Not much can prepare anyone for the responsibility that has come Akhilesh Yadav’s way. From someone who has never held a position in government or administration, he is now going to be the executive head of Uttar Pradesh, a state with 200 million people that would be the world’s fifth largest country if it were independent. It is a state often polarised on caste and religious lines, and if India’s growth story has to have any meaning, it has to become a reality here.
It is not as if Akhilesh is undeserving of chief ministership, once you cast aside the dynastic tag that has now almost become a prerequisite for the job in so many states. The resounding success of his Samajwadi Party (SP) in the just concluded election was no fluke. While much attention has been focused on Team Rahul and its strategy for the Congress, Akhilesh stewarded an SP campaign planned and carried out by a young team of 500 over the last year-and-a-half. “We had a vision of elections based on data and facts. We successfully implemented that vision,” says Sanjay Lathar, the SP’s youth wing president who led an elaborate backroom exercise to create a gameplan for victory.
The SP team conducted a detailed survey, right down to the polling booth level, not just of caste profiles, but policies and actions of Mayawati’s BSP government to determine what people were unhappy with and what they most urgently wanted the state to change or intervene on. Thus was its campaign strategy devised: to address such local issues. The team also broke its goal of winning UP down to manageable micro targets. It calculated that if the party were to get just 5,000 votes more than in 2007 in 250 identified Assembly constituencies, it would bag these seats. Akhilesh’s bus-and-cycle campaign tour was charted out with exactly this objective in mind.
To help coordinate that tour, the party also ran a control centre with some 15 operators working the phones round the clock. In all, Akhilesh travelled 10,000 km, holding some 500 meetings during and before the polls. The message was kept to the point and there was no negative campaigning. “There was no fault-finding,” says Lathar, “we just told people what we had to offer.” While it is easy to say this in hindsight, the campaign team was not surprised by the results. They were expecting 220-240 seats.
The two Chief Ministers—the outgoing Mayawati and incoming Akhilesh Yadav—couldn’t be more different. Mayawati ruled with a firm fist and made a virtue of her aloofness. She became increasingly inaccessible to MLAs, MPs and then even ministers. She had a small kitchen cabinet headed by UP’s Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh. He took retirement three days after the BSP’s election debacle, but under her quaint regime, he was the man even top industrialists such as the Ambani brothers were asked to first meet in preparation for an audience with Mayawati (in at least one instance, neither brother turned up). The only exception made was for liquor baron Ponty Chadha, who had direct access to her.
Mayawati’s government worked on a simple principle. She was at the centre of a unitary structure that controlled the government and the party. But over time, she caged herself in a shell, reduced her tours, and gave up social and other interactions. “Shashank Shekhar Singh was running the government, while Mayawati relaxed at her residence and ate cashew nuts,” says a former principal secretary in her Chief Minister’s Office, popularly known as ‘pancham taal’ (or the fifth floor of an annexe secretariat building where it is housed). But she was aware of what was coming her way this election; before the results were declared, she allowed ten of her key bureaucrats to go on deputation to the Central Government, a move she had earlier opposed.
Contrast this with the affable Akhilesh Yadav, a soft-spoken man with a perpetual smile on his face, a man whose popularity rests on the twin charms of his accessibility to people and deference towards elders in his party and beyond. Akhilesh touching the feet of party veterans who congregated to congratulate him on this emphatic victory is an image that has become symbolic of his ascent to power. He makes it a point to see them off to their cars. And he does not forget faces.
Senior IAS officers who were invited to Akhilesh’s wedding a decade ago, some still serving, many retired, vouch for his manners being no recent acquisition. At that gathering, Mulayam Singh Yadav stood by his son to ensure he paid these bureaucrats similar respect as they came by to bless the newlywed. