Akhilesh and Rahul
Two princes: Akhilesh (left) and Rahul have injected plenty of drama into the UP poll campaign, Photos: Shailendra Pandey (left), AP

POLITICS SOMETIMES is about the most unexpected catalyst. Six months ago, Akhilesh Yadav, 39, son of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, undertook a Kranti Rath Yatra and clocked 9,000 km and 250 constituencies. Today, he’s still on a gruelling eight-rally-a-day schedule. It’s starting to pay serious dividends.

“Everyone’s undertaken yatras after that,” he jokes, “but we’re 9,000 km ahead.” Akhilesh has just driven into Lucknow airport in a single, unassuming SUV, without the flashy escort trails one has come to expect of Indian politicians. No fawning assistants wait at his helicopter.

On his way to Kanpur Dehat, the first stop of the day, he chats easily about camera angles with the TEHELKA photographer and points out the aerial coordinates of different constituencies to the reporter. As the chopper touches down, Akhilesh swims into a crowd of waiting people. He’s drawing big audiences and excited party workers tug at him, trying to get a fleeting piece of him. He bears the jostling with intimate, back-slapping cheer, calling out to many by name. Then, he takes the stage.

Akhilesh is not an orator. But his speech is like a calm, even-toned drizzle in the abusive maelstrom of Uttar Pradesh politics. He lists the usual stuff: Mayawati’s corruption; her infamous statue-building hubris. He promises loan waivers to farmers, free education for girls, unemployment funds, roads, hospitals and electricity. He dismisses the BJP as a party not even in the fray but reserves some time to take down the Congress. He makes some fun of Rahul Gandhi for tearing his kurta and the much-talked of list of promises and suggests he might jump off the stage next in anger. Some of his talk draws laughs and cheers. Then he delivers his winning shot: he promises free laptops to the young and says he will ensure they can be used in Hindi and Urdu — and if necessary — in English too.

This might sound like unremarkable stuff, but Akhilesh is more astute than he seems. “I have been determined to keep our campaign positive,” he says. “Everything positive. No abuse. Nothing too caste specific. Just talk development and hope. That’s why our slogan this time is ‘ummeed ki cycle’ (cycle of hope).”

“Rahul made a mistake tearing that sheet of promises on the stage,” he continues. “What are elections but a promise, a chance at hope? It remains to be seen whether different parties will deliver what they promise, but if you tear up that hope then what else is there?”

Despite the low-key approach then, it seems Akhilesh is on to something. He’s been tapping both into the frustration and aspiration of voters, and subtly leaching his party of its own sordid history. By all accounts, the first three rounds of the polls have gone unexpectedly well for the SP. There is the beginnings of that ephemeral electoral factor — “hava”, a wind, a winning streak. On the ground, his workers are exuberant. “We are doing very well, Bhaiya!” they shout. “This election is being fought in your name.”

Wheels of fortune: While Rahul has embraced a high-voltage campaign, Akhilesh has used a low-key approach for wooing voters, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Back in the chopper, Akhilesh says more soberly, yet with barely concealed excitement, “No one can really tell how this election will turn out, but we feel we are now headed for a simple majority.”

TILL A fortnight ago, no self-respecting savant was willing to predict the result of this election. The universal reading of UP 2012 was that it was headed for a hung Assembly. There were some obvious markers. For the first time in over two decades, this was a genuine four-way fight, with the BSP, SP, Congress and BJP giving it their all. There were also signs of new assertions: the Muslims were no longer ready to be taken for granted as a frightened captive constituency who could be duped into voting en masse to keep the BJP away. The Brahmins had come unstuck from the BSP; the non-Jatav Dalits (and even some Harijans), part of Mayawati’s core constituency, were getting restive. And the Uttar Pradesh political landscape — always a bewildering space — was now further complicated by many new, small caste-based and minority parties. The only clarity anyone had, therefore, was that the outcome of UP 2012 was an open game.

Optically, though, if at all this election had belonged to anybody, it was Rahul Gandhi. The people of UP were going into elections frazzled and angry, aware that even neighbouring Bihar, its partner in decline, had pulled itself together. Five years ago, they had given a landslide vote, but had got little in return. Mayawati had proved to be a corrupt empress no one could meet. Mulayam, the old socialist war horse, still stood discredited with the after-smell of Amar Singh’s excesses, the Yadavs’ reputation for lawlessness, and the misadventure of his alliance with Kalyan Singh. The BJP was in fratricidal disarray and having intuited that its Hindutva plank would yield no electoral benefits, it had failed to come up with a convincing new story.

Only Rahul stood out in all this as a fresh face: a promise of a new, inclusive, development- driven politics. No one was betting that the Congress was going to finish first or even that it would do phenomenally well electorally, but there was a distinct swell of goodwill around Rahul, and his courageous bid to revive and recast the comatose Congress in UP was the big dramatic story.

‘I’ve been determined to keep our campaign positive. No abuse. That’s why our slogan this time is ‘ummeed ki cycle,’ says Akhilesh

Now, that story of fresh-faced hope has a virile new entrant. A challenger no one quite anticipated on this scale. Akhilesh’s optimism about a clean sweep may be a bit misplaced, but he’s undoubtedly upped the stakes for the SP and made Rahul’s own job more difficult. His older opponents’ disrepute must certainly have been part of Rahul’s long-term calculations. Suddenly now, there’s another young new leader with a clean image talking development and inclusiveness. Suddenly the youth (especially the rural youth), OBC and Muslim vote, target groups for both leaders, have not one but two new credible counters. Suddenly Rahul’s marathon lap has a sharp short-distance competitor.

Two weeks ago, no one was willing to predict this election: now many concede the SP is likely to be the single largest party. The conservative estimate is that it will hit at least 150-160 seats in the 403-member Assembly, up from 97 seats in the last election. (Its own assessment, of course, is a clean majority.) The estimate for the Congress is 50 seats, up from its 22 last election; and with the RLD combine the number could hit 60-70. (There are die-hard optimists though, who are still holding out at a 110.)

But no matter how the arithmetic finally turns out, the story of Rahul and Akhilesh’s gamble makes this the most fascinating state election in recent times — both for its far-reaching political impacts and its human drama. Both scions are struggling to remould their parties; both come with different visions, temperament and challenges. One is starting from scratch, the other from a halfway mark; one has absolutely no cadre or core constituency, the other has both; one is fighting a much more complex inner battle and burden of public expectation, the other comes without baggage and is clear and more single-minded in his pursuit and goal. One has 8 percent of the vote share, the other has 25 percent. Yet, to get where they need to, both are specifically pitted against each other.

The interesting thing is, no matter which party eventually wins this election or how its ragged post-poll scenario works out, if either of the young men achieves a fraction of what they have set out to do — in opposition to each other — UP’s political landscape will be changed forever.

The question for now though is, has Akhilesh’s rise skewed Rahul’s game? And what did he do to get where he is now?

While Rahul has embraced a high-voltage campaign, Akhilesh has used a low-key approach for wooing voters
Wheels of fortune: While Rahul has embraced a high-voltage campaign, Akhilesh has used a low-key approach for wooing voters Photo: Shailendra Pandey

AT FIRST glance, Akhilesh could pass for his father, before realpolitik planted his face with craggy lines. There is the same beaked nose, the earthy, son-of-the-soil manner, the amiable ease with grassroots party workers; the staggering familiarity with every nook and cranny of the state. In fact, their differences seem entirely superficial. Unlike his father, Akhilesh speaks smooth English (though he’s more in his skin in Hindi); is Australia-educated; and has a passion for technology. As an old SP stalwart puts it laconically, “The biggest difference between Akhilesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav is their generation gap.”

But “generation gap” is too innocuous a term for the impact these differences have had on the Samajwadi Party. Akhilesh’s persona has revamped the party’s self-image and infused it with new respect. Over the past decade, the SP had not only become a notorious byword for a “goonda raj”, it had seemed utterly out of step with time. Its intellectual moorings in the enlightened socialist movement had become calcified, its insistence that English and computers were dangers had made it seem provincial and atavistic; and the stranglehold of Amar Singh had leached the party and Netaji — as Mulayam is universally known — of all its sheen. The cadres were mortally disheartened.

Akhilesh’s ascendance to party president two years ago changed all that. He deglamorised the party, insisted no film stars would canvas for it and, ironically, shepherded his father back to old-style socialist politics. At the same time, as Anand Bhadoria, 32, a farmer’s son and president of Lohia Vahini, one of the SP’s four major youth wings, says, “Akhilesh party ki backward soch uttara hai. (He overhauled the party’s backward image). This is a time for change and he has brought many educated people into the party.”

The Congress is counting on PL Punia (top) and Beni Prasad Verma to make a big impact
Game-changers: The Congress is counting on PL Punia (top) and Beni Prasad Verma to make a big impact, Photos: Pramod Adhikari (top), K.Sateesh

Akhilesh’s revamp has had many features: his team is running an elaborate campaign through Facebook, Twitter and call centres. He has a small but crack technology team — a little like Arun Jaitley’s war-room — to monitor and computerise election data. And he has created election ads that subtly reposition the party as a natural home both for the farmer and the new aspiring young.

However, in essence, his revamp has three key components. The most significant perhaps is the uncompromising message Akhilesh has sent down the ranks that the old violence will not be tolerated. A few months ago, he famously refused to give DP Yadav, a known mafia don, entry into the party. Mohan Singh, a party veteran who had claimed Yadav was being considered, was unceremoniously dropped as party spokesman. No one on the ground missed the message. Akhilesh has also reportedly set up a committee under party veteran, Professor Ram Gopal Yadav, to deal swiftly with any complaints against his cadres.

Most seem grateful for this clarity. As Bhadoria says, “We are determined to remove this kalank (black mark).” Nafis Ahmed, 33, another of Akhilesh’s young core team, points to the five years of Mayawati’s rule. “We have fought her on many issues, we have faced laathis and been sent to jail, but do you remember a single instance when one of our cadres was accused of getting violent?”

Akhilesh’s second big intervention has been taking complete control of the ticket distribution. On the surface, he is a completely — one could say resolutely — diplomatic and non-confrontational man. Every assertion he makes is bracketed by the necessary deference to “Netaji” or “Chacha” — as Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam’s brother and key dirty tricks man, is known. But clearly, when necessary, he has implacable spine.

AKHILESH IS the son of Mulayam’s first wife, Malti Devi (an unlettered woman who grew mentally ill) and was brought up by his grandmother. Back in 2000, he got into a messy stand-off with his father. Akhilesh wanted to marry Dimple Singh, an upper-caste daughter of an army officer; Mulayam staunchly refused. They argued for months. Akhilesh finally married as he wished. Back then, people thought his marriage had been enough rebellion and self-assertion for a decade.

The quarantine is obviously wearing off. This election, party insiders say, even Netaji has had almost zero say in the selection. In specific instances, even where he had given his “zubaan” to candidates — which would ordinarily be deemed gospel — Akhilesh has overruled the decision. Other key power centres like Shivpal Yadav and Azam Khan — whose return was supposed to herald peace with the Muslims — have also been completely sidelined. (The talk is that at least 50 of the tickets may prove to be miscalculations but Akhilesh is adamant that his choice should prevail.)

Yadav has been tapping both into the frustration and aspiration of the voters, and subtly leaching the SP of its own sordid history

Brij Bhushan Tiwari, a respected old-timer and national vice-president of the party, however testifies that Akhilesh is impeccable in his behaviour: he knows how to take elders along and walk the tightrope between respect and renewal. Akhilesh himself says in his minimal way, “How do I explain it? Being president at 38 was not a comfortable position. But politics is all about collaborative effort.”

His assertion over the party’s control, however, has not been without its fallouts. At a positive level, as a senior IAS officer who prefers to remain unnamed says, the party is going through a major overhaul. There are over 200-250 new candidates whose allegiance is now with Akhilesh, who may never have met Netaji, or who know him only nominally. Quite a large fraction of these are reportedly well-educated and modern in their outlook.

But the party has also suffered big losses. Beni Prasad Verma, its big Kurmi leader has of course defected to the Congress and become part of its key strategy. As has Rashid Masood, a powerful Muslim OBC leader, who is also a crucial figure in the Congress’ gameplan in western UP. Kannauj, Akhilesh’s own constituency, in fact, tells this story of disaffection the most powerfully.

In Chibramau, Chotey Singh Yadav — widely considered a mentor to Mulayam himself — is now fighting his erstwhile party on a Congress ticket. He is livid with Akhilesh. “The Samajwadi Party has been ruined by dynastic politics,” he says. “Now only the son rules. Imagine senior political leaders like Shivpal and Ramgopal being reduced to nothing. They have all become victims of Mulayam’s putra moh (love for his son). For everything, one now needs Akhilesh’s permission. The internal situation in the party is very bad.”

In next door Tirva, the now estranged Digambar Singh Yadav, again one of Mulayam’s closest friends, is also fighting his old party on a Congress ticket. He has the same angry response. “The Samajwadi Party is a pale shadow of what it used to be,” he says. “Imagine Shivpal Yadav being reduced to the level of an ordinary worker. Everything now works according to Akhilesh. Even Mulayam can’t interfere beyond a point.”

Akhilesh’s attempt to overhaul the SP and create greater acceptability, then, has inevitably brought its own riptide. By and large, the benefit of this will go to the Congress. Mainpuri, Mulayam’s pocket borough (as TEHELKA reported earlier in It Pays To Get Your Feet Dirty by Brijesh Pandey, 21 January) has ironically become the party’s most uncertain electoral zone. The voting here may just be part of the pushback on SP’s early winning streak. Almost half-a-dozen influential SP candidates in this region are now fighting on Congress tickets. In the rest of western UP too, the SP is on slippery ground.

The reverse swing of this though, is the dent the SP has made in the Congress’ own key battle strategy. Poorvanchal — large parts of which went to the polls in the first three phases — had areas that were part of three core Congress strategies this elections: Mission 85, Rahul’s attempt to woo the Dalits, especially the Ati-Dalits in the 85 reserved constituencies, back to the Congress fold; his audacious plan to woo the non-Yadav OBC vote through a leader like Beni Prasad Verma; and the Congress’ outreach to Muslims.

In each of these core impact areas, the Congress has apparently done less well than it had hoped for, while the SP has done better than it had imagined with the OBC and Muslim vote.

Mulayam Singh Yadav
Playing second fiddle: SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav had little say in ticket distribution, Photo: AP

Ironically though — in the complex way electoral politics plays itself out — credit for this doesn’t necessarily lie with Akhilesh. The return of Muslim trust has a lot to do with his father, who sent out a humble and genuinely heartfelt “maafi nama” — letter of apology — to Muslims for his mistaken alliance with Kalyan Singh. He also stood up for Muslim sentiment when the Babri Masjid verdict was announced. In the Azamgarh region, at least, Muslims seems to have found this apology more palatable than the Congress’ confused promise of 4.5 percent minority reservations within the OBC quota, Digvijaya Singh’s espousal of the Batla House encounter and Salman Khurshid’s transparently cynical assertion that Congress President Sonia Gandhi wept when she saw pictures of the slain boys.

“Muslims have no desire to shield or support terrorists,” says Nafis Ahmed. “All people wanted was a judicial inquiry to remove doubts about the encounter. Why couldn’t the Congress ensure even that?”

FOR THE reported OBC consolidation in the first three phases of the poll, Akhilesh has Mayawati to thank. The Poorvanchal region, explains a UP Congress leader, had seen maximum misuse of the Harijan Act, with over 150 false cases filed against OBCs. A fierce mood of anti-incumbency, therefore, seems to not only have brought the Yadav vote out in full force, but coagulated a large percentage of the other OBCs — or what is now increasingly being called as the MBCs or Most Backward Castes — behind the SP.

Mayawati’s other meltdowns — the sacking of dozens of corrupt MLAs and ministers, mostly from the upper castes, in the past few months; sudden changes in over a 100 tickets at the last minute; the sacking of Babu Singh Kushwaha, her key connect to her ground cadres; and a general breakdown in the usual clockwork discipline of the BSP has all added to the confusing and fluid situation. Each of the other major parties are likely to benefit from this in complex ways.

To this confusing scenario, add the 20 percent surge in new voters — 1.4 crore people no party has any idea about — and the iceberg tip of the complexity of this election comes into sight.

The third key revamp Akhilesh has made, then, is crucially to resuscitate the SP’s flagging cadres. While all the other parties are struggling with their party structures on the ground, Akhilesh’s personal 9,000 km journey is paying off: the SP is battle-ready. (TEHELKA had first reported on this in December 2011, Yadav Jr May Hold the Trump Card by Ashok Malik).

