For an election that could transform national politics the decibel levels in Uttar Pradesh are oddly low. This is – so far- a rather low-key election campaign despite the high stakes and the coarse swipes exchanged by either side. In some ways its mellowness matches that of the state’s incumbent chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav.
In the Age of Trump when brashness sells both in politics and on the nightly news, the 43-year-old civil engineer has an understated demeanour that is unusual for the times. The first joint press conference held by Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi threw up this contrast: SP insiders feel Rahul Gandhi tried to dominate the press conference with interventions that were louder, longer and more aggressive than that of the chief minister. “That’s not his style,” one of Akhilesh’s aides told me, “he will show who is the boss in the alliance in his own way.”
Even his distinctly minimalist Lucknow office reflects this restraint. Save a heavily set portrait in dark copper of Ram Manohar Lohia and one Jackson Pollock style painting of the chief minister (a gift from some doctors), the white walls are mostly bare and the room uncluttered; a boomerang shaped curved table, a few simple swivel chairs and two maroon leather chairs in a corner look out through French windows to a placid green lawn. There is no ornamentalism to the office at all. Those who work with the chief minister argue that this minimalism is also reflected in the election slogan of the Samajwadi Party - ‘Kaam Bolta Hai’— My work will speak.
Manoj Yadav, the talented songwriter from Azamgarh, who otherwise penned the flamboyant ‘De Ghumake’ anthem for the World Cup in 2011, told me that the chief minister’s orders to the campaign team were to write something focused more on performance than persona. The SP and the BJP will joust over this governance record; Akhilesh Yadav will want to focus on the Lucknow-Agra Expressway, Metro projects and other infra-initiatives; the Opposition will draw his attention to law and order problems on his watch. But that Akhilesh has positioned himself very differently from the high-octane style of netagiri that has come to be the norm is obvious.
The Akhilesh narrative in these elections is that of a quiet, hardworking family man who has tried to bring a generational shift to an old socialist party. Yes, many of the sitting SP MLAs do not enjoy the same freedom from anti-incumbency sentiments that Akhilesh appears to and to that extent, like Modi in 2014, his personal popularity is much greater than that of his party. But that is where the similarity ends.
If there is any parallel to the campaign style of Akhilesh Yadav in 2017 it is to that of Nitish Kumar in Bihar. Just as Nitish Kumar sought — without any emotive oratory — a vote that he hoped would transcend caste, Akhilesh Yadav is trying to break free from the traditional Muslim-Yadav combine that has been the go-to option of his father’s generation. If ‘Netaji’ was once mocked as ‘Mullah Mulayam’ for his assiduous courtship of the Muslim vote and keeping minority politics alive, Akhilesh Yadav has not hesitated to unceremoniously drop sullied but influential Muslim Mafiosi and gangsters like Mukhtar Ansari and Atiq Ahmed.
Today Mayawati is playing the Muslim identity card that Mulayam used to be accused of; she has opened her doors not just for a discredited criminal like Ansari but also accepted the support of the entirely irrelevant Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid. By contrast, Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign, while hopeful of a consolidated Muslim vote endorsing his ‘gatbandhan’ with Rahul Gandhi, is not selling them anything different from what he is offering voters from other communities. The roads and metro projects remain the jewels of his poll crown and he has gambled on the assumption that younger Muslims are interested in the same issues of development as Hindus are. SP strategists like to say that the ‘M-Y’ (Muslim Yadav) corpus has another investor, a second ‘Y’- the Youth factor.
The CM — who once had to convince the old guard of his party that lap-tops were not anti-socialism — has embraced social media, from Twitter to Instagram to court this age-group. A young Muslim voter rejected my suggestion that her endorsement for Akhilesh was linked to her religion; “I like him because he is young and deserving, not because I am Muslim,” she told me. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 do remain a shadow over the attempts by Akhilesh Yadav to present himself as a modern leader for the young; one driven more by infrastructure than identity politics. But in many ways the family squabble that played out in public; his standing up to establishmentarian old-style Machiavellians like Amar Singh and Shivpal Yadav has only enhanced his public reputation and allowed him to break free from much of his past.
Travel across Uttar Pradesh and you will meet —as I did —even BJP voters saying mostly decent things about Akhilesh Yadav. With the BJP still looking for an ‘X’ factor in its UP narrative and opting to not declare a chief ministerial candidate, the U.P election is now down to a direct battle between the Prime Minister and the chief minister.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal