On New Year day, the CM went to meet the lions and, as he stepped near the cage of one, it roared. Rajendra Choudhary, who combines his role of Prisons Minister, state spokesperson for the Samajwadi Party and Akhilesh’s loyal aide at most events with effortless ease, was overwhelmed. He rushed off a press release exclaiming, ‘When Akhilesh went close to the den of lions, sheron ne unhen gaur se dekha aur zor se dahad laga kar mukhyamantriji ka abhinandan kiya (the lions watched him keenly and welcomed the CM with a loud roar).’
Akhilesh admittedly is feeling the need to be welcomed these days — anywhere — but surely Choudhary can’t understand lion speak, the Opposition was quick to ask. Amid the ridicule poured on the CM, BJP spokesperson Vijay Pathak had the last laugh. The lions belonged to Gujarat and hence it was natural for them to roar, he declared.
The two big cats are dear to Akhilesh as they are part of another dream project coming up in backyard Etawah — a lion safari. The CM was at the zoo on January 1 to check on their upkeep and diet, as they are readied for the shift to Etawah.
Akhilesh is next set to visit the Kanpur zoo to see Lakshmi, the lioness brought from Hyderabad for the safari, that had earlier developed a bacterial infection. Zoo Director K Thomas, who confirmed the CM’s January 15 visit, is worried about the stray dogs known to enter the zoo. Thomas has issued orders to tranquilise the strays and, if they still looked in “danger” of disturbing Akhilesh’s visit, to shoot them. Animal activists’ protests have so far not budged him.
A lot more is riding on these lions than just the country’s second lion safari. During his recent Bahraich rally, BJP prime ministerial contender Narendra Modi had used them to attack Akhilesh, saying: “I gave him lions. But I feel it would have been better had he asked for Gir cows, which could have given livelihood to farmers. Or, he could have asked for electricity from Gujarat. He could also have asked about the Amul network.” Akhilesh retaliated saying his government had given several animals in exchange for the lions.
Meanwhile, the safari project is gathering steam. Uttar Pradesh Minister of State for Zoological Gardens S P Yadav recently led a team to London Zoo and Longleat Safari and Adventure Park in England to get “new ideas” for it.
Akhilesh’s children too are known to often drop in at the Lucknow zoo to see their pet lions, headed for the family den. Once the zoo was opened on a Monday, when it is closed to visitors, so that they could have a view.
But another time, zoo officials note, they returned disappointed. The lions, unmindful of political niceties, refused to emerge into the open.