For UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, the media has turned out to be the biggest adversary. Following criticism of the extravagance displayed at the Saifai Mahotsav even as victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots were languishing in ill-equipped relief camps, Akhilesh has trained his guns on the fourth estate.
Nearly Rs 300 crore was reportedly spent on the fest organised in the CM’s hometown in Etawah district from 26 December to 8 January. Coupled with a foreign junket for a team of Samajwadi Party ministers and MLAs, it highlighted the utter insensitivity of the Akhilesh dispensation towards the plight of riot victims and drew flak from all quarters. But, instead of making amends, Akhilesh responded by threatening to crack down on the media. The party is said to have forced cable operators in UP to unplug two news channels — Times Now and India News. While defending the Saifai Mahotsav as an event aimed at promoting tourism, he demanded an apology from the media for “exaggerating” the expenditure on the festival. At a press conference, he alleged that the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran published “false” reports about the expenses because the Samajwadi Party did not renominate its owner for a Rajya Sabha seat. “That’s why he has turned against us,” said the CM, claiming that “the usual expenditure on the festival is Rs 6-8 crore and it was certainly within Rs 10 crore this year”.
This was the 15th edition of the festival organised every year in the memory of Ranveer Singh Yadav, nephew of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. Throughout the fortnight-long festival, Bollywood stars were brought in every day in helicopters. On the concluding night, seven chartered aircraft had been hired to bring the film stars from Mumbai.
“Instead of attacking the media, Akhilesh should reveal the actual expenditure on the festival,” says Lakshmikant Bajpai, state president of the BJP. “The people have a right to know who financed the huge fees for top film stars like Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit and the cost of the chartered flights.” BJP state spokesperson Vijay Pathak points out that besides the fees of the performers, the government also has to account for the expenses on the huge deployment of police forces. Bajpai alleged that funds from the Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan, which functions under the state cultural affairs department, were diverted for the festival. The department’s budget for the festival was only Rs 1 crore.
The festival committee’s manager Vedvrat Gupta, however, denies the allegation. “Besides a grant from the cultural affairs department, the entire festival was financed by donations from the people of Etawah and Mainpuri districts,” says Gupta.
There are also allegations that the state government is unduly favouring the actors who performed at Saifai by exempting the movies featuring them from entertainment tax. For instance, the recently released Dedh Ishqiya, which features Madhuri Dixit, has not only been exempted from the tax for three months, but has also got a subsidy of Rs 1 crore as 75 percent of the movie has been shot in Uttar Pradesh. However, the subsidy is in line with the state’s film policy, which was amended in April last year. “Tax exemption brings down ticket prices by at least 40 percent,” says an official of the entertainment tax department.
Mulayam Singh’s opponents mince no words in lambasting the Samajwadi Party for the Saifai extravagance while riot victims are yet to be rehabilitated and given justice. “While children were dying in the relief camps, the ruling party leaders were having fun at the cost of the exchequer,” says Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma, who was once a confidant of Mulayam.
The ruling party leaders, however, remain defiant. “The festival was meant to promote local talent and the folk art of the region,” says party spokesperson and Jail Minister Rajendra Chowdhary.
Political observers have described the Saifai festival as a manifestation of the feudal mindset of the “first family” of the Samajwadi Party. “It’s an opulent, obscene celebration of money, power and the political audacity of the Yadav family on their home turf,” says Ashutosh Mishra, who teaches political science in Lucknow University.