“It is time our political energies are focussed away from politics of personal attack”
A quarter century ago, Mulayam Singh blazed a new trail through Uttar Pradesh on his kranti rath: The journey ended with him taking the Chief Ministerial office on December 5, 1989. He went on to repeat the feat twice.
Today, in an attempted recreation of the glory days, his son Akhilesh, and the Samajwadi Party's new president, is travelling the length and breadth of U.P. on his own kranti rath — but the bright red version, symbolising the Samajwadi Party's colour, is fancier and fitted with a hydraulic lift and other smart life-style accessories. The younger Mr. Yadav, an environmental engineer with a degree from Australia, is himself on the BlackBerry, browsing, texting messages and making new entries. The generational shift is striking, and more so in a party considered the embodiment of old-style feudal, patriarchal politics.
Mr. Mulayam Singh probably never made a phone call himself; the instrument, landline or now the mobile version, always came to him, held deferentially by courtiers.
The Hindu caught up with Yadav junior on the last leg of his seven-phase journey, and as the bus shook and swerved on the bumpy, potholed roads of the backward districts of Gorakhpur, he spoke candidly on a range of subjects, his vision for his party and his view of dynastic politics among them.
There is a refreshing matter-of-factness about the current SP chief. Polite and courteous to his staff, he is instinctively deferential towards party elders and contestants, attending to their needs and rushing to help a portly veteran requiring to be lifted on to the bus.
The most surprising thing on the bus — and on the journey — is the absence of fawning and fussing sidekicks, regarded as an unfailing marker of dynastic politics.
There are signs of other changes to come. The young dynast is conscious of the SP's macho, muscular image and openly expresses regret for the party's past association with toughies and thugs “who brought us a bad name.” The mistake will not be repeated, he says. “We lost so much goodwill on account of some bad characters. In the end what matters is work.” He is also eager to rid the SP of its “anti-English” tag. “I stand as proof that we are not against English or the computer. But let us not handicap our rural poor by forcing English on them. If they want to Google search in Hindi or Urdu, what is the harm?”
As part of the new package, Mr. Yadav wants his party to pull back from personal attacks and concentrate on issues. His vision, drafted in his own words and called “new ummeed (new hope),” is stored on the phone and he reads out from it: “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 flagbearers of India's new tomorrow.”
The “new tomorrow” slogan makes comparison with Rahul Gandhi unavoidable. Where does Mr. Yadav see himself in the hierarchy of VVIP children? “They call Rahul the yuvraj of the Congress. But I say that every child is the yuvraj of his parents and family.” Mr. Yadav also rubs in the fact that despite his own foreign education and boarding school experience, he has remained rooted in his political and family environment: “Don't forget that I'm essentially a village boy. I was not born in a hospital but at home in my ancestral village in Saifi.”
The village lad is proud of knowing every square inch of his land, and of being able to identify every tree on the roadside: “Can Rahul Gandhi identify this tree? I can,” he says, looking out of the bus window.
So, is the SP's new helmsman also the party's chief ministerial candidate? “Not at all,” he hurries to say. “It will be Netaji [Mulayam Singh]. I'm here to work at the grassroots and bring the youth to our fold.” It is a task easier said than done in a State where hundreds of small and big parties compete for power, raiding each other's ranks and overturning previous caste calculations. In this battleground there is no knowing the next challenge or who will throw it to what effect. The SP, which lost out to the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2007, was thought to be on a comeback trail, when Ms. Mayawati upset its applecart by announcing the division of U.P.
Mr. Yadav says the SP is completely opposed to the division: “We will spend crores of rupees creating these new States when what we need is good, well-directed administration.” Yet, if in the coming months the sentiment gathers ground — as it well might — the SP could find itself in a spot. The party is also being given a run for its money by a brand new entry into the election market. The Peace Party, set up in 2008 by Dr. Ayub, is modelled on the lines of the BSP — with Muslims as its core voters and Hindus as candidates. The party's damage potential is felt to be huge.
As the bus rolls to a stop, it is time to wave to the crowds and make a speech and take a pledge: to uproot the Mayawati government and return to power.