If there is a single image of Akhilesh Yadav that holds a lasting memory, sometimes tinged with hope and sometimes with rueful nostalgia, it is one from the 2012 assembly elections campaign in Uttar Pradesh (UP). In it, Akhilesh, in a white kurta-pyjama, a red-and-white scarf and a red Samajwadi topi, is waving triumphantly while riding a bicycle. Next to him, the peloton is made up of hundreds of similarly clad Samajwadi Party workers. Akhilesh’s campaign rallies, in which he covered more than 250 kilometres on a cycle, were credited not just for his party’s resounding victory but also his eventual elevation as chief minister.
Five years later, some new revelations have been unearthed about Akhilesh over the last few days. At a time when UP is gearing up for an election in the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision and a bitter family feud within the Samajwadi Party, the young chief minister has emerged more strong-willed and more politically savvy than pundits had thought he could ever be.
Not only has he shown the fortitude to take on, and then take over, the extended Yadav pariwar, he has stood his ground against his father and party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. In October, Akhilesh had beseeched Mulayam to allow him to use the sword he had handed him when he had given him the chief minister’s job. Last week, Akhilesh brandished it expertly, cutting down uncle Shivpal Yadav’s leadership ambitions and severing Amar Singh from the Samajwadi Party.
What stood out after Mulayam took the hitherto-unthinkable step of expelling his own son from the party on December 30, was how quickly Akhilesh rallied the troops. The groundswell of support from party workers, and most importantly from almost 200 MLAs who parked themselves outside Akhilesh’s official Kalidas Marg residence in Lucknow, forced Mulayam to lay down arms. The manner of the takeover illustrated something Mulayam hadn’t comprehended – Akhilesh was not just well-liked, he was regarded as a better political bet by people who have their ears to the ground. It showed that the passing of the baton would not happen at a date and time of Mulayam’s choosing; Akhilesh had already snatched the baton and sprinted away.
This decisive power shift from father to son has opened up a world of possibilities for UP. It has shown that the result of the upcoming assembly polls is not a foregone conclusion. The BJP, which won 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and was hoping to cash in on notebandi to further strengthen its claim, will have to put up with a stiff fight from the incumbent, particularly in the absence of a chief ministerial candidate who can compete with Akhilesh on the personality stakes.
For the first time, a Yadav leader in UP will be heading to the 2017 election with the ability to create a larger coalition than the traditional backward-Muslim vote bank. There has been talk of Akhilesh’s willingness to join hands with Rahul Gandhi’s Congress and with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. It’s a potentially decisive combination that could skew traditional caste divisions by holding sway over a section of Thakur and Brahmin votes, apart from consolidating the Muslim and backward vote banks. It could also swing some of the Dalit voters who traditionally side with former chief minister Mayawati’s BSP.
While this possible gathbandhan works subtly on the ground, Akhilesh’s carefully crafted image makeover as a development icon could allow him to cash in on his popularity to appeal to voters independent of rigid caste blocks. Akhilesh is in a position where he can acquire his father’s political goodwill, and expand it further with his newly stamped and perfectly timed administrative credibility as the architect of expressways, cricket stadiums, cancer hospitals and the Lucknow Metro. He could change the Samajwadi Party narrative from mutual interest and factionism to a Modi 2014-style promise of progress.
It’s still a delicate political game to play. The best way for Akhilesh to strike a balance between the old and the new is to hold on to his political roots. Roots that can be summed up in the one object he never lost touch with, even when he was distributing laptops and talking of building IT cities – the cycle. The fight over the party’s symbol, which has gone to the Election Commission, with both sides claiming to be the real Samajwadi Party, could be critical. For, though Mulayam and Shivpal may not be in a position to put up a fight in the state, they can make things much more difficult for Akhilesh by snatching the party symbol away from him.
For two-and-a-half decades, Samajwadi Party’s cycle has represented a social identity that has grown stronger than the leaders who own it. It brings with it its own brand of loyal supporters who have rarely voted for any other symbol, and a message that holds sway over caste and religious sentiments. Without it, Akhilesh will lose more than ground recall, he will find himself without a personal motif — one that he has perhaps nurtured more affectionately and used more effectively than any other leader in India.