The rise of Chhote Netaji
There were 92 missed calls on Akhilesh Yadav's Blackberry as he finished a campaign meeting in Biswan, 100 km north of Lucknow. This election is the first — and arguably the last — chance for Akhilesh, state president of the Samajwadi Party since 2010, to prove worthy of his father Mulayam Yadav's legacy in Uttar Pradesh. His Bell-707 helicopter's ascent in the windy afternoon resembled his political rise — steady but not without strong resistance. As Akhilesh scanned the missed calls and waved at the crowd below, SP leader Shamim Kausar launched a sensitive —and the most crucial question — with the flair only a seasoned politician like him could command.
"People ask me, kiski chalti hai…netaji ka ya Akhilesh ki? (whose writ runs, Netaji's or Akhilesh's?) I tell them it is Netaji's." Netaji is how Mulayam is addressed — even by the son. Kausar had got it wrong. In a disarming tone, Akhilesh, 39, told Kausar, at least two decades elder: "Next time, you should tell them Netaji ki chalti hai, lekin Netaji Akhilesh ki sunte hein." (it is Netaji's show, but Netaji listens to Akhilesh." In SP, blessed are those who get this message in time.The SP, a party designed in the style and thinking of Mulayam (a wrestler who wrested power from the hands of the Congress and the upper castes and as chief minister banished English and computers), is being rebooted by Chhote Netaji. "This election is going to be my real test," Akhilesh admits. And he's honing his skills under the watchful eyes of Netaji, who still holds the veto, but is indulgent towards the son.
Among the crowd waiting for Akhilesh outside the fortressed 5, Vikramaditya Marg residence in Lucknow that morning was Somvathi Sanghwar, a dalit lady in her late 30s whom he had zeroed in as a candidate. It was her grit — three times elected to the district panchayat without any backing of money— that impressed Akhilesh. But Mulayam replaced her with a veteran. Akhilesh overruled his father and reinstated Sanghwar. But Netaji wasn't letting this pass. She was dropped again and has now come to complain. "I know your worth and we will take care of you," Akhilesh consoles her. Chintu Yadav – all of 26 years, and candidate from Dumariaganj, wants Akhilesh to make a few calls to console Muslims who are unhappy about the seat not coming to them. "You are the candidate, nobody can change that," he tells someone on the phone as he drives to take the chopper.
Akhilesh's takeover of the SP is total, almost. Last year, he wrote to district presidents saying people with a criminal image should not be allowed into the party. Proof of what he meant came rather rudely. When uncle Shivpal Yadav and party veteran Azam Khan wanted to induct don-politician DP Yadav (father of Vikas Yadav, who murdered Nitish Katara) into SP, he blocked the move, and did it publicly. "We do not need such people," Akhilesh says. Mohan Singh, long-time associate of Netaji, was removed as national spokesperson through a statement from the state president's office, for supporting DP.
Zaheer Abbas, SP candidate in Laharpur constituency, where Akhilesh would have his first meeting, was also in his 20s. His father Mukhtar has been an old Mulayam associate. "Netaji wants the son of Mukhtar chacha to be elected," Akhilesh tells the crowd. On the stage, Akhilesh reminds old-timers of Mulayam in his youth — the accent, the pause and the gesture. "He has inherited the speed and spirit of the father," says Rajendra Choudhary, who had debuted in politics with Mulayam in 1967.
"Maya is making her own statues. No other government has been so insensitive, so unjust and so despotic as this one has been. I need your help to unseat this government," he scathes and the crowd cheers. "Five years ago I didn't know how to make a public speech," he said later.
Akhilesh, much like Rahul, began organisational politics by taking over youth and students wings in 2007. As the son took a step forward, Mulayam took one backward — leaving no vacuum and avoiding a sudden jerk. The younger generation gathered around the chhote neta who began projecting more of them. But none of them would be separated from Netaji by more than two degrees — such as Zaheer. "Netaji personally knows most of my recruits," Akhilesh says.
Akhilesh is not merely giving a face-lift to the party by purging criminals and inducing fresh blood, but is also reshaping its thinking — going beyond caste mobilisation. And the new thinking is evident in the promise of a laptop to every student who completes school. But there is a caveat. These computers will run in Hindi or Urdu — a condition that Mulayam put when the son came up with the idea six months ago. "We had to keep it a secret, otherwise Mayawati would have announced it too," says Akhilesh. Mulayam's opposition to computers is known, but as a neo-convert he never forgets to mention it in public meetings. Akhilesh explained the route of his campaign on an iPad to Mulayam; and the story goes that Netaji was impressed that there were machines, too, that could do his job. "Mulayam can outperform computers. He remembers every road in the state and at least 1,000 names in a district," says Rajendra Choudhary. It is like remembering more than 80,000 names!
Others in the family, particularly Mulayam's brother Shivpal and cousin Rampal, have fallen in line. Shivpal sulked initially over the candidates, but another rebellion in the household is possible only in the event of a bad electoral show, or in the absence of Netaji. Akhilesh is learning fast. "I too don't forget people I've met once," he says. But it hasn't reached the 1,000 a district figure yet.
Rahul Gandhi's zero-risk game
For the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, it's the same leader with the same speech. Rahul Gandhi tells the voters exactly the same thing he said in 2007: "My mission is not restricted to elections, but it is about changing Uttar Pradesh. The BSP and SP have divided you on caste lines, but development can happen only when governments work for all sections of the society."
Still, this speech, at Attara in Bundelkhand, in the south east of the state, is far for more persuasive than in 2007. Then, his boyish charm used to overwhelm his sense of purpose; now, his youthful impatience with the underdevelopment of the state and particularly, the region, is pronounced. The white shoots in his beard are as visible as the green shoots for his party in the state. Still, the boyishness has not vanished.
"When Bundelkhand was in drought, I came here. Mayawati or Mulayam did not come when you needed them…we gave you a special package of Rs 7000 crore." As the crowd cheers, Rahul turns interactive. "Has any youth here benefited from this?" "Noooooo" "Has any woman got anything from this package? "Nooooo."
RG speaks with more authority, his open arms symbolic of his prescription for the party — open up to the last man. Still, it is not merely the fact that he doesn't cling to the pulpit; or that he no longer fumbles for words between disruptive pauses that make him more connected to the audience. Two factors bring his words close to the world they inhabit — one, the perception of Mayawati's regime as corrupt; and two, Rahul Gandhi's perseverance of staying on in UP even after the 2007 drubbing where the party got 8.5 % votes and 22 seats. "Victory or defeat, I shall come back and I shall stay with you." In 2007, it was merely a promise; by 2012 it has been demonstrated.
More than the context, the change is the leader himself – Rahul Gandhi. His speeches appear more aggressive though he would refute that. Those who are privy to his thinking say Rahul believes that politics driven by anger can't achieve anything. "His critiques are systemic and procedural rather than personal. He makes it a point to greet Mayawati or Mulayam whenever he chances upon them," says an aide. He isn't impatient either. "It may take five, ten or 15 years to turn around UP. But quit, we will not," Rahul told party observers to UP. His attempt to remain patient, is related to another guiding thought for him of late — that situations and people cannot be read in black and white. "He no longer banishes a person even if he doesn't entirely like him," says a Congressman. In 2009, he rejected alliances in Bihar; but in UP the Congress is in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
UP, his goal
"The risk is in sitting at home," Rahul deflected sceptics who warned against associating closely with the unpredictable UP elections. "UP is a zero-risk enterprise. There can be rewards too."
The Congress has been marginalised since 1989, when caste and religious polarisations made its centrist approach irrelevant in UP. Rahul has made the recovery of the party in this state that sends 80 members to Parliament, the centre of his politics, after the drive that democratised the student and youth wings of the party.
And there is an intimate personal reason also, as Rahul considers UP his home — he's the fifth generation Nehru in the state's politics. Rahul also believes that working in UP where deprivation, mis-governance and identity politics are in extremes also helps his own evolution, as "a human being and as a politician."
It is in this journey, which he considers as much self-discovery as it is public service, that Rahul came across Sampath Pal, a shepherd woman in her forties and now, Congress candidate from Mau Manikpur. Pal is the leader of an organisation called Gulabi Gang. "It all started when a few of us bashed up the sub-inspector who was harassing a woman in 2006," Pal recalls. While the Mayawati and Mulayam regimes tried to suppress the movement branding it as Naxalite, Rahul discovered the leader in her. "Only he and his mother understand the poor and the women," she said, after a large meeting, mostly of women, in which Rahul sought votes for her.
Like Pal, Rahul brought into mainstream politics several unconventional candidates. "After the 2007 election, RG figured out the clientele system of ticket distribution in the party. He has demolished it," says a leader. RG reasoned that unless the Congress shed its image of being an exclusive upper caste party, the future was bleak. As result, the number of upper caste candidates came down from 182 to 109, correspondingly increasing lower castes.
In Bundelkhand, Rahul avoided naming BJP leader Babu Kushwaha — alleged kingpin in the NRHM scam during his tenure as minister under Mayawati — in order to not antagonise backward caste supporters. "His understanding of UP's caste dynamics is terrific," says a bureaucrat observing Rahul. "He has got the pulse of the masses," says union minister Jitin Prasada. Rahul believes ticket distribution has demonstrated the party's capability to be fair to all social groups and will help its electoral prospects.
The universal approval of his 'politics beyond election' approach, expressed through the moist eyes of women at Rahul's meeting, is unmistakable.
Rahul is an overwhelming sentiment in this UP election. But sentiments and seats can be different, more so when the party that he leads hardly exists on the ground.