Akhilesh Yadav lands in Ayodhya on the campaign trail, February 25, 2022 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
HIS VOICE CRACKS. Barring that, former Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav shows no sign of campaign fatigue. It is less than two hours to go before canvassing ends for the fifth phase of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections when he emerges through the lift atop his ‘rath’, a red bus, on the banks of the Sarayu in Ayodhya. Standing on the bus, holding a mike, he starts by paying obeisance to “avatars of bhagwan Vishnu”—Ram, Krishna and Parashuram—and the seers.
He looks around at the crowd, which has been waiting for over two hours, and says this kind of support was “not possible without the blessings of Lord Ram and Hanuman”. And then, before starting his roadshow through the temple town where the Ram Mandir is being constructed, goes on to talk of the “Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb”, an Awadhi phrase symbolically equating the confluence of the two rivers in Allahabad to the blending of Hindu-Muslim culture. “In this place Ram is everywhere. This is the culture of this place. It’s a mili-juli sanskriti (harmonious culture), a Ganga-Jamuni culture. I am confident you will protect this tradition by defeating BJP.”
Akhilesh was 17 when in 1990 his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then UP chief minister, ordered police firing on kar sevaks marching towards the Babri Masjid, saying the mosque would not be brought down. Over three decades later, when the Ram temple is under construction where the Babri mosque once stood, the police firing haunts Akhilesh with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) missing no opportunity to remind people of it.
In Ayodhya, Akhilesh flits between brandishing his religious identity and his socialist roots. He wields a gada, the rounded metal weapon carried by Hanuman, takes the blessings of seers and prays at the Hanumangarhi temple before winding up his roadshow. With sandalwood paste smeared on his forehead and garlands around his neck—a new battle gear—he tells the media that this time his party has God’s blessings.
He promises development of Ayodhya, the temple town which has been at the heart of BJP’s politics, from increasing circle rates if land is taken for development work and giving six times compensation to people to free water and 300 units of power. On the construction of the Ram temple, he says BJP was taking credit for what was a Supreme Court decision, as he stands on the rath which has 13 images, ranging from Suheldev, the legendary king known to have killed Ghaznavid General Ghazi Miyan at Bahraich in 1034CE, to socialist leaders and former president APJ Abdul Kalam.
Akhilesh breaks into light humour, smiling, as he responds to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s attack on him, repeatedly referring to him as “Baba Mukhya Mantri”. The crowd goes into a frenzy. Just a day before, Adityanath had held a roadshow in Ayodhya. “From the crowds it looks like there is a close battle between the two,” says Dinesh Kumar, who runs a sweat shop, as the rath moves through the town. As the sun starts setting and the time for campaigning comes to an end, Akhilesh’s road show on BJP’s turf has to be cut short. He had landed late. As the crowds waited, shouting slogans, beating drums and waving flags, with the afternoon sun beating down, a journalist familiar with his frequent running behind the schedule for rallies, comments he is like Salman Khan, always late.
Away from the din of the rally, on the serene banks of the Sarayu, Shekhar Pandey, who runs a stall under a shack, is unhappy with BJP MLA Ved Prakash Gupta but backs BJP because of Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. SP has put up Pawan Pandey, a former state minister, a Brahmin who won in 2012, the only time BJP lost the seat after 1992. “If it was not for Modiji, we would have suffered much more during Covid. The free rations saved us. If Akhilesh returns, law and order will again be a problem,” says Pandey. He points to the steps on the banks of the river and says they were built under Akhilesh, but adds that Adityanath did more development.
IT IS A KIND OF catch-22 for Akhilesh. In the political number crunching, he relies on the Muslim-Yadav equation (Muslims constitute 19 per cent of the state’s population and Yadavs about 9 per cent), yet it is his party’s affiliation to them that is keeping large sections outside these vote banks from backing him. “It is Hindutva versus Muslim appeasement. There is fear among people that it will be the latter again if Akhilesh returns to power,” says Sudhir Kumar, who runs a dhaba on the highway from Ayodhya to Lucknow at Salempur village of Zaidpur Assembly constituency in Barabanki district. It’s a common refrain heard in UP—Akhilesh has done good work but… The ‘but’ implies “Muslim and Yadav appeasement”, a memory that remains embedded, even five years after he was voted out of office. BJP makes the most of this apprehension, targeting him as “anti-Hindu”. Akhilesh’s political positioning in Ayodhya, from his rath on which a slogan goes “nai hawa hai, nai SP hai (a new wind, a new SP), indicating a new identity, is an apparent attempt to shed this baggage at a time when BJP is reaching out to the majority Hindu community, blurring caste lines in a state where caste affiliations have traditionally held sway over elections.
Akhilesh has nominated 63 Muslim candidates while in the 2017 election, his party, then in alliance with Congress, gave tickets to 87 aspirants from the community. If Adityanath knows that Hindutva cannot pay political dividends without development, Akhilesh is aware that ignoring Ram may hurt his party’s prospects. He has emerged as the lone contender to ‘Baba’, edging Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress out of the race, narrowing the prospects of the anti-BJP vote getting split among SP, BSP and Congress. Mayawati, however, despite being a pale image of herself in this election, has been holding on to her Jatav vote, which is about 9 per cent of the state’s population. In 2017, BJP, which had wooed the non-Jatavs, had won 69 of the 84 reserved seats. It had also won over the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This time, Akhilesh has set his eyes beyond his Yadav vote bank among OBCs. SP has given tickets to 171 backward caste candidates, the highest followed by BJP at 143 and BSP at 114. Of these 171 SP candidates, the Yadavs take the chunk of the share with 52 tickets while there are 37 Kurmis, a community which did not see eye-to-eye with the Yadavs. The Kurmis, a tiller caste, constitute around 8 per cent of the state’s population. Unlike in 2017, when SP aligned with Congress and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when it fought in alliance with BSP, Akhilesh has reached out to smaller parties of OBCs this time. SP has aligned with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which had fought the 2017 election in alliance with BJP, Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), the rival of Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal (Sonelal), a BJP ally, Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) to reach out to the Jats, particularly in western UP, and Sanjay Chauhan’s Janvadi Party (Socialist). SP fielded Anupriya’s sister Pallavi Patel in Sirathu, to take on Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. Akhilesh had lost no time in getting on board three OBC ministers—Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini—who quit BJP.
“The Yogi government has cut the OBC quota. And, children in the general category only are getting scholarships,” laments a group of youngsters belonging to various OBC castes, including Most Backward Classses (MBCs), at Bikapur in Faizabad district. They are hoping Akhilesh will ensure employment for the youth. In the same market, Mukesh Gupta, a college student, complains of law and order in the Akhilesh regime and says Adityanath ensured justice for all.
AKHILESH YADAV IS fighting not just Yogi Adityanath but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an MP from Varanasi, who has made UP his “karmabhoomi”. Facing an onslaught from the entire BJP brass—Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party chief JP Nadda—besides Adityanath, Akhilesh retorts with aplomb, at times in sharp tirades and at times with tongue-in-cheek nonchalance. A day after taking on BJP on its turf at Ayodhya, Akhilesh targeted Adityanath in his bastion, Gorakhpur. “Our gau mata (cow), which is Baba Chief Minister’s favourite animal, is roaming around hungry.” With cattle roaming through villages and streets, Akhilesh is hoping to cash in on the anger of the farmers over the issue. He has promised to find an end to the problem by ensuring rehabilitation of the animals.
As he tries to turn a new leaf, learning from the past, Akhilesh is reinventing SP, with a single goal—defeating BJP. Under attack for ‘lawlessness’ during his tenure, he has tried to dust off the taint adopting a zero-tolerance approach to crime
Share this on
“Farmers are troubled because of cattle. They have had to fence the farms. Earlier, they could at least sleep peacefully,” says Vijay Chauhan, a Nishad, selling snacks and sweats at a tea shop at Fatehabad on the Agra expressway. Chauhan praises Adityanath and Modi, saying free rations have helped but resents that unemployment persists.
Along the same highway, in a row of shops at Sarojini Nagar, there is unwavering support for Adityanath. “Baba achha kaam kar rahe hain. Akhilesh ke time par Hindu daba raha (Baba is doing good work. During Akhilesh’s time, Hindus were suppressed),” says Aman Rawat, as he adds spoonfuls of sugar to a large vessel of tea. He praises the law and order situation under Adityanath.
Under attack over “lawlessness” during his tenure, particularly from the BJP leadership, Akhilesh has tried to dust off the taint adopting a zero-tolerance approach to crime. “If anyone here does not want to follow the law or encourages crime and criminals, those who want to break the law or want to go beyond the law, please do not vote for us,” he said at a rally at Maharajganj, a seat BJP had wrested from SP in 2017. As he tries to turn a new leaf, learning from the past, Akhilesh is reinventing SP, with a single goal—defeating BJP.
In Kanpur-based political analyst AK Verma’s assessment, going by the way Akhilesh was countering the onslaught, he may get more votes, but it has to be seen whether these could add up to ensure victory. In 2017, when SP aligned with Congress, it had got a vote share of 21.8 per cent with 47 seats, the lowest since the party was formed in 1992. BJP, which won UP after a gap of 14 years, swept the state with 311 of the 403 seats and a vote share of 41 per cent. “The question is whether the incumbent government is losing any section. Is any social component deserting BJP? In fact, there could be a gender consolidation in favour of BJP in light of law and order and toilets, which bring them psychological security,” says Verma.
Akhilesh’s age and Masters degree in engineering from Australia have earned him the reputation of being a young, educated leader, though at 48 he is just a year younger than Adityanath. When Akhilesh became chief minister at 38 in 2012, Mulayam Singh was at the helm of the party. By 2017, SP was a divided house, with Akhilesh’s uncle and party veteran Shivpal Yadav floating his own Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohiya) after a bitter parting in September 2016. Akhilesh divested his uncle of all ministerial posts after his father made Shivpal the state unit president. In Saifai, the Yadav home town in Etawah district, the elderly held on to their allegiance to Netaji while the young pointed towards Akhilesh’s state-of-the-art cricket stadium, an all-season indoor swimming pool and sports college and the Agra-Lucknow highway, just five kilometres from Saifai. Torn between Mulayam and Akhilesh, the old and the young, at a time when an iron-willed BJP under Modi’s leadership was leaving no stone unturned to win UP, SP faced a humiliating defeat. This time, Akhilesh seems to have managed to heal the wounds, ending the turf war in his family. In December, he went to Shivpal’s residence in Lucknow and sought his blessings. Ahead of the third phase of elections in which Karhal, where Akhilesh is fighting against Union minister SP Singh Baghel, went to polls, the trio—Mulayam, Akhilesh and Shivpal—were seen campaigning together. A few days later, the entire clan, including Akhilesh’s wife Dimple Yadav, met at the family home in Saifai on voting day. His sister-in-law Aparna Yadav, who joined BJP, was, however, not present.
Waiting at the Ayodhya rally site, Sarbahadur Maurya, who runs a small hotel, says “Akhilesh is better than Mulayam. He is younger and more educated.” The first battle out of his father’s shadow, a victory over BJP would give SP a new lease of life and push Akhilesh into the league of leaders on the national political stage. A defeat would mean another five years of his political life in near-oblivion. As of now, he has picked up the gauntlet.