(First published in The Pioneer dated January 12, 2012)
All eyes are on Chief Minister Mayawati and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi in the election to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. While the first is seeking to retain power, the second has led the Congress’s high-profile campaign to dislodge her. But, in the acrimonious battle between the two, sufficient attention has not been paid to the rise of another force who could, in the coming months, determine the politics of the State that has the maximum number of Assembly seats in the country — 403 — and also sends the largest contingent of members — 80 — to the Lok Sabha. That force is Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav.
A Member of Parliament from Kannauj, Mr Akhilesh Yadav has for long been identified as his father’s son who has come to occupy prominence in the party largely on the strength of his family lineage. But a series of events has established the 38-year old environmental engineer as a politician to watch out for, not just within the Samajwadi Party but also in Uttar Pradesh. As president of the SP in the State, he would have been nothing more than an ornamental piece in the party’s drawing room but for his dramatic interventions in recent months. Before that he had remained in the shadow of his father and rarely attempted to set any new agenda.
The low-profile that he maintained also had something to do with the humiliating defeat his wife suffered in the Lok Sabah by-election to the Firozabad seat, which had been vacated by him after he retained the Kannauj seat. Mr Akhilesh Yadav’s wife, Dimple, lost the by-poll in 2009 to Congress candidate and actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar, despite her husband’s high-profile campaigning. But that has changed now, and the rank and file of the Samajwadi Party has come to accept, though a few among them do so grudgingly, that Mr Akhilesh Yadav calls the shots in the party.
There will be many in the party who are happy with the breath of fresh air that has begun to blow in the run-up to the election. But there are also some entrenched veterans who are ruffled by the emergence of the young leader, though they may have to wait for a while before they can precipitate a crisis. The performance of the Samajwadi Party in the Assembly election will to a large extent determine whether Mr Akhilesh Yadav’s assertiveness has paid off or whether his critics in the party will have the last laugh. But for now, he has bit the bullet by leading from the front and stamping his authority on the party’s decision-making process.
Two recent incidents emphatically demonstrate the arrival of Mr Akhilesh Yadav. The first is as follows: Controversial politician and ‘muscleman’ DP Yadav knocked at the doors of the Samajwadi Party for an entry. He even met influential party leader and MLA from Rampur, Mohammed Azam Khan and reportedly discussed the issue. A sitting MLA from Sahaswan in Badaun on the Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, DP Yadav has been denied re-nomination by Ms Mayawati. He was, therefore, keen to join hands with the Samajwadi Party against her. On any other day, the party would have welcomed him with open arms. But Mr Akhilesh Yadav put his foot down on the ground that, admitting a person of such dubious reputation would dent the party’s image and harm its prospects in the coming election. “He is a criminal and there is no place for him in my party. We will never allow such people to become a part of the SP,” the younger Yadav is reported to have remarked.
Although relatively inexperienced, the shrewd leader had grasped the importance of this symbolic act of rejection at a time when the voters of the State are aspiring for a Government that will not patronise the corrupt and the musclemen. But some party leaders like veteran socialist Mohan Singh, appeared not to have got the message. As party spokesman, he directly contradicted the junior Yadav and said DP Yadav was “clean”. Within hours he lost his job as spokesman, while Mr Khan hastily claimed he had nothing to do with promoting DP Yadav’s entry into the Samajwadi Party.
In the second instance, Mr Akhilesh Yadav scuttled the induction into the Samajwadi Party of Mr Haseemuddin Siddiqui, brother of senior BSP Minister and Ms Mayawati’s confidant, Naseemuddin Siddiqui. In doing so, he took on senior leaders of his party who were keen on delivering a body blow to the Chief Minister through this ‘coup’. The Samajwadi Party’s Uttar Pradesh chief’s contention was that the party would not benefit from embracing the brother of a Minister who has a ‘tainted’ image.
In both the cases, Mr Akhilesh Yadav challenged not just well-entrenched interests within the Samajwadi Party but, more importantly, the near hegemony of his uncle Shivpal Yadav, who had got used to having his way in the affairs of the party. Mr Shivpal Yadav had openly pushed for the induction of DP Yadav and Mr Haseemuddin Siddiqui, and but for Mr Akhilesh Yadav these two would now be riding the ‘bicycle’ — the Samajwadi Party’s election symbol. Political analysts see in the developments the beginning of the decline of Mr Shivpal Yadav in the party.
Besides asserting his dominance in party affairs, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son has also been working steadily to reinvent the Samajwadi Party’s image — from that of a casteist and an outdated outfit which flogs the use of English and computers and exploits the Yadav vote-bank to an energetic organisation that understands the more inclusive aspirations of new India. To that end, he has done three things: First, he has begun using the social media to reach out to young urban voters; second, he has decided that the party must successfully break free from the stranglehold of caste and community vote-bank politics; and, third, he has promised that the corporate sector will be made a partner in the economic development of Uttar Pradesh if the Samajwadi Party comes to power. These are words that young voters connect with.
In an indication of the sort of organisation that Mr Akhilesh Yadav wants the Samajwadi Party to become, he said that he holds Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as a role model. He remarked in a media interview, “Nitish Kumar has broken away from caste-based politics in Bihar. We too want to do that and fight the election on the development plank, to attract votes beyond caste.” At the moment, that’s wishful thinking. For such things are easier said than done.
While it is too early to say if he has the resilience to follow up on his promises, it is certain that Mr Akhilesh Yadav will face challenges from within the party and even the family in recasting the Samajwadi Party. Let’s see whether he succeeds or is eventually done in by his foes.