The scion of a political dynasty clad in the same-old Khadi kurta pyjama and a crisp black sadhri masquerades as a youth icon. Well also, calls himself a new-age socialist while trying hard to escape the shadow of his ‘feud’al predecessors, in this case his own father. Some regard Akhilesh Yadav- the ‘other’ political prince of Indian politics- as the man who fought till the bitter end while others think of him as a leader beyond his last name.
In a year leading to the Vidhan Sabha elections-when he should be lapping up opportunities to prove his mettle as a leader- his low-profile and reluctance is both startling and possibly strategic.
They symbol of change in 2012
When he took oath as the youngest CM of Uttar Pradesh in 2012, he represented change. Change both for his party- that was riddled with gangsters-and for UP- still recovering from the vestiges of gundaraj and unrestrained corruption. The 2012 mandate- a landslide victory for the SP under Akhilesh with 224 of the 403 seats- ended the oscillating power dynamic between SP (Mulayam) and BSP(Mayawati) year after year. Akhilesh became the symbol of a new generation of politics that would bring growth and prosperity that the state had yearned for ever since his father had first sworn in. Akhilesh was seen as a leader of the people, the ‘samaj’, in the true sense of the term.
His first political triumph was his win in SP homeground Kannauj- the heirloom of the Yadav clan- in a by-election in 2000. He was seen as the new kid in the block, here to make the most of the privileges that he was ‘entitled to’ by virtue of being born in a political dynasty. His 2004 Lok Sabha victory was another feather in his ‘cap’- a dated symbol of Samajwad (socialism) that he brought back in vogue with great panache.
He began to come into prominence on the national scene- with constant comparisons with the other Khadi youth icon- and he was perceived as the embodiment of Mulayam’s dream to expand the party to national horizons. The voters of the Kannauj dynasty embraced him with open arms as a worthy descendant of a legacy to which they felt they belonged. As an MP, he not just had clear loyalties but justified his election to the seat as a firebrand speaker in the Parliament.
A unique demeanour
Soon after, his aggressive campaigns in the state made it clear that he is ready to step into Mulayam’s shoes. With his world-view and sharp political acumen- for a fortuitous politician- he was intelligent enough to create an identity of his own and not follow the quintessential template of a hereditary successor. A clean image with a veneer of humility, silent charisma and a formidable stance- a welcome change from Mulayam’s seething apathy- made it easy for him to build his own brand of politics.
It is a rather sorry state of affairs that the people of a state turn to a political prince to save them from the misery unleashed by his own father. Akhilesh’s entry to politics did manifest itself as a silver lining but it was the product of his father’s opportunism and the aspiration to make it big at the national stage.
Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign for the 2012 Vidhan Sabha elections speaks volumes about his demeanor- a blend of understated glamour and combative grit- and his strategy of overturning anti-incumbency in his own favour. For the first time in nearly two decades, the people of UP could witness a dramatic change in the outlook towards the economy of the state. He articulated his ambition to transform the state from an agro-based one to an industrialised economy with employment opportunities for all.
His candidature as CM was based on two basic principles- the promise to end ‘gundaraj’ ( perpetuated by his uncles under the leadership of his father) and the aim to rapidly remodel UP as a metropolis. He became the emblem of an ideology that was hitherto alien to the people of the state.
His raw passion blended with finesse that comes from a foriegn education and the right pedigree had a peculiar appeal particularly among the youth. The mass youth resonance was coupled with a well thought out policy of welfarism. He was on a freebie spree in his campaign rallies. He promised ‘free-laptops’ to students, free electricity to weavers and jobs and vocational training to the unemployed- a strategy that gave him the identity of a Gen-Z socialist.
He was rebellious- perhaps stemming from what they call the ‘arrogance of the youth’. There was a clear dismissal of his father’s ‘anti-English’ outlook. He was receptive to the use of technology in politics. More than anything else, what struck a chord with voters was his commitment to keep goons out of power and punishment for those who indulged in criminal acts. This meant going against his own uncles and cousins- the gundas- and keeping them in check. Voters saw in him a Samajwadi- that promises to strip goons of their clout- that they could have never envisaged.
He ushered in a new era of politics in UP with his resounding victory. Could he, however, allay the fears of those who thought he is a novice, not fit enough to helm a politically volatile state with complex caste dynamics and structural problems of rampant poverty and unemployment?
Aggressive infrastructural growth was his most visible achievement as Chief Minister. The construction of the Lucknow metro- Akhilesh’s dream enterprise- was given sanction under his government. The power sector received a major boost; thermal plants of over 52 crores were launched under his leadership. The Agra-Lucknow expressway- a project that spurred connectivity within the state- was launched under his tenure too.
The regulation of bureaucracy was on top of his agendas. The historic 1090 women’s helpline gave him the image of a political leader with a feminist orientation. The modernising and ramping up of the police force to change crime patterns was another ambitious task he undertook.
While his intent was in the right, he was not successful in shaking up the status quo entirely. He often succumbed to pressures from the big men in his party- Shivpal Singh Yadav being primary among them- every time he took any bold decision. This made him the infamous “roll-back” Chief Minister.
While he claimed that crime rates had significantly gone down, there were, on an average, 3161 murders, 1164 rapes and 1831 incidents of loot every month. He was seen as a vehicle for caste and communal revolution in the state. However, as many as 7 major communal riots, including Muzaffarnagar, took place during his tenure as Chief Minister.
The ‘feud’al predecessors
Since his nomination as Chief Minister, Akhilesh has had a bumpy ride, with a constant turmoil of family drama, deceit and dispute surrounding him. Since Yadav took oath as CM, his family was divided into two feuding groups, one backing him and the other his uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav, who considered Akhilesh Yadav not suited to the politics of Samajwad. Akhilesh was supported by his father’s cousin and political confidante Ram Gopal Yadav.
While he did stand his ground in the face of conflict and opportunism within his own party, skewed loyalties and pressures of family life made him vulnerable as a politician. Ever since then, he has significantly lost his appeal as a formidable politician with a strong youth base. His failure to consolidate a robust opposition was conspicuous in the spectacular failure of the SP-Congress alliance in the 2017 assembly elections, where both princes of Indian politics were stripped of their glory.
Countdown to 2022
Today, when the countdown to the 2022 elections has begun, Akhilesh Yadav remains in the shadows. The media’s darling “UP ka ladka” has lost all media presence and mass resonance. His last assertive campaign was against the CAA-NRC, since when he has been in the backstage. His twitter account remains his only touch point with the people, where he takes occasional jibes at the government. However, he has received a welcoming response in his election rallies so far. The people in the interiors of the state have begun to hail him as a messiah who needs to make a comeback. This begs the question- is Akhilesh Yadav, a leader who has been incognito for the past four years, be a significant player in shaping the politics of the state or has his politics fallen silent?