UP Assembly Elections 2017

The Day of the Bicycle Prince

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Footloose in Akhilesh’s Lucknow

ON THE MORNING of January 16th, a day after his wife’s birthday celebrations, Akhilesh Yadav appears “downcast” to one of his suave ministers who called on the leader at his Lucknow residence. A senior editor who met him that day was also struck by the lack of “usual verve” in the man, who, at 43, is one of India’s youngest chief ministers—and the youngest ever to hold the position in the country’s most populous state. Another young Samajwadi Party (SP) minister who recently faced disciplinary action at the hands of Akhilesh’s intra-party rival, his own uncle Shivpal Yadav, said the Chief Minister may have been disturbed by the events that took place earlier in the day. His father Mulayam Singh Yadav, the patriarch with whom Akhilesh was locked in a battle for supremacy filled with intrigue and betrayal, had driven that morning to the party office on 19 Vikramaditya Marg, a road teeming with OB vans and reporters and named after a first-century ruler remembered as an ‘ideal king’, thanks to his generosity and patronage of the arts and culture. Yadav Sr, who lives on 5 Vikramaditya Marg, close to Akhilesh, vowed to fight his son and beat him in the tussle only to face loud slogans of ‘Akhileshji ki jai’, until Naresh Chandra Uttam, the SP state president who recently replaced Shivpal, appealed to the crowds not to say anything that would hurt the party’s founder. The youths relented and Mulayam left the sprawling office with the practised arrogance of a former wrestler, now 77.

A while later, as I watch, an excited band of Akhilesh supporters appears with a plaque and nails it beneath an older one on which is written in Hindi, ‘Mulayam Singh Yadav, National President’. The new one says, ‘Akhilesh Yadav, National President’. Party workers go on a sloganeering spree again, this time with renewed vigour. Soon, after seniors intervene, the cadres start chanting the names of both the father and son in an apparent effort to project unity within a party that has seen both camps—that of the father and of the son—engage in a slugfest over the SP poll symbol, the cycle. Mohammed Ahmed Siddiqui from Balamau Assembly constituency in Hardoi, among the hangers-on at the SP office, is of the view that Netaji loves his son to no end. “He is going to soon agree to Akhileshji’s proposals and there will be a united fight against fascist forces,” he says, staring at an open auditorium on the campus next to a large hall built in the name of the late socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia. Devender Singh, who had come to the capital of UP from Mainpuri, a seat Mulayam has represented in the Lok Sabha several times, parrots the hope: “The father loves the son, and very soon there will be a solution.” He sees Netaji, as Mulayam is referred to even by son Akhilesh, as the ultimate leader. “But now for the survival of the party in the face of a threat from the BJP, Akhilesh must become the functional leader who will be mentored and guided by Netaji,” he avers. Is it all a game of love and intrigue, I ask an SP leader. “See, there was an issue, and now we are on the verge of solving it.” When I raise the show of defiance by Mulayam, he says, “I don’t think the father holds any grudge against the son. There were differences over some issues, that’s all.”

With people arriving in hordes from various parts of the state, as if to quench their curiosity of the ongoing drama within the party, I step out and head for the nearby home of UP minister Abhishek Mishra, who, unlike most others, is only ready to speak on the record. The IIM-A professor had made a foray into politics in 2012 when he won an Assembly election. Back then, he had expected that a new SP would dawn under Akhilesh’s watch. “Things have not changed at all,” he had told me a few months later, confirming that the ‘old SP’, led by Akhilesh’s father and uncles who patronised toughies across the state, was still calling the shots. Now, however, Mishra says that he never really had to work under the ‘old SP’, especially because he worked closely with Akhilesh. Here, it is inescapable: ‘Old SP’ is a metaphor for lawless governance and the ‘New SP’, the one steered by Akhilesh, is projected as a modern party led by a messiah of development, a strategy borrowed from the poll campaigns of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For more than a year, there were signs that the ‘New’ version was making a mark, with Akhilesh insisting on having his people in positions of power that mattered. He would soon find himself growing in popularity among party legislators and office-bearers. In a show of strength after fighting a no-holds-barred battle, sacking uncle Shivpal as state party chief and his men from crucial posts, Akhilesh had managed to parade for public view the support of more than 90 per cent of the state MLAs and a brute majority of the party’s higher echelons with the assistance of another uncle, Mulayam’s cousin Professor Ram Gopal Yadav.

‘Old SP’ is a metaphor for lawless governance and the ‘New SP’, steered by Akhilesh, is projected as a modern party led by a messiah of development, a strategy borrowed from Modi

Still, on the morning of January 16th, the Akhilesh camp, comprising politicians, bureaucrats and consultants, was worried. All the Chief Minister’s men, including the likes of Udayveer Singh, Arvind Kumar Singh Gope, Anand Bhadauriya, Pawan Pandey, Akshay Yadav, Dharmendra Yadav (who has lately grown close to Akhilesh) and Sunil Singh Yadav, were either tight-lipped, unavailable for comment or would only speak off the record and in hushed tones. Powerful bureaucrats, including Navneet Sehgal, principal secretary (Information) who had once been considered BSP chief Mayawati’s blue-eyed boy while she was CM and is now a key member of Team Akhilesh, refused to comment on the preparations that are afoot to cash in on the projection of Akhilesh as a development man. Incidentally, he has a poll war room in place led by Harvard strategists Steve Jarding and Adwait Vikram Singh; from here, they and their team of 170-odd volunteers, mostly women, coordinate campaign activities with over 10,000 people out in the field across regions where elections are to be held in the first few phases of the seven-phased exercise.

I am back in the SP office once again, after meeting the usual suspects from various parties in Lucknow and leaders ready to offer ‘dope’ at the drop of a hat, and the crowds are only swelling. Performances by local singers and folk artists are thrown in to keep them occupied; party workers walk in and out of the palatial bungalow; others take breaks from their long sitting sessions to gorge on samosas or fruit chaat or simply to take a sun bath to beat the nippy weather. I take a walk down Vikramaditya Road to peek into the homes of Akhilesh and Mulayam where SUVs arrive every hour or so only to leave shortly after. The tension among the leaders I meet is palpable: they say only a high-pitch campaign can help Akhilesh ‘click’ again in this election, maybe not in the way he did in the 2012 when he won by a landslide, but at least by a small margin. When I remind some of them of the implications of a BJP win in UP—which would mean enough numbers for the nationalist party to ensure India gets a President and Vice- President from the Sangh Parivar—one of them says, “Yes we have to detach Akhilesh from the baggage of the ‘Old SP’ and hardsell him as a young face with a clean slate. But a bitter wrangle within would be a major hurdle.”

The immediate apprehensions of the Akhilesh camp (as well as the other one) were over whether the Election Commission (EC) would let it use the ‘bicycle’ symbol at the hustings. In a bid to downplay the anxiety, two days earlier, Akhilesh himself had shared a spoof image on social media, a take-off on the film poster of Bicycle Thieves by the legendary filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, portraying Akhilesh as the son (Enzo Staiola) and Mulayam as the father (Lamberto Maggiorani).

It is past 6.15 pm, and having hopped from party offices and ministerial bungalows to hotel lobbies and back, I am planning to leave for my hotel when my driver complains of a tyre puncture that he has to get fixed, forcing me to spend more time at the SP office, famished and slightly lost. I am in for a serendipitous treat: the big news arrives and it takes me a while to realise what it means. Dancing amid crackers being burst breaks the Monday evening monotony and cuts through the wintry chill of Lucknow. The EC has ruled that the Akhilesh faction of the SP is entitled to the party name and symbol in the elections.

The Akhilesh camp had been wondering how long the poll panel would take to verify the signatures of partymen and lawmakers it had submitted to it. “If it had taken longer, the CM thought, there would be delay and uncertainty in the campaign and plans for an alliance with the Congress party. Confusion would continue to reign—that was his worry,” a confidant of Akhilesh tells me when I meet him in the lobby of a luxury hotel the next morning. “Now there is clarity and half the battle is over,” he adds. I ask him what transpired at the meeting held between father and son right after the EC announcement, and he says that the Chief Minister is now confident of a positive outcome to the whole mess. He also dismisses allegations that the whole family fiasco was a ruse to project Akhilesh as a politician different from the party’s old guard, whose past regimes had been flayed for poor law-and-order conditions in UP. Members of the Akhilesh war room had earlier termed as ‘fake’ a mail addressed to Adwait Singh from Steve Jarding asking strategists to advise Akhilesh to ‘orchestrate a family feud scenario’. Jarding had also allegedly suggested implicating Shivpal to consolidate Akhilesh’s clean image. Adwait, who says he joined the Akhilesh team only as late as August, and later got Jarding on board, couldn’t have received a letter as early as July. “That is how the [fake news mongers] got it wrong,” says this Harvard School of Law alumnus, a native of Lucknow.

ADWAIT, WHO is floor manager of the war room, refuses to speak about the configuration and modes of the Akhilesh campaign. However, others in the team—some of whom had worked for the Modi campaign of 2014 as part of Citizens for Accountable Governance led by Prashant Kishor—inform me that they plan to capitalise on ‘trust circles’ that have been created in the state to pull in votes in the name of a ‘reformist Chief Minister with a socialist touch’. Their morale is not hurt by the results of snap polls conducted by the likes of Tushar Panchal of WarRoom Strategies, who has found that Modi’s demonetisation move is unlikely to turn votes against the BJP and that a majority of 3,000 respondents in a state-wide survey see the Yadav family fight as a ‘drama’. Panchal admits that he had initially expected adverse outcome for the BJP, given the currency clampdown. “The move of demonetisation by Prime Minister Modi was indeed a political masterstroke that successfully captured the imagination of the masses,” he says. “The Modi Government’s unwillingness to shift the date [away from February 1st] of the Union Budget, which many believe would have lots of sops to apply balm on the economic impact of demonetisation, will also add a twist to the tale. Also, knowing BJP well enough, they will fuel these sentiments with a high-decibel campaign to create a groundswell in their favour.” Panchal had initially planned to reveal the results of the opinion poll on December 30th, 2016, the deadline for people to turn in their old currency notes. With that in mind, he and his team conducted their sample survey from December 18th to 25th, 2016. “While the analysts were computing the results, they discovered that there was something spicy cooking on the political landscape of UP and that they must cover the possible impact of SP’s internal feud. We then decided to run an additional poll from January 11th to 14th, 2017, to get specific answers on how people are feeling about these new developments,” he adds.

The SP war room, led by Harvard strategists, has built ‘trust circles’ comprising over 10,000 people to pull in votes in the name of the ‘reformist CM with a socialist touch’

LEADERS OF THE SP and BSP, however, dismiss such snap polls as absurd. Abhishek Mishra contends that it is for the first time in decades that the state has a chief ministerial incumbent who isn’t contesting polls on the plank of caste. He is, of course, referring to the regimes of Mayawati-led BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav-led SP who had banked on caste group multitudes to achieve power. The BJP leaders I speak to rubbish such claims, saying that the SP cannot change its stripes—which they equate with criminal syndicates that make up the party. The SP spokesperson and chairperson of UP State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Juhie Singh, an alumnus of University of London who is known to enjoy a good rapport with Akhilesh’s wife Dimple, argues that Akhilesh does enjoy an image of a young and vibrant leader committed to job creation and social upliftment. It isn’t just SP leaders who are making such claims. Even local BJP leaders tell me that the momentum now is in Akhilesh’s favour, whether one likes it or not.

Sudhir Panwar, a Lucknow-based political analyst, feels that Akhilesh’s image as a moderniser has impressed voters. Over the past two years, the Chief Minister’s emphasis on infrastructure, health, policing, women’s empowerment and so on, he says, has been commendable. A visit to government offices in Lucknow are proof that things are changing.

State officials such as Navneet Sehgal and Amod Kumar, secretary to the CM, among several others, are held in high esteem by MNCs and NGOs.

Anisa Draboo, director, Advocacy and Communications, Landesa, a US-based organisation that works for land rights of rural landlessness with a strong focus on women, says working with the Akhilesh Yadav government has been a pleasant experience. “We started working in UP in 2013 when we realised that no organisation was exclusively focusing on this relevant issue,” says Draboo, “Working with the government was essential for us to scale efforts, but apprehensions of not receiving support in a deeply patriarchal, caste-based state were high. To our surprise, we found the government to be very supportive in pushing the agenda of land rights... In a big move, the government has initiated revenue reforms and unveiled amendments of the Uttar Pradesh Revenue Code, 2006. This brings sweeping changes to the entire revenue regime, while repealing several enactments including Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1950. The new Revenue code is promising in certain ways as it has repealed a number of obsolete acts and included several progressive clauses, including on women’s land rights, though there is still a long way to go.”

While SP leaders close to Akhilesh expect all to end well, Omprakash Singh, who is in the Mulayam camp, tells me on the phone that the party is one single entity under Netaji. “I don’t see any more problems between Netaji and his son or a divided house,” he says, “It is all going to be one.”

I speak to Praveen Rai about the political undercurrents in UP, a state he has studied closely for decades. This academic secretary at Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies tells me that the purging of old leaders from the party and Akhilesh Yadav’s resolve not to give tickets to high-profile criminals has helped him emerge stronger from the family feud. He warns that any compromise with the warring section will pull him down from the moral high ground he has taken. According to Juhie Singh, who shared the views of several other SP leaders who spoke to me off the record, there has always been contention over 25-30 seats between the Mulayam camp and Akhilesh. This time, she expects tussles in 15-odd seats of the Assembly’s 403 total. The SP’s main rival candidates, according to at least four party leaders, are different in different areas. “BJP in the cities and semi-urban areas and the BSP in the countryside,” says Mishra. He adds that Modi bhakts would remain the BJP’s most loyal voters: “They can’t see reason.” Another SP leader contends that the BSP will not be able to eat into the SP’s Muslim vote base simply because the ruling party in UP is now slated to face polls as part of a grand coalition.

Meanwhile, Dinesh Shastri, a resident of Lucknow whom I meet while buying sweets at the iconic Chhappan Bhog bakery in Sadar Bazaar, says that he runs a travel agency that has been badly hit by demonetisation. Still, this traditional BJP voter hasn’t decided whom to vote for this time. He says that young people may get carried away by the optics Akhilesh Yadav’s team has created. “Unless, of course, Mulayam gets back at him with vehemence,” he notes, emphasising that right-wing nationalist forces are in vogue these days. Which is why he would not be surprised to see an emphatic BJP win in the state.

Speaking to Open, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of the bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow, acknowledges that the advantage that nationalist forces have lately had over liberals the world over, including in India, is “probably related to the two- system distinction”: candidates that appeal to fast, emotional decision-makers are now gaining against those who rely on slow, rational deliberators.

Winning over impulse voters is a strategy that is gaining currency worldwide. Maybe, as a political scion, Akhilesh Yadav knows this only too well.