At the Nauchandi Maidan in the heart of Meerut City earlier this week, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi smiled and dimpled, respectively, holding their hands aloft on stage. They were campaigning jointly in the heart of western UP, in preparation for the mother of all battles that will span the next few weeks over seven phases, 12 million people choosing 403 candidates for an assembly expected to have major impact on the ruling party at the Centre.
In the good old days, election strategists would often wear as a badge the fact that India voted differently in the states, compared to general elections — perhaps a reflection of the romanticised notion that India still lives in the villages.
While that is still true, at least statistically, the idea of separate impact is being slowly decimated. Fact is, a non-BJP party, either the Congress or AAP, is likely to win Punjab, while in UP the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance has a good chance of preventing the BJP from reaching the stable door.
Certainly, the stakes are high all around. But they are the highest for young Akhilesh, who must pull off the so-far unthinkable if he wants the people of UP — a state so large that it could be the world’s seventh largest country by population — to retain his confidence in him.
Whatever the result, Akhilesh knows that both victory and defeat will be laid at his door. He has allowed himself to be swayed by the niceties of things — some say Priyanka Gandhi made that call that sealed the alliance and gave 105 seats to the Congress — but the truth is, there’s no such thing in politics.
To his credit, Akhilesh has refused to go public with the complexities of the battle. He realises that a good general must make the best of an uneven situation. Rahul Gandhi may not be the perfect ally, but at least he’s a nice guy. Akhilesh is keenly aware that he will have to overcome the penchant of nice guys allowing themselves to come second, because in UP today the option doesn’t exist. It’s either all or nothing.
Revolting against his father and his arbitrary ways, Akhilesh showed that his hail-fellow-well-met manner was stiffened with a bit of spine. Many young people have identified with him and would like to follow suit — after all, Indian families are among the most oppressive in the world.
But Akhilesh must shed his good boy image as the election proceeds, phase-by-phase, and get tougher with the Congress. He knows that they are hanging on to him by his coat-tails.
Both he and Rahul know the Congress can only improve as its alliance with the SP gets underway. After all, it has 105 opportunities to prove its mettle — some say the Congress didn’t even have enough serious candidates for the 105 seats they fought for.
At the Meerut City rally, Akhilesh seemed to have an easy enough relationship with the Gandhi scion and searched for ways to draw him into a public conversation with the crowd. But the crowd was only rooting for “Akhilesh bhaiyya”. Young men had dressed up like him at the Nauchandi Maidan, while elderly Punjabi women felt the young man who wears his development agenda on his sleeve should be given another chance.
Once or twice, he allowed himself a stray sentence or two that captured the upheaval in his mind. He was often asked, Akhilesh said, why he had entered into this alliance with the Congress and given away seats when SP candidates from several of those seats were much better. For example, in Meerut South, he said, the SP’s Adil Chaudhary had been forced to stand down in favour of the Congress’ Azad.
Another time he gloried in the metaphor of youth. “When you ride your cycle fast, you can let go your hands from the handle but the cycle continues to race,” Akhilesh said, then caught himself short.
“Imagine what you could do if you put your hands back on? Now that the Congress’ hand is on the cycle, see how fast it can fly!” he added.
A poster in the crowd said “Karan Arjun aayo/Modi gayo.” Now that Karan and Arjun, two brothers, have found each other, it is the end of Modi.
But Akhilesh knows that if he loses, the BJP will make mince-meat of his party. To win he needs special armour, which is why he’s banking on his “development” card and the distress against demonetisation as his political weapons of mass destruction against the BJP. The Congress will merely be the icing on the cake.
The truth is that in UP today, Akhilesh Yadav is both Karan and Arjun.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal