest producer of milk. Amul wanted to enter here. We have welcomed them but told them they can’t come to just one place but two-three places, so they are setting up plants in Kanpur, Lucknow and Saifai. I have already told you about the big projects, roads, electricity generation, transmission, social schemes, free laptops — that’s a scheme you have got to look at. You cannot imagine the impact it is having on people.

I know this is a time when people don’t want to hear about my development initiatives, but after a couple of months, this will be the most important issue again. That’s why I said it’s difficult for me to assess myself. But the responsibility I have been given of bringing UP on track, I’m working on that. The results will show later. Think deeply about what I have said, it’s very easy to provoke and be a rabble- rouser, difficult to do sedate politics.

To play devil’s advocate, some people say Modi hasn’t given free laptops, saris or kanyadaan schemes, but he has still been voted back three times.
I’m performing, I will work hard, I’m going to give results. But to change perception, you have to help me. The media has to recognise it.

Another criticism is that you hardly ever leave Lucknow now. To win the election, you travelled thousands of miles, but after you have been elected, you hardly visit other parts of UP.
I do go, but less than before, that’s true.

Are you worried about 2014? Will the secular vote move away from you? The Jats have got ‘Hindu-ised’. Western UP definitely seems lost to you. So will history also remember you as Modi’s polling agent?
Who said the Jats have become Hinduised? Where is the secular vote moving to? No, UP will stop him. The perception will be corrected. My first priority is UP’s development. In so far as communal forces go, the SP will stop them.

It’s ironic. Today, SP itself is considered a communal force. You are being nicknamed Akhilesh Modi.
There are two things I will never be able to leave in my life. No matter how my political career plays out: I will be secular and I will be socialist.