From a near-nobody, he has transformed into architect of one of the most phenomenal electoral victories in recent times
There is hardly anyone who will come away from meeting Akhilesh Yadav without being charmed by the affable son of Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh. Perhaps it is his understatedness in a poll arena crowded with boastful and fire-spitting rivals that marked him apart and set the stage for his slow and steady transformation from near-nobody to architect of one of the most phenomenal electoral victories in recent times.
Mr. Yadav inherited a party that had no redeeming feature. The SP had shed Amar Singh and the Bollywood baggage that came with him. But with that it also lost the high profile that had kept it in constant focus, not to mention the association of corporate biggies who ensured funds were never in short supply.
The SP had also been run aground by successive electoral defeats, starting with the 2007 Assembly election, in which it finished as a distant runner-up to the BSP. In the May 2009 Lok Sabha election, the party dropped to a vote share of 23 per cent, down two percentage points from 2007, thanks to desertions by Muslim voters who were repulsed by its alliance with Hindutva icon Kalyan Singh. Months later came the party's lowest point: SP daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav was defeated in Firozabad by the Congress' Raj Babbar. Buoyed by the victory, the Congress seized the PR advantage and succeeded in projecting U.P. election 2012, as a direct contest between the BSP and the Congress. It didn't help the SP that it was saddled by a goonish image that became a roadblock in its attempt to find acceptance.
So much so when Mr. Yadav climbed aboard the Kranti rath — a red mini bus fitted with smart life-style accessories — he didn't so much as create a ripple. When I met him in November 2011, his campaign looked emaciated and starved of media attention.
Mr. Yadav would himself note wryly that for much of the press there was only one political son who mattered: Rahul Gandhi. “People call him yuvraj. I say every child is yuvraj to his parents.”
As the bus rolled over the bumpy and potholed roads of purvanchal (eastern U.P.), Mr. Yadav was at pains to counter a lot of the “propaganda” about the SP, including its abhorrence of English and computers: “As someone educated abroad, I stand as proof that we are not against English. And we are distributing laptops, if you please.”
At the same time, there was no letting go of his own image as a home-grown boy who combined a modern outlook with a fierce attachment to the rural outback. “I can identify every single tree on this journey,” he said, adding for good measure, “ Can Rahul Gandhi do that?”
The SP's patronage of thugs and toughies was of course more difficult to explain away. But the younger Yadav was emphatic that all that was in the past: “We have suffered a lot because of the macho, muscleman image. And I'll not make the mistake of taking the party on that road again.”
Mr. Yadav set out his vision of U.P., stored in his own words in his BlackBerry, thus: “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…”
Eventually, the Yadav junior's persistence won out and the media began to flock to him, obviously not wanting to miss out on history being made.
As Mr. Mulayam Singh prepares to take office, the party will be conscious of the need to start on a clean slate. Perhaps that is why the SP strong man reiterated at his election rallies that he would not brook lawlessness from his rank. Mr. Singh ended every party meeting he addressed with one routine: Asking participants to take a pledge that they will not take the law into their hands, no matter what the provocation.
The Yadav duo knows that if the party betrays this promise, its fate would be the same as the BSP's five years later. Indeed, reports of SP ranks running amok to coincide with the party's victory had already sounded the alarm to the Chief Minister-designate and his quietly triumphant son.