It was the last day of electioneering in Uttar Pradesh. A zealous Samajwadi supporter dropped a paper chit and chocolates in a plastic bag in the helicopter. Akhilesh Singh Yadav was about to conclude a month-long gruelling campaign at Ruhelkhand with a symbolic cycle yatra.
In the run-up to the 2012 assembly polls, the cycle, his favourite mode of travel and party symbol, was projected as Umeed ki Cycle (the bike of aspirations). The boy from Saifai who will be chief minister of India’s most populous state carries a BMW cycle in his Pajero.
The handwritten chit read: “Main aapka ek karyakarta hun aur aapke liye apni jaan bhi de sakta hun (Iam your dedicated soldier and can sacrifice my life for you.)” As the chopper took off noisily, he frantically tried to tell ‘Bhaia Ji’ about the note. Akhilesh gesticulated and said: “I will call you.”
Accessibility has been the gizmo-savvy 38-year-old politician’s hallmark. His phone rings incessantly and messages pour in. He reads and responds to every message simultaneously writing with both hands on the two Blackberries that he carries with him.
Akhilesh’s training in environment will come handy as chief minister, particularly since he plans to turn concrete jungles into islands of green – an experiment successfully carried out in his ancestral Saifai Village. While watching the lush green fields from the chopper during campaigning, Akhilesh had said: “We have to find ways to make the best use of technology to boost agriculture production.”
Coming of age
Ever since he returned after studying in Australia in the late 90s, for more than a decade, Akhilesh stayed in the background, a period when his uncle Shivpal Singh and Mulayam confidante Amar Singh hogged the limelight. In the Amar-Shivpal era, Akhilesh focused on understanding socialist politics by reading Ram Manohar Lohia and interacting with senior Samajwadi leader Janeshwar Mishra.
The environmental engineer from Sydney University first got the media’s attention in June 2009 when he led demonstrations on Lucknow’s streets demanding resumption of student union elections in the state, which had been banned by the government.
But much before that, his dad had turned to Akhilesh when the Samajwadis were on a losing spree. The opposition had built its campaign around Mulayam’s goonda raj. People dreaded the return of the Yadav regime when they remembered it had become synonymous with robbery, extortion and anarchy. The image of the party had taken a beating. It had lost the crucial 2007 state assembly polls to the Bahujan Samaj Party and their seats came down from 35 to 24 in the 2009 general elections. His wife Dimple’s defeat to Raj Babbar in a by-poll in pocket borough Ferozabad alarmed Akhilesh. “The party needs surgery,” Akhilesh had announced.
To rebuild a moribund party, Akhilesh fell back on his training as an engineer. After all, he did his bachelor’s from the Sri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering, University of Mysore, where he picked up a smattering of Kannada before heading to Sydney for a master’s in environmental engineering.
Focusing on the four frontal organisations that Mulayam handed over to him, Akhilesh went about changing SP’s image with a surgeon’s precision. The first cut came when his uncle Shiv Pal Singh Yadav was removed and Akhilesh became state president. Then he embarked upon a Kranti Sandesh Yatra, covering 9,000 km in his customised Pajero and later a 250-km long cycle yatra in the run-up to the assembly polls. “I prefer a cycle or rath to a chopper as you can gossip with the people like an ordinary person anywhere, in a dhaba or at somebody's house,” he had told Hindustan Times during the election campaign.
The other big challenge before Akhilesh was to shed the party’s anti-English and anti-technology image without compromising on the fundamentals on which the Samajwadis had built their support base. In sync with the strident aspirational mood in the countryside, he managed to strike a fine balance between tradition and modernity.
To create a new, progressive image for the SP, Akhilesh gave a one-line brief to his party managers: Be positive in action and speech. For instance, when an ad agency suggested the tagline Jawab Hum Denge (which the Congress later bought), Akhilesh rejected it saying it smacked of negativity. Former MP Uday Pratap Singh penned the party anthem, ‘Yeh samajwadi jhanda…itihaas liye balidaano ka. Isme dikhta aks Lohia-Gandhi ke armaano ka.” Bollywood composer Nikhil turned the lyrics into a catchy number that Javed Ali sang.
From selection of candidates to scripting the party manifesto to strategic campaigning, everything had Akhilesh’s refreshing stamp on it. The promise of free laptops and tablet PCs to every class 12 and 10 graduate was lapped up by Generation Next. When Rahul Gandhi mocked at his laptop promise, Akhilesh was ready with a retort, “We will have laptops in Hindi, English and Urdu.”
Akhilesh’s close buddies recall how he was excited about giving work to the unemployed by planting trees and taking care of them. When he recently sent his party workers to China, they had clear instructions from him: ‘Take notes of all that can be replicated here.’ A dedicated team of youngsters, handpicked from diverse walks of life, have been assisting him behind the scenes (see box, left). These include politicians, techies, and political managers.
The results are there to see. In a matter of two years, Akhilesh led the Samajwadi Party to their best ever performance since their inception in the early 1990s. By now he knows the names of 3000 party workers. He has relentlessly worked on building a personal rapport with them. The swelling crowds at Employment Exchanges after they announced unemployment allowance for the jobless gave him the confidence the youth was with him. In the process, Akhilesh proved he had inherited not just his father’s looks but also the political acumen that made Mulayam a force to reckon with in Uttar Pradesh.
Although his political journey has been short, Akhilesh could foresee the SP sweep. “We are winning seats in BSP’s Manchester, Ambedkar Nagar; BJP’s citadel, Ayodhya; Congress strongholds Rae Bareli and Amethi and RLD’s bastion –Noida to Baghpat,” he had famously predicted.
Making of a youth icon
Almost every day Akhilesh Yadav gets letters by the hundred, some written in blood, offering him support for his mission. His boy-next-door looks wit and vigour have made Akhilesh the Shah Rukh Khan of the political world. Akhilesh loves Hindi movies and the last film he enjoyed watching on his home theatre was Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Music, particular ghazals by Mehdi Hassan, is another weakness, but Akhilesh is equally fond of western Music from the 70s and the 80s.
With his affinity for gadgets such as his iPad, Tipu, as his family and friends call him, could be the most tech-savvy chief minister Uttar Pradesh has had. Studying at the Military School in Dhaulpur, Rajasthan, Akhilesh led a regimented childhood. The only son of late Malti Devi and Mulayam was an average student, fond of playing football. A vegetarian, he longed for home-cooked food, especially the yellow dal.
The fitness freak wakes up early and goes for long walks and of course to cycle. The sports fanatic once broke his nose while playing football. Today, Mulayam can proudly proclaim that his son has excelled in the playground of politics.
In 1999, Akhilesh married Dimple, his long-time love. Since he first became an MP in 2000, he considers Dimple, daughter of an army officer from Uttarakhand, his lucky mascot.
He once said jokingly: ‘Good that she lost the elections or who else would have taken care of my kids.’ Playing doting dad to their three children —Aditi and twins Tina and Arjun — Akhilesh plans to take them on a chopper ride flying over their home.
In the Yadav household, the Bollywood number: Papa kehta hai bada naam karega, beta hamara aisa kaam karega, is playing on the loop. Mulayam Singh Yadav hasn’t stopped smiling since the election results were announced.