Akhilesh Yadav, UP's new Prince Charming, can't seem to do anything wrong right now. Meet the architect of the Samajwadi Party's remarkable comeback.

Rahul Gandhi's was the most photographed face of Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, 2012. All the dramatic moments belonged to him: The forever angry young man flew at his rivals, called them chor (thief) and goonda (goon), tore up their manifestos and held dazzling road shows that swept observers off their feet.

But by afternoon on counting day, a fresh media darling had been born: Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh's son and driver of the party's campaign in this election. Yadav junior had delivered a blockbuster victory — the biggest since 1985 when the Congress won 269 seats on the back of a humongous Rajiv wave — and journalists couldn't have enough of the newly-crowned Prince Charming, whose infectious smile and unaffected manner had them in thrall. The same channels that obsessively followed Rahul and captured every little gesture of sister Priyanka, ignoring other, politically more relevant, contestants, now frenziedly ran vignettes from Akhilesh's campaign.

Hopeless position

I met Akhilesh in November 2011, two months after he had set off on his Kranti Rath canvassing votes for a party that at that point looked about as robust as a retreating army. Though the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party was clearly on the defensive, few credited the SP, downbeat from successive electoral defeats and in financial and psychological ruin after the exit of the larger-than-life Amar Singh, with being able to seize the advantage, much less aggressively chase after victory. Indeed, common wisdom had it that without a formidable enemy, Mayawati would coast to a win in the 2012 election.

A quarter century earlier, Mulayam Singh had boarded the original version of the Kranti Rath in uncannily similar circumstances. Back then, the Congress was all that there was in U.P., with minimalist regional parties putting up no more than a token resistance to the national giant. But things changed dramatically with V.P. Singh emerging as a challenge to Rajiv Gandhi. As U.P. became the focal point of the anti-Bofors campaign, Mulayam Singh's Kranti Rath hurtled along at break-neck speed and by end-1989, he had become Chief Minister of India's politically most-watched State.

Mulayam Singh couldn't have known that one day his little son would ride his own Kranti Rath to a near similar destiny, indeed that there would be a clamour within the party to have the junior rather than the patriarch run the State as Chief Minister. In many ways, it has been a tougher journey for the son who inherited a party woebegone from its battles with Amar Singh. Under the latter's care, the SP, cast in the image of the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia, would turn into a Bollywood-corporate haven — a page 3 party rather than a political party. The Lok Sabha election of 2009, fought in alliance with Hindutva icon Kalyan Singh, would see the SP lose its ideological moorings — with consequent desertions by Muslims — and drop to a vote share of just 23 per cent, down two points from 2007. But the lowest point was still to come: In November 2009, Akhilesh's wife Dimple Yadav would be trounced in a by-election for the Lok Sabha seat of Firozabad, vacated by none other than her husband.

SP insiders have riveting stories to tell about the ensuing battle between Amar Singh and Akhilesh, with the father curiously siding with the “usurper” rather than his ward. In the end, the son, backed by virtually the entire cadre, won out, but the party he got to helm was in terrible shape. In the public perception, the SP was a goonda party, rustic in orientation and regressively opposed to English and computers. Little wonder that the media plumped for the more urbane Rahul over the unsung Akhilesh.

But how wrong they were in dismissing and stereotyping the SP's young charioteer. The Akhilesh I met on the Kranti Rath — smartly kitted out with the latest in lifestyle accessories and even a hydraulic lift — was a wonderful surprise. He was educated in Mysore and in Australia from where he got his degree in environmental engineering. He not only spoke unaccented English, he could wow you with a smattering of Kannada, which he had picked up while in Mysore. There was a refreshing understatedness to Akhilesh, a young man comfortable in his own skin. When I got into the bus, he was up on its roof, addressing a rally with a portly woman candidate. Coming down the lift with a protective arm around the elderly lady, Akhilesh helped her find a seat, issuing gentle instructions to his staff to attend to her needs. He did not know I was there and so it was not an act for the benefit of the press. A bigger surprise on the journey was the absence of fawning and fussing sidekicks, regarded as an unfailing marker of dynastic politics.

Low-key coverage

Nor was there a gaggle of media persons, hanging on to his every word. Akhilesh was acutely conscious of this and would remark wryly that for much of the Delhi press, there was only one political son who mattered: Rahul Gandhi. “They call him yuvraj (prince) but I say that every child is yuvraj to his parents.” The anti-English tag bothered Akhilesh as did the SP's goonish image: “You know, there is a difference between being anti-English and making a fetish of the language. Why should we expect a villager to speak English?” Indeed, for all his foreign education and the modern trappings, Akhilesh appeared keener to be seen as a village lad deeply attached to the rural outback: “I can identify every tree on this journey and I'm happiest at home in our village Saifai (in west-central U.P).”

Akhilesh recalled the vexing stint in the opposition. The SP ranks had been set upon, he himself was arrested and sent to jail. The most difficult part was leading a demoralised cadre to a destination that they were never sure of reaching. Perseverance paid out in the end, and Akhilesh not only got the media attention he wanted — by and by he would have them eating out of his hands — he also reached the destination he set out to reach.

As Akhilesh settles into his new role, he would have more challenges to meet. The first of them was already upon him with reports of the SP cadre running amok to coincide with the party's magnificent victory. Surely, the young man would need to rely more and more on his vision of the party, recorded in his own words and stored in his phone: “It is time our political energies are focussed away from the politics of personal attack and sharp-edged hostility … It is time for change and people will lead that change based on their hopes and aspirations. It is not a war cry. It is not an aggressive call for political revenge. It is a statement that sums up what the Samajwadi Party is — a vehicle of hope, of change, of the aspirations of everyone, from the farmers … to the teachers and government servants, to the college students who are the flag bearers of India's new tomorrow…”