CURIOUSLY, AKHILESH’s rise in UP refracts the difficulty of Rahul’s job more sharply. Apart from everything Akhilesh has going for him — the core vote base, the committed cadre, the decent vote share — he also has an inherent identification with his voters as a resident UP leader. Most crucially too, he has a clear personal goal, a disarming get-go: he wants to win the election and rule the state.

The Congress party is banking on the Dalit votes to expand its vote share to at least 18 percent
Tested formula: The Congress party is banking on the Dalit votes to expand its vote share to at least 18 percent , Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Rahul, on the other hand, starts from many zeros. The Congress in UP has been dead for 20 years; its Brahminical bias has outlived its utility; its Muslim base is alienated; its Dalit base has a giant new leader; it has almost no party structures on ground; no local leaders of stature; and Rahul himself has the peculiar conundrum of being the face of the party’s campaign in the state, the piston of its revival, but he cannot — or has not — positioned himself as the chief ministerial candidate. He must perform the rather self-defeating sleight of hand, therefore, to ask voters to believe in him, and repose their vote in him, even as they know he is merely a bird of passage.

It takes a form of courage to take on such a task. Clearly, Rahul has had that. He understands that if the Congress is ever to have a real shot at power, unfettered by allies, the party has to go to the heart of the matter: UP has to be regained. But the difficulty of his undertaking is amplified by his own temperament. By all accounts, though he’s staked his political credibility on it, the short-term outcome of this UP election does not have Rahul’s sole-eyed attention. It is not the number of seats won that intrigues him but the ideas he’s trying to set into motion.

Rahul must perform the rather self-defeating sleight of hand, to ask voters to believe in him, even as they know he is just a bird of passage

According to aides close to him, the question that most excites Rahul is: how can Indian democracy be deepened? Why is it that the last mile of our democracy is so flawed? Why is it that barely a 100 people — mostly dynasts, a handful of party leaders or entrenched power brokers — get to decide who will be granted tickets to be part of the 5,000-odd elected representatives who end up adjudicating over a billion? How can one oxygenate this system? How can an ordinary Indian break into the political system on merit and without patronage? How can one create a pipeline of leadership that works ground up and is genuinely democratic? How can one ensure that the rules of the game are themselves restructured to allow for upward mobility?

The excitements of this chase are in the slow gain, the transformational potential of the politics. Hundreds of block pradhans and zila parishad heads elected now who might rise to snap at the dynasts’ heel and nudge them away in the next few election cycles. Rahul understands that the real game lies in the third tier of democracy. It is these victories he feels personally invested in. As someone close to him says, “He dived very deep into the NSUI and Youth Congress elections and hasn’t entirely extricated himself from that.”

The Congress party is banking on Muslim votes to expand its vote share to at least 18 percent
Tested formula: The Congress party is banking on Muslim votes to expand its vote share to at least 18 percent Photo: Shailendra Pandey

But the riddle for Rahul is that he is a Gandhi scion and the default power centre in his party. Unless he steps aside completely from the burden of expectation that shadows him, there will always be shorter- term goals others want him to deliver. He might argue that it is only a few hundred MLAs and MPs who feel impatient with him; that there are lakhs of new recruits in the party who are willing to play the long game. But even Rahul cannot deny that until he declares where he stands, his party will be interminably caught in a corrosive game of waiting.

However, in UP, whichever way the election turns out, Rahul has already notched up some very real victories. For the first time in 20 years, Congress is at least a talking point in the state; people coveted its tickets; it is in serious fights in several dozen seats; and both the SP and BSP are sniping at it — a sign of its increasingly alarming relevance for them.

This virtual comeback has been fuelled by two very different tracks. For one, there’s been Rahul’s own very high-profile visits to Dalit homes; his intervention at Bhatta-Parsaul; his espousal of Bundelkhand; his visit to Sant Ravidas Temple in Varanasi, revered by Dalits; and his weavers’ fund from the Centre.

But there’s also been a very canny realpolitik at play. Taking off where BJP leader and former chief minister Rajnath Singh had left off with his Social Justice Report in 2001, Rahul has been trying a new kind of social engineering. A sort of replication of Nitish Kumar’s experiment in Bihar.

