UP elections 2012: Rahul-Akhilesh face-off

The UP polls among other things was also a face-off between the heir to the Samajwadi Party throne and the scion of the Gandhi family.

Manisha Singh

The Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, apart from being one of the most tightly contested elections in the state in recent memory, was also an election where the next generation of leaders from two high-profile families worked very hard to drive home the point that their time had come. The election among other things was a face-off between the heir to the Samajwadi Party throne, Akhilesh Yadav and the scion of the Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi – The relentless campaigner

Rahul Gandhi put his heart and soul in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. He was one of the first to hit the campaign trail in the state. With more than 200 public meetings and road shows he made it clear that revamping the Congress in UP was his main agenda and he was there for a long haul. Rahul’s foray in the boiler of the country’s politically volatile state has been hailed by the Congressmen and some sections of the media as maturing of the young Gandhi as a politician. The idea is not exactly misplaced – the man who hardly interacts with the media, whose views on various issues are not forthcoming and who is not known to speak in Parliament, has been seen in a new avatar as far as these elections are concerned – aggressive, combative, vocal and even dramatic.

The build-up to the UP polls had been happening for quite sometime before the real campaigning started. Remember the night-stays and the stop-overs by Rahul in the houses of the so-called marginalised members of the society. Also, remember the Bhatta Parsaul agitation and Rahul taking up the cause of the farmers’ agitation against Mayawati government’s land acquisition policy.

Rahul knew that if the Congress had any hopes of going back to the days of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv and get a majority on its own at the Centre, he had to plunge into the hotbed of UP politics. He went all out to woo the Dalits and the Muslims. His hard work and earnestness energised the cadres and attracted masses to his rallies in large numbers.

Nonetheless, it is not easy to turn around a party who has been out of power in the state for more than 22 years. Moreover, the Congress does not seem to have home-grown and rooted leaders who can inspire a sense of hope in the masses. The party is also said to have poor organisational structure and this is one area where parties like the SP and the BSP have a distinct advantage over Congress.

With most of the exit polls and post-poll surveys predicting advantage Akhilesh Yadav, the son of Mulayam Singh, can we say that too much dependence on the Gandhi name and Gandhi family proved detrimental to the cause of Congress? While some exit polls have placed Congress at the third place, most have placed it at the fourth position. But the tally in overall seats of the party from 22 that it got in 2007 is expected to increase. If the Congress doubles its seats, then should it be seen as a victory for Rahul Gandhi? But what if the Congress increases its tally but is placed at the fourth position?

Congress leaders have already started finding ways to insulate the youth Congress leader from any criticism if the predictions in the exit-polls come true. Senior Congress spokesperson, Digvijay Singh told a TV channel, “The leadership can create a wave; it is the organisation which has to convert it into votes and seats.” This was exactly the same argument that the Congress leaders had put forward after the Bihar elections debacle.

In UP, Rahul had a certain disadvantage as far as Akhilesh was concerned - Rahul may have been seen by a section of the voters as someone who would leave the state once the elections were over and concentrate his energies in another state, say Gujarat, where elections are due later this year. Rahul did ask for votes, saying that he would not leave the state and promised to change the face of UP if given 10 years. But he did not say who the regional leader to work amongst the people was?

Congress state president Rita Bahuguna said recently on a TV show, “Rahul is a national leader, Akhilesh is a regional leader.” But this drawback of Akhilesh may actually have worked to his advantage in UP. Akhilesh, touted as the next Chief Minister, appears to be more rooted and at ease in the state even though he has done a part of his studies in Australia. The electorate knows that UP is the place where Akhilesh’s future as a politician lies. Rahul may say that he is not going to leave the state; the truth is that Akhilesh is the one who is there for the long haul.

Akhilesh is also someone who is seen to be more media friendly and approachable. Whereas the junior Yadav has no qualms of talking to the media and giving one-on-one interviews, the junior Gandhi has shied away from media interactions except for stray press conferences. This has resulted in Rahul being perceived as elitist and aloof by certain sections.

Nonetheless, Rahul and the Congress party had no misconceptions about coming to power in the state this time around. What Rahul was investing in was a long-term goal. He knows that if the Congress hopes to come to power in UP in the long run like Mamata Banerjee did in West Bengal, then he had to start in these elections.

Akhilesh Yadav – The man of the moment

So has the Akhilesh magic worked in these Assembly elections? If the poll pundits are to be believed then it has. Like Rahul, Akhilesh is also a product of dynastic politics. They are almost of the same age, 41 and 37 respectively. But he has worked hard to shrug off the family tag urging the voters that he is not there as the son of the strongman of UP politics, Mulayam Singh Yadav, but as someone who promises to give the common man a better future and clean politics. Like Rahul he too has addressed more than 200 rallies and undertook numerous cycle yatras. The masses may have swarmed to Rahul’s rallies and the media may have followed every move of the Gandhi family, but the youth were equally, if not more, attracted to Akhilesh too. Akhilesh has tactically made efforts to woo the young. The SP has profiles and community pages on Facebook and also has account on Twitter.

After being appointed as SP’s state president, Akhilesh, who was first elected to the Lok Sabha from Kannauj in 2000, took some hard decisions which sent out a message that he was in command. He vetoed his uncle Shivpal Yadav’s induction of Haseen Uddin Siddiqui, the brother of Naseem Uddin Siddiqui, who is supposedly close to BSP supremo Mayawati. Shivpal Yadav was someone whose influence and say in the party was unquestionable. But that did not stop Akhilesh from denying tickets to some of Shivpal’s choices. Akhilesh also put his foot down on the issue of muscleman DP Yadav joining the party, tersely stating that there was no place for tainted politicians in SP. He had no qualms in rebuking old-timers like Azam Khan and Mohan Singh. Is this arrogance or the beginning of a new era in the history of the Samajwadi Party, will become clear in the times to come?

Akhilesh is also projecting himself as a man with a futuristic vision. His speech and his decisions give one the feeling that he wants to gain back the space that the Samajwadi Party frittered away during the last regime. A case in point - Mulayam had opposed the use of English language and computers in 2009 and was criticised for it. This time around the SP manifesto promises to give employment allowances and laptops if it comes to power. Being realistic he says, “We have to find ways to relate technology with agriculture” and dismisses any criticism of the party moving away from its ideology.

The SP leader also does not have any hesitation in accepting the drawbacks due to which the party lost in 2007. He probably realises that the voter mindset is changing and rather than vote on the basis of identity politics, they will most likely vote for a party which will give them good governance. He admission that the party’s image had taken a beating as far as law or order was concerned, suggested that he was not in the mood to repeat the same mistakes again. He has repeatedly said that those who will indulge in criminal activities will be thrown out of the party. Though he did give tickets to candidates like Kaptan Singh Rajput, who is accused of murder.

While many say that Akhilesh’s transformation as a sharp politician is complete and he has filled his father’s shoes very well, there are others who say that Akhilesh still lacks the natural leadership qualities and the organisational prowess of the senior Yadav and may have to work harder to be accepted in the long-run. Mulayam has been accused of blatantly pushing his son to be the CM, leading to criticism that the Samajwadi Party had become a family affair. Nonetheless, the young leader has made it clear that ultimately it’s the people who will vote for him if they see merit in him.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, these gen-next leaders have tried hard to shake off the image of mere inheritors of the family name. They have made it loud and clear that they have a distinct personality of their own and they are here to stay. Whether they are accepted by the masses as their leader or are dismissed as a legacy of dynastic politics, Rahul and Akhilesh both had to take the plunge and the risk. There was no other way.