Will Akhilesh pass the litmus test?

While there is widespread consensus that the young Samajwadi Party chief has salvaged his image by distancing himself from the old guard, the opinion regarding his five-year rule remains as divided as ever

Abeer Kapoor Delhi

Under the shade of a tree in Tiwaripura, Anand Kumar Shukla is eagerly waiting to hear Mayawati speak. He is not the only one, there are a thousand others waiting to catch a glimpse of behenji. The fact that she is an hour and a half late does not dissuade anyone from the crowd. “It’s not just us who want Mayawati to come to power, it is the people of Amethi, Sultanpur and all the regions around, we want security, safety and better law and order,” says Shukla as others join in around him. Ismail, an old man standing next to him says, “We want freedom from threats of rape and goondagardi.” Upon hearing Ismail speak, Shukla quipped “There is little that the Yadavs have done for the bahujan samaj. We live in fear of being abducted and extorted by goons. All we want is equality in education, medical facilities and other such amenities and the only one who can give this to us is behenji.”

The five Assembly seats of Sultanpur, which went into elections on February 27, all have sitting Samajwadi Party (SP) MLAs. On the look of it, each seat seems to be a close three-way fight and in such a scenario it may be impossible for the incumbent party to retain all five seats. The challenges that the party faces is compounded by the rapid rise in organised crime under its reign. Commenting on the incursion of crime into everyday life, a local dhaba owner Athat Hussain says, “That we have to pay bribes to even get admission in government schools is the worst part. This nexus of politicians, the administrations and local goons is only bothered about making money.” The sucker punch for the SP is that even after its supposed crusade against criminals its image of being a party tainted by crime refuses to go away. Arun Verma who is the sitting MLA from Sultanpur Sadar has been charged with rape and murder and he continues to fight the election.

At the end of their term, the SP is facing anti-incumbency: both from the opposition and from within the party. In an election without a wave, contests have become extremely local with each seat becoming a closely fought fight. In circumstances like these, the focus shifts to the problems within the ruling party, its candidates and their failings. Secondly, the chances of the SP might be hampered by the rebellion it is facing from within —the party is dealing with a recalcitrant old guard that is revolting silently. These fault lines could spoil Akhilesh Yadav’s chances and might even put traditionally ‘safe’ bastions under threat.

Eager to exploit this weakness, the opposition has been relentlessly levelling allegation after allegation against the SP. The BJP and the BSP continue to flay the ruling party for a systematic breakdown in law and order due to the SP’s preference for its caste brethren over talent, which has eroded the police as an institution. Using this as an electoral cudgel, the BSP in its campaign has been touting the ability of Mayawati to rein in the bahubalis (strongmen), thugs and other the goondas of the regions through the power of the police, something the young Chief Minister has been unable to do.

In Tiwaripura, the women at the rally seem most harangued by the ruling dispensation. They narrate disconcerting stories. According to them the words ‘balatkaar’ and ‘apharan’ (rape and kidnapping) have become synonymous with the local administration. The stories of torment seem to be deeply correlated to caste. Lalita*, 50, has travelled forty kilometres from Gaurganj to show support to Mayawati. She and the other women around her seem visibly unhappy with their lives under the SP government. Lalita recollects a Kafka-esque tale, “If you want to know about kidnapping, I will tell you. In the village of Bhagwan Dubey, in the Gauriganj seat, Shanti Devi and her daughter lived together, unka aadmi mar gaya tha (the man of the house had passed away). Her young daughter was kidnapped by local goons, and when the mother went to ask the police to register a case and investigate, they asked her for money. When she couldn’t pay up, they slapped charges on the old woman for kidnapping her own daughter. The poor old lady was put in jail and was then told to pay money to get out. They still haven’t found her daughter.” Those around Lalita say that this isn’t the only case where they’ve had to bribe the police for getting work done, according to them the crimes that the media reports are just the tip of the iceberg.

The feeling of insecurity felt by these women has found its way into the political narrative being framed against the ruling party. Alok Awasthi, a member of the BJP media cell, in a conversation with Hardnews said, “There is such badtameezi (insult) towards women by the Samajwadi Party, there is no control over criminals and the development that is touted is at the end of the day cosmetic propaganda. If one needs to file a case against the leadership of the SP, we can’t go to the local police station, but have to go instead to the Supreme Court.” This sentiment has been echoed by Smriti Irani, star campaigner of the BJP, who hit out at Dimple Yadav, wife of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, over the safety of women. The Minister of Textiles sardonically remarked that even the wife of the Chief Minister does not feel safe in UP. The Bahujan Samaj Party too has used this as a poll plank, saying that Dimple Yadav will feel safe from SP goons only when Mayawati will come to power. Things for the ruling party’s PR managers haven’t got any easier: their candidate for Amethi, Gayatri Prajapati, has been absconding after charges of gangrape were levelled against him and the Supreme Court refused to stay the order for his arrest.

“Each seat faces some amount of anti-incumbency, and Akhilesh Yadav realises that and this is why in his rallies he asks people to cast their votes for him instead of the candidate,” said a senior journalist in Lucknow. The lack of popular faces other than Akhilesh and his wife Dimple is curious to say the least. “After the family feud, Mulayam stood neutral and refused to participate, he campaigned when necessary, but on the whole he has kept a low profile,” said a senior member of the Mulayam Singh camp. After wrestling control of the party, what is evident is that the junior Yadav has come into his own. Projecting himself as the face of development has also benefitted his image. “The earlier complaints that there were four-and-a-half chief ministers in Uttar Pradesh have been silenced, standing on his own has done his (Akhilesh) image good, now he is being looked upon as an independent, mature leader,” said BK Tiwari, head of the Political Science department, at Lucknow University.

 Many aides, patrons and followers of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shivpal Yadav have been left out or have refused to be part of the campaigning. They have become part of the opposition. Many like Amar Singh have overtly supported the BJP while some like Shivpal Yadav have threatened to breakaway and start their own parties. Then there are those who are working insidiously. Most of them hope that the young, rash Yadav will be taught a lesson. 

“For the first time, old bastions such as Mainpuri, Etawah, and even Azamgarh might be lost. In Etawah, the party will lose two seats, in Mainpuri the fight will be tooth and nail, and Azamgarh will show who the public prefers,” said a supporter of Mulayam Singh Yadav. “See the fighting,” he continued, “has exposed the divisions within the party, everyone knows how he treated his father, and people will reject him for maltreating the tallest leader of our party, which as much as you want to contest is the truth.” According to him, many people have been left out, ‘so many tickets have gotten cut’, people were preparing for the election all of last year or longer, and the alliance with the Congress has left 105 party members without tickets, they will protest in some way or another. 

Pankaj Kumar, ex-member of the Public Service Commission, and professor at Allahabad University, worked in the elections in 2012, campaigning, working with the party. “I had told Akhilesh in 2012 that we would get the full majority, now I don’t see it. The BJP has been gaining, their caste calculations are formidable, demonetisation is forgotten and the policies such as UJWALA have benefitted crores of people in the state,” he said. Remarking on the trend of an ascendant BJP he said, “I support the SP and always have, but I also have to be true to myself as a political scientist, and what I see is a formidable BJP.” The rainbow caste coalition that the saffron party is attempting to stitch is a tall order, but Kumar and others tend to see the Brahmins, Thakurs and Bania castes as a bloc that will vote en masse for the BJP. If he is to be believed, then the minority vote along with that of the EBCs and the Yadavs is more fluid, a phenomenon that could hamper the SP-Congress alliance’s chances and decimate the BSP entirely. 

The reorientation of Akhilesh Yadav and his projection as a man who has brought development to the State will perhaps work in his favour. The building of the metro, the highways, the distribution of laptops and the promise of smartphones have somehow freed him from the anti-incumbency the rest of the party suffers from. Despite the steady attacks by the BJP, there is little or no doubt that brand Akhilesh is widely recognised as unblemished and perhaps stronger after the family feud (much to the chagrin of those left out). His alliance with Rahul Gandhi could help woo the youth – this demographic is in large numbers – to vote for him across caste and religion. There is little or no doubt that Akhilesh Yadav is extremely popular, but will it be enough to carry the party to victory despite all its demons?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2017