In an audacious move, he has given almost 150 tickets to OBCs this election — a move unprecedented for the Congress. He has also been trying to woo both Harijans and Ati-Dalits with carefully distributed tickets. In effect, he’s been trying to tap into the disenchantment of the Most Backward Castes with the Yadav-dominated SP and the disenchantment of the non-Jatav Dalits with the Jatav-dominated BSP. He’s also been trying to bring the Muslims — the Congress’ old votebank — back into the fold. He believes that neither the SP nor the BSP, both parties predicated intensely on identity, will be able to absorb the new social forces that will be unleashed. The Congress, however, whose character is much more elastic, will be able to manage the contradictions of such representation.

“He is building a whole new Congress,” says Badri Narayan, professor of Dalit Studies in the Govind Ballabh Pant Institute, Allahabad University. “A third pole in UP politics. The real effect of this will be seen in the general election of 2014, but the fracturing of the OBC and Dalit vote has already begun.”

By and large, Rahul’s UP gameplan has rested on several key players — ironically all of them borrowed from his opponents as he has none readymade of his own. PL Punia, who is overseeing Mission 85, the Congress’ Dalit gambit, was once Mayawati’s closest and most powerful Dalit bureaucrat. He is helped by Ashok Pawar, Sanjay Pahariya and a host of coordinators from other states who are meant to give “management support” to the Dalit candidates. “Mayawati is in for a shock,” says Punia. “In most Dalit seats, she is not even the main contest.”

The Congress’ OBC project is vested — perhaps too prominently — in Kurmi leader Beni Prasad Verma, formerly of the SP. The Gandhis’ feting of him, in fact, has led to serious heartburn in the party.

The Congress believes it can get its vote share up to 18 percent and probably hit 50 seats. Both would mean a 100 percent jump in its fortune. But if it does worse, in a sense, Rahul will have only himself to blame. Despite burning both energy and personal capital in UP for several years, he did not visit the party office, depute anyone else, or start vitalising the existing party structure until July 2011.

“We could have done twice as well as we will now,” says one Congressman ruefully, “but we had no one to bring out the vote or manage the booths.”

Even SP leader Brij Bhushan Tiwari agrees. “The Congress’ gameplan can’t work because giving tickets to different caste groups is not enough, you need cadres of different identities to back them as well.”

6 MARCH will answer the big question of who did well and who did not; whose ideas worked and whose remain unfinished. Till then, what stands before us are two young men, a vote, and a host of questions.

If the SP comes to power, will Akhilesh, de facto head, be able to give new direction to UP? Will he be able to position himself as a rainbow political force beyond caste? The OBCs and Dalits have historically been bitter enemies. Will the Dalits be forced to subside again in fearful retreat, or will he be able to rein in the excesses of the Yadavs? What will be his economic vision? How will he kickstart UP’s flagging medium and small industries? How will he create employment?

“His biggest challenge,” says the unnamed IAS officer, “will be to find even three good Yadav officers in the bureaucracy or police to get his work done.”

But Akhilesh is unfazed by these questions. “You just need good intention,” he says. “We will use the 40,000 crore Mayawati has been squandering on statues on people’s needs instead. We will build hospitals, schools, roads and electricity. UP has a local skill and industry in every district. That’s all people will need to kickstart their own lives.”

Conversation with Akhilesh can be mildly disappointing. Honesty. Integrity. Good intention. These are unusual things in the jungle of UP politics and anyone possessed of them should brim with promise. But for all his fresh likable energy and amiability, there seems nothing very fresh about Akhilesh’s vision. He is not overtly a very thinking man, maybe just his intuition and doingness will get him far enough.

Other questions crowd Rahul Gandhi. Will the results of UP 2012 speak of a long-distance runner who never agrees to a tactical sprint? Clearly, Rahul is someone who lives by his own lodestar. But has destiny afforded him that luxury? What is the right balance between his personal taste for slow, meaningful organisational work and the pressure for him to deliver results now? What is his vision for UP?

As Akhilesh’s chopper takes off after the seventh meeting of the day, two women in the crowd in a reserved constituency say, “Tell all these netas, we will give all of them our vote. But can they please keep their promise?”

Two men and a vote. And ironically, both in need of a little of the other’s qualities to come fully into their own. In service to the people.