Voters faithful to the Samajwadi Party (SP) display a sense of ownership or entitlement towards chief minister (CM) Akhilesh Yadav. It is as if he is one of their own — someone whom they trust and have anointed to govern. This is apparent in the manner in which they refer to the chief minister in their day-to-day conversations. During my travels to the state for poll coverage, I discovered that while voters had diverse opinions about the claims of development made by the SP and the possible spiralling affects of the feud in the First Family on voting patterns, none of the people I met referred to the CM as Akhilesh ji or mukhyamantri or mananiya Akhilesh ji. No salutation, meant to convey reverence or authority is attached before the chief minister’s name. For the elderly, he is Akhilesh, hamara Akhilesh or apna Akhilesh. And for the youth, he is simply Akhilesh bhaiyya. Not very different from how they would refer to the boy next door.
In that sense, the CM has been successful in cultivating a ‘son of the soil’ image. He ranks high on the emotional quotient of voters. As chief minister, particularly in the last two years, his decisions (such as not giving tickets to lumpen elements), demeanour (not a single word uttered against his father or uncle during the family feud) and the publicity blitz in the run-up to elections sent out the message to the people of Uttar Pradesh that he is a man out to deliver on the promises he made. And that he is not a mere extension of his father’s brand of politics.
Samajwadi Party members told me that part of the credit for Akhilesh’s messaging should go to the CM’s own style of functioning and the rest to a conscious image-makeover, the brainchild of Steve Jarding, Public Policy professor at Harvard.
Juxtapose this with how voters in UP and even in the Congress pocket boroughs of Amethi, Rae Bareli and Sultanpur, perceive party scion Rahul Gandhi. He is Rahul ji for people, cutting across regions, age groups and economic divide. For them, Rahul is a visitor of sorts. Or, the VIP guest from New Delhi who does them a favour by giving them an audience: akin to the prince of a royal family. I got a first-hand experience of RaGa’s disconnect while covering the UP assembly elections in 2012. I met Shivkumari, a Dalit woman in Semra, a hamlet in Amethi. In January 2009, Rahul Gandhi spent a night at Shivkumari’s shanty, promising her all the help she needed. The Congress vice president never returned, nor was there any follow-up from his team. On the contrary, with fellow villagers taunting her about his disappearance, the visit turned into a curse of sorts.
Five years on, I discovered that Rahul’s perception as an outsider who occasionally visits Uttar Pradesh, has not changed. Even this time round, the people I met in the constituencies of Western Uttar Pradesh and Central Uttar Pradesh view him in the same reverential, albeit formal light.
Rahul is seen as an outsider in spite of the fact that the core constituencies – particularly Amethi and Re Bareli -- have remained dedicated to the Congress. Even to them, Rahul reminds them of a son who is now settled abroad and occasionally visits his family here in India. This is in sharp contrast with Akhilesh Yadav who has a more informal and intimate direct connection with the people. Rahul Gandhi is still Indira’s grandson or Rajiv’s son. Still, there is a sense of gratitude. The people cannot thank the Congress and Rahul Gandhi enough for getting them basic amenities such as road, water and power.
But on the ground and in UP lingo, Akhilesh is still UP ka ladka and Rahul, the prince from Delhi.