The burden of hope lies heavy on Akhilesh Yadav. Uttar Pradesh’s 38-year-old chief minister brings expectation that he will break from the past and usher in new beginnings, beginnings that include development not caste, roads not monuments, jobs not patronage.
Hope is a tough horse to ride and it has toppled many reputations in the past. Those who voted Akhilesh for the first time were not born when an exuberant Rajiv Gandhi swore to stamp out ‘powerbrokers’ in his Mumbai Congress centenary speech only to be voted out of office four years later. They would not remember the heady frenzy of VP Singh who ended his tenure as one of India’s most reviled politicians. And they certainly did not bear witness to the rise of a fiery student leader called Prafulla Mahanta who at 31 was India’s youngest chief minister, only to squander away goodwill with bad governance.
Akhilesh’s victory lap through television studios with the words ‘young’ and ‘hope’ trailing him like celebratory confetti, was greeted by warmth even from seasoned journalists. Neerja Choudhary spoke of his ‘easy accessibility’ and Lucknow boy Vinod Mehta was positively avuncular as he cautioned Akhilesh against the court culture Lucknow is apparently notorious for.
Bathed in bonhomie, Akhilesh moved swiftly to warn against post-poll violence and suspended an aide for ‘overboard statements’. Yet, there was a disturbing postscript: Was the attempted image make-over cosmetic? That answer came soon enough with his induction of six tainted MLAs, including the independent Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiyya against whom there are cases of extortion, murder and criminal intimidation. A defensive Akhilesh said the charges were cooked up, but few bought his story and it was an inauspicious start for someone who had sworn to improve law and order.
Ironically, Akhilesh’s appeal to voters lay in the fact that he does not seem to represent Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brand of caste, muscle and dodgy politics. Despite his father’s antipathy to computers, laptops were part of the son’s campaign largesse. And despite opposition from the old guard, he stood firm on denying a ticket to the tainted DP Yadav. But one crook does not a spotless wave make. As many as 106 candidates elected on the Samajwadi Party ticket have criminal charges against them. How is the new CM going to rein them in? Given that Raja Bhaiyya is in his cabinet, is he even going to try?
Youth’s appeal lies in its promise of change. In civil society, we are witness to this exuberance whether it’s by schoolchildren agitating for a ban on plastic bags and fire crackers or their older siblings leading the way in candlelight vigils that demand justice where it is blatantly denied. We see it in first generation entrepreneurs setting up online portals. We see it in young techies chucking up cushy jobs to go and teach in villages. We see it in young writers and film-makers who sing of a new India. We see it in athletes emerging from mohallas, burnished with ambition and a desire to make good.
But it’s an energy that eludes politics. As Patrick French points out, every MP below the age of 30 occupies a hereditary position; it’s two-thirds for those under 40. Akhilesh — like Sukhbir Badal and Rahul Gandhi and, if you want to throw in the considerably older, Vijay Bahuguna into the mix — is the product of entitlement, thrust into power because he is the son of a powerful politician.
Are hereditary politicians talented or deserving? Perhaps yes. Would they have come up on their own? We will never know. What we do know is that politics in democratic India is increasingly a family-and-friends only circle. Ironically, it was Rahul Gandhi who conceded, “Without family, friends or money you cannot enter the system.” So, the energy of a youthful demographic shining elsewhere in India remains dark in the circle of Indian democracy.
It’s now up to Akhilesh to shake off his inheritance and be the change they desire. It’s up to Akhilesh now to fulfil the promise of youth.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal