For UP 2022, inside Akhilesh Yadav’s SP campaign machine

While the BJP claims it will secure over 350 seats in the state’s assembly elections, Akhilesh Yadav’s SP is pulling out all the stops to regain power in the state. Will it be enough?
It is Akhilesh Yadav’s party that remains at the forefront of the battle to win power in 2022 (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
It is Akhilesh Yadav’s party that remains at the forefront of the battle to win power in 2022 (HT PHOTO)
Updated on Oct 13, 2021 01:15 PM IST
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Lucknow: Electoral history has shown that a government has never got repeated in Uttar Pradesh (UP) since 1989. The state also has an even starker political record, of no chief minister (CM) ever having completed a five year term and then returning to power to complete another term ever since the first elections in 1952.

For close to a decade-and-a-half through the 90s and early part of 2000s, UP witnessed a fragmented polity till politics decisively turned in 2007. The state has, since then, has clear majority regimes — first, led by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for five years; then, the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2012; and now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation since 2017.

The trend of governments not returning to power, of CMs failing to get a second term, and of majority regimes getting toppled in the next election is what has emboldened UP’s opposition parties to believe that 2022 could mark the end of Yogi Adityanath’s government.

And given that the primary opposition in the state remains the SP, which has a substantial base of Yadavs and Muslims, it is Akhilesh Yadav’s party that remains at the forefront of the battle to win power in 2022.

A bipolar contest in the state, a single power centre in the party

Currently, the battle for 2022 looks like a BJP vs SP contest, with the BSP and the Congress also fighting for power.

“The fight, at this point, is certainly between the BJP and the SP. Other parties are trying, but they might not find favour with voters. The BSP’s base is vastly eroded, and at the same time, the party is suffering desertions. The Congress has no presence at the grassroots level,” said professor SK Dwivedi, political analyst, and retired head of department, political science, Lucknow University.

The Akhilesh Yadav-led SP looks better prepared and focused compared to the previous elections. Unlike the 2017 election, which reduced the SP from 224 seats in 2012 (out of 403 in the assembly) to just 47, the party has overcome the chaos fuelled by the Yadav’s family feud.

Now, Akhilesh’s leadership is all-pervasive, undisputed, and monolithic. The father stands by the son. The uncle is out (PTI)
Now, Akhilesh’s leadership is all-pervasive, undisputed, and monolithic. The father stands by the son. The uncle is out (PTI)

The fight between the then CM Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav (who was, at the time, public works department minister in Akhilesh’s Cabinet) had resulted in long-drawn-out power struggle. Mulayam Yadav, the then national president of the SP, was a fence-sitter in the intra-family battle. Now, Akhilesh’s leadership is all-pervasive, undisputed, and monolithic. The father stands by the son. The uncle is out and the party has no power centres or factions.

Mulayam is not just with Akhilesh, but of late, has also restarted participating in party events. In 2017, Mulayam did not campaign for the party, but now, if his health permits, he will. Mulayam’s clear support for Akhilesh will be pivotal in helping the SP get the Muslim vote.

The SP’s outreach

To regain power, Akhilesh Yadav has spurred the party into a never-before kind of campaign, leaving no stone unturned in its voter outreach. As a party with a significant presence across the state, it is conducting all sorts of campaigns — yatras, cycle rallies, Brahmin conferences, Backwards conferences, minorities campaigns, and Dalit sammelans (conventions).

SP is now active in all districts, blocks, and villages. Akhilesh — earlier considered a reserved travel campaigner — has recently travelled to 40 districts, and also sat on dharna twice on the roads in Lucknow against the BJP government.

The party also rolled out its signature campaign — bicycle rallies — twice. On both occasions, Akhilesh rode a bicycle (the party symbol).

The party’s cadre has been visibly travelling across the state, with a focus on specific caste groups. Long seen as having the loyalty of only Yadavs and Muslims — substantial support groups in their own right, but not enough to win power when faced with an even stronger and wider coalition on the other side — the SP appears to be targeting other backward caste groups, the non-Yadav backward communities who have been resentful of Yadav domination in SP.

All these campaigns are happening simultaneously, and without breaks (HT PHOTO)
All these campaigns are happening simultaneously, and without breaks (HT PHOTO)

The party’s state president, Naresh Uttam Patel, ran a month-long “Kisan-Naujawan-Patel Yatra” that ended in Lucknow on September 23, with an eye on Kurtis. The Brahmin faces of the SP — former minister Abhishek Mishra, Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Manoj Pandey, and former Speaker Mata Prasad Pandey — have been holding Brahmin sammelans for over two months.

Dayaram Pal, former BSP minister, who joined the SP last year, is carrying out a pal samaj campaign, with an eye on Pal community, while SP Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), Rajpal Kashyap, is organising statewide backwards sammelans, targeting Kashyaps. The Dalit cell of the party, too, is holding Dalit sammelans.

All these campaigns are happening simultaneously, and without breaks. And within these campaigns, the SP is pursuing “soft Hindutva”. Akhilesh Yadav has also been doing temple runs during his visits to districts from Mathura to Chitrakoot.

When all political activities in the state were in suspended animation during the first wave of Covid-19, Akhilesh Yadav overhauled the party organisation. All the frontal organisations — Lohia Vahini, Mulayam Singh Youth Brigade, Yuvjan Sabha, Chhatra Sabha, and Mahila Sabha — have taken to the streets against the BJP. And allies are running the “make Akhilesh CM again” campaign.

The influx of leaders

Once the Yadav family feud was settled, all dissenters were removed, and the party has had no more internal conflicts. Akhilesh Yadav started inducting outsiders from other parties in 2019.

The alliance with the BSP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls failed to give the desired benefit, but it triggered the movement of BSP leaders to the SP. Many prominent BSP leaders — former MLAs, former MPs, former ministers, and party office-bearers — joined the SP. Former minister Dayaram Pal, former minister KK Gautam, and former Mayawati officer on special duty (OSD) Ganga Ram Ambedkar are just a few names. SP heavyweight and party’s chief whip, Ambika Chaudhary, (who joined the BSP in 2017) returned to the SP last month. Some prominent Congress leaders such as former minister, Salim Sherwani and former Congress Member of Parliament (MP) from Unnao, Anu Tandon, are now in the SP fold.

A young Turk of Congress, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, quit the party recently, and there is speculation that he will join the SP too, though, to be sure, there has been no formal announcement yet. Towards the end of September, two expelled BSP leaders, Lalji Verma and Ramachal Rajbhar, met Akhilesh. Speculation also arose that they, along with seven rebel BSP MLAs —Aslam Raini, Aslam Ali, Jujtaba Siddiqui, Hakim Lal Bind, Hargovind Bhargava, Sushma Patel, and Vandana Singh — may likely join the SP before their term in Vidhan Sabha ends.

Early in September, BJP MLA from Sitapur, Rakesh Rathore, met Akhilesh at the SP office, triggering speculation that he and several BJP MLAs might join the SP. “People know that SP is returning to power. More than 100 BJP MLAs are in touch with the SP”, said state party spokesperson and former minister, Rajendra Chaudhary.

“Isn’t this a trend of movement from all parties to the SP enough to show who is coming to power? Feeling the pulse of the voters, most of the disgruntled leaders of the BSP, the Congress, and the BJP are joining our party. There must be a strong wave in favour of SP, and that is why leaders from other parties are trusting the visionary leadership of Akhilesh Yadav”, said Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, an SP spokesperson.

A single opponent: The BJP

Akhilesh Yadav recognises the BJP is the SP’s only rival. It is ignoring all the other BJP rivals in the 2022 poll arena. Even when BSP chief Mayawati attacks the SP and its previous governments, Akhilesh remains silent. Recently, the Congress released a booklet that listed the “failures and corruption of the SP governments and dynastic politics in SP”, but there was no counterattack from the SP.

“The BJP is our only rival, none other. We are not going to waste our energies on the BSP and the Congress. We have to displace the BJP and give people back the SP government. The Congress is a confused party. It doesn’t even know who it is fighting — the BJP or the SP. The leaders from the BSP and the Congress are joining SP in droves,” said Udaiveer Singh, an SP MLC.

The party’s main catchline for 2022 polls is “Baaees Mein Bicycle” (Bicycle in 22) (HT PHOTO )
The party’s main catchline for 2022 polls is “Baaees Mein Bicycle” (Bicycle in 22) (HT PHOTO )

When attacking the BJP, the SP often speaks of its divisive politics, farm laws, backward issues, and caste census. It has heavily criticised the state government for its Covid-19 mismanagement, the prevailing law and order in the state and the country at large, the rise in crimes against women, and the slump in the economy.

SP state spokesperson, Rajendra Chaudhary, alleged: “The BJP is a party of liars and now the party is fully exposed. It has cheated every section of society. People now want the development-oriented Samajwadi Party back and we will form the government.” The party’s main catchline for 2022 polls is “Baaees Mein Bicycle” (Bicycle in 22).

Newer, smaller alliances

Akhilesh Yadav, just after becoming the national president of the SP, struck an alliance with the Congress for the 2017 UP polls. The parties coined the “UP ke ladkey” (the boys of UP) slogan signifying the coming together of Akhilesh and Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi. The SP contested 298 seats, while Congress contested 105 seats in the alliance. The alliance failed.

Then for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Akhilesh allied with the BSP, and yet again failed to stop the BJP’s surge, by winning only five seats (just as many as its 2014 Lok Sabha tally).

Now, Akhilesh is trying out his third experiment — of allying with small regional parties. He has allied with parties such as Mahan Dal or Janwadi Party (Socialist) that have never won any seats. He has inducted BSP MP Mukhtar Ansari’s brothers into the SP, who are influential in pockets of eastern UP. The SP is looking for more small allies. The only constant companion of the SP since 2017 has been the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

Lakhimpur Kheri gives the SP fresh ammo

Hours after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on October 3, which killed eight people — including four farmers while they were protesting against the new farm laws — Akhilesh announced that he will go to Lakhimpur Kheri to meet the families of the farmers who were killed. But the government and Lucknow Police barricaded and sealed all exits from Akhilesh’s house.

Akhilesh stepped out of his house, and in the style characteristic of Mulayam Singh Yadav, sat on the road. The police took him into custody and sent him to a makeshift detention centre for protesters at the Eco Gardens, five kilometres away. Akhilesh’s detention triggered an angry protest and face-off between party workers outside Akhilesh’s home and the police, which then led to a lathi-charge.

Akhilesh ended up meeting the families of the victims the next day (PTI)
Akhilesh ended up meeting the families of the victims the next day (PTI)

Akhilesh ended up meeting the families of the victims the next day. He is now armed with fresh ammunition against the BJP government. This is because the Lakhimpur Kheri incident upscaled three elements in Akhilesh’s armoury: The BJP’s anti-farmer stance, the poor law and order in the state, and the presence of wayward BJP leaders.

Vijay Yatra and the quest for power

On Tuesday, October 12, Akhilesh launched his Vijay Yatra (in a BharatBenz bus) from the Ganga bridge in Kanpur to Hamirpur. The yatra will go on, intermittently, and will cover the entire state before the announcement of the 2022 UP assembly polls early next year.

With the yatra, Akhilesh aims to connect with the masses in his attempt to regain power in the state (HT PHOTO)
With the yatra, Akhilesh aims to connect with the masses in his attempt to regain power in the state (HT PHOTO)

With the yatra, Akhilesh aims to connect with the masses in his attempt to regain power in the state. “Whenever he took out a yatra for assembly elections, [the] SP had returned to power. And will happen against this time. After his 2001 Kranti rath yatra, [the] SP returned to power in 2002; and after 2011 yatra, [the] SP against returned to the power and Akhileshji became the chief minister for the first time” said SP spokesperson, Rajendra Chaudhary.

In 2022, David vs Goliath

But while this is all a part of SP’s toolkit, defeating the BJP in a crowded poll landscape is going to be no easy task.

“It will not be as easy as it was in 2012 for the SP to regain power. Then it was a clear bipolar contest against the discredited BSP government. The SP was the sole rival to the BSP, as both the Congress and the BJP were either virtually non-existent or very weak then. But now, the Congress and the BSP are trying hard too. They might not be in a position to win, but they might hurt the SP”, said professor SK Dwivedi.

Dwivedi also says that there will be a blitzkrieg of a campaign by the whole army of national and state stalwarts in the BJP. Tackling it will be another big challenge for Akhilesh.

The SP faces an uphill battle to regain power in the state. The BJP bagged 312 seats against its 47 seats in 2012. The SP fell to 47 seats from its 2012’s 224. The BJP’s vote share jumped to 39.67% (a swing of 24.67%). while the SP’s vote share fell to 21.82% (a swing of 7.33%). Mayawati bagged 19 seats in 2017, but her party’s vote share was 22.23% — higher than the SP’s.

Despite psephologists having their ears to the ground, the region has always remained unpredictable (HT PHOTO)
Despite psephologists having their ears to the ground, the region has always remained unpredictable (HT PHOTO)

Countering any effect of the obvious BJP blitzkrieg, Abdul Hafiz Gandhi said: “The people of UP have realised that “jumla” (rhetoric) politics of the BJP has done more harm than good to the state. The BJP led government is more about event and media headline management. Development has been the first victim of the BJP’s visionless leadership. Therefore, people now want to restart the development works that the SP did between 2012 and 2017. And don’t forget the panchayat poll results. Despite the BJP’s top state leaders’ campaigns, the zilla panchayat members — the direct elections — the SP won the maximum number of seats. Like the panchayats’ direct election, people will defeat the BJP and make the SP victorious”.

UP’s electoral politics forecast often embarrasses even expert poll pundits once the ballot counting begins. Despite psephologists having their ears to the ground, the region has always remained unpredictable. So, only time will tell if Akhilesh will pull off a major upset or not.

However, if one thing can be said about the SP’s fight in 2022, it is that the party has learnt from its electoral mistakes of the past, is determined to take down the BJP, and is pulling out all the stops to return to power in the state.

This is the first of a four-part series on UP’s political landscape, with a focus on each party in the fray, for HT Premium

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Tuesday, October 26, 2021