In Lucknow, Smita Gupta accompanies new-age socialist Akhilesh Yadav on his Kranti Rath

It's 5.30 pm on January 27 at Lohia Chowk, a busy roundabout. Excited Samajwadi Party workers — mostly young — mill around, carrying party flags and banners. A party activist, accompanied by a flunkey who carries a portable, white loudspeaker, barks instructions to the gathered faithful so that they don't spill onto the road. Gazing down at them from an enormous hoarding advertising life insurance is, ironically enough, the man who was once the party's ‘brand ambassador', superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

But now the party has an in-house star, Akhilesh Yadav, the fresh-faced yuvraj, whose arrival is awaited. In the last four and a half months, he has crisscrossed the state in his Kranti Rath , notching up over 8000 km, attracting massive crowds, just as his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, did a quarter of a century ago.

For the 38-year-old three time MP and environmental engineer, educated in Mysore and Sydney, the challenge has been to transform the battle-scarred party into a tech-savvy, cosmopolitan, post-Anna Hazare organisation, hoping it will help regain for the party the government — and the sheen — it lost in 2007, thanks to the infusion of the lathi-brandishing and trigger-happy in its ranks.

But Akhilesh is quick to stress that the Samajwadi Party only wishes to shed its image of being an anti-English, anti-technology gathering of parochial musclemen, not its socialist ideals. His stock rose across the state recently when as president of the party's Uttar Pradesh unit, he refused entry to party-hopping strongman of the Badayun-Sambhal belt D.P. Yadav into the party despite pressure from senior leaders.

Socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia remains Akhilesh's inspiration and also the link with the party's socialist origins: the rath only carries images of Mulayam Singh and Lohia). “Lohiaji studied in English, but he understood the villages, the poor and he spoke their language,” says Akhilesh. “I am from the same tradition.”

Despite the confidence he is exuding these days, Akhilesh is taking nothing for granted. “There is enormous anger against the Mayawati government and the Samajwadi Party is the only party which can replace it. So we are getting a massive response,” he says, and then adds: “The challenge is to convert that response into votes.”

Today, as Akhilesh, who has been campaigning elsewhere in the State by chopper, arrives from the airport to board his Kranti Rath, there is a frenzied attempt by waiting party workers to get in as well. But Akhilesh is quite the master of the situation — he shouts out a few names, they scramble up the steps, the door slides shut and the rath begins its journey. As it wends its way through the Lucknow East constituency — a largely upper middle class area — where the party's Juhi Singh, daughter of controversial retired chief secretary Akhand Pratap Singh, is pitted against BJP heavyweight Kalraj Mishra and the Congress' RC Srivastava, motorcycle-borne SP outriders flank the rath, driving dangerously close, with most pillion-riders standing to get a glimpse of the leader.

Inside, Akhilesh multi-tasks: he listens to party workers, gives instructions, checks email on his iPhone, answers my questions — all along exchanging friendly banter with everyone, with one eye on the road. He has an easy manner and a light touch. His young team is clearly devoted to him. One of them is Naved Siddiqui, former Programming Head of Radio Mirchi.

How does he compare Akhilesh with the Congress' Rahul Gandhi? Well, he is not in competition with anyone else, says Naved, he is like a good athlete who is running to win: “He is not looking over his shoulder to see who is coming second and third.” Akhilesh joins in: “Like Arjun, I am only looking at the eye of the fish.”

He refers to his father as Netaji, the sobriquet universally used in the party; but he hasn't scaled those heights yet — he is simply Akhilesh bhaiyya, he says ruefully when I ask him. And no, his father is the chief ministerial candidate, he stresses.

Every 10 minutes or so, the rath stops so he can greet admirers. It's a crazy scrum each time, as people press forward with garlands and bouquets, or just to shake hands. Each time he spots either a woman or an old man being jostled, he asks his workers to take them on board. Akhilesh stands on the steps, smiling, waving, pumping hands as slogans rent the air. I have the seat by the door: suddenly a shower of rose petals lands on my notebook. The door slides shut and the interior of the rath is redolent with the aroma of the marigold garlands piling up in a corner.

From time to time, he uses the hydraulic lift to emerge on the roof to address the surging crowd. The speeches are simple: a critique of the Mayawati government, followed by a recounting of manifesto promises, including a commitment to give students laptops and tablets. From where I am seated, I see a sea of upturned faces and the flash of mobile phone cameras in the fading light, expectant faces, faces full of hope. And that's the lasting image I return with as the Kranti Rath ends its journey.