How family feud ended anti-incumbency for UP CM Akhilesh Yadav | columns | Hindustan Times
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How family feud ended anti-incumbency for UP CM Akhilesh Yadav

The Yadav family feud, either by design or a twist of fate, could help Akhilesh overcome his biggest hurdle. Standing up to his father and his uncles, pulling the rug out from under their feet, taking over the Samajwadi Party, has given him the opportunity to become the first UP chief minister in decades to go to the polls without having to worry about anti-incumbency.

columns Updated: Jan 08, 2017 09:06 IST
Chanakya
Though he has been chief minister for five years, Akhilesh’s fighting spirit and his bounce-backability will allow him to face the electorate virtually as a fresh candidate
Though he has been chief minister for five years, Akhilesh’s fighting spirit and his bounce-backability will allow him to face the electorate virtually as a fresh candidate(PTI)

If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s at getting around. So, on a warm autumn afternoon last year, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and I were flying over Uttar Pradesh’s grassy farm lands, cruising from Lucknow to his family village of Saifai in his Hawker 900XP jet.

It was a time of relative calm in India’s most populous state — dramatically different from the goings on in the region and within the Samajwadi Party (SP) over the last few weeks. Though there were rumblings of disaffection between Akhilesh and his powerful uncle Shivpal Yadav, the battle lines within the Yadav family had not yet been drawn. How strongly the party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav would veer towards Shivpal, and how emphatically the party’s foot soldiers would support Akhilesh in the family feud, were certainly not known.

Read I ‘If Mulayam can leave son, why can’t we leave him?’: Akhilesh rises amid SP feud

Back then, the chief minister was interested in showing off his various development projects from the air — the Lucknow-Agra expressway, the international cricket stadium, the new state highways linking 44 district headquarters, and the Lucknow Metro. As he fervently displayed his work during his first term, it was clear that the chief minister was deeply concerned about what he considered his gravest challenge in the 2017 assembly elections: anti-incumbency.

Given the recent political history of UP, this was a logical assessment. Over the last three elections, the state oscillated between the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Mayawati, with the predictability of a swinging pendulum. If the SP emerged as the largest party with 143 seats in 2002, the BSP bounced back with 206 seats in 2007 and the SP roared to power with 224 out of 403 Vidhan Sabha seats in 2012. This trend goes back, with some small riders, to 1989, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also in the mix. The days when the Congress could win back-to-back terms between 1980 and 1989, and rule the state for all but two years between 1950 and 1977, are now a distant dream.

There has also been a pattern with which the electorate has reacted to sitting chief ministers over the last two decades. Re-election bids by BSP regimes have been rejected on the grounds that corruption spikes every time the party is in power, and the SP’s attempts to retain power have been shot down on the grounds that the law-and-order situation deteriorates whenever the party is at the helm.

Now that the BJP is again a strong contender after sweeping 71 out of 80 seats in the state in the state in the Lok Sabha elections, and has been riding the wave created by the November 8 demonetisation decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the incumbent Akhilesh has not one, but two strong opponents to worry about.

But the Yadav family feud, either by design or a twist of fate, could help Akhilesh overcome his biggest hurdle. Standing up to his father and his uncles, pulling the rug out from under their feet, taking over the Samajwadi Party, has given him the opportunity to become the first UP chief minister in decades to go to the polls without having to worry about anti-incumbency.

Read I Akhilesh Yadav rejigs party, looks all set with UP polls preparation

Though he has been chief minister for five years, Akhilesh’s fighting spirit and his bounce-backability will allow him to face the electorate virtually as a fresh candidate. All the bad legacy issues that come with being in power — tangibles such as sluggish growth and deteriorating law-and-order, and intangibles such as unfulfilled aspirations and a sense of sameness — can be planted at the door of Mulayam and Shivpal. Akhilesh can cash in on the perception that he wasn’t being allowed to work, that he was kept on a tight leash, presenting himself as a leader who is finally coming into his own. The strong rebranding of his image as a “yuva neta” and a development icon will only help reinforce that claim.

If elections are driven by personalities, as so many have been in recent years across the country, Akhilesh is the man of the moment, dominating the headlines ahead of Mayawati, who hasn’t been able to keep up, and the BJP, which is sorely missing a chief ministerial face. A partnership with the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), ostensibly in the works, will further add to the sense of newness about him.

But Akhilesh needs to tie up several loose ends over the course of the next month to gain the advantage. He needs to settle the dispute over the party’s cycle symbol with his father and his uncle. And, despite the bitterness of the last few weeks, he needs to get Mulayam on his side, if not whole-heartedly then at least publicly, in order to ensure that his core Yadav and Muslim vote banks are not split.

Read I Akhilesh Yadav needs SP cycle to change the poll narrative in UP

The big takeaway for Akhilesh is that the days when people thought UP had “five-and-a-half chief ministers” are behind him. There has been a clear shift in UP politics in the last two weeks. Will that shift will prove decisive, and has the BJP has already gained enough momentum to tilt the scales, are still questions that need to answered.

So, watch this space. There will be more insights and analyses when I get around a bit more.

chanakya@hindustantimes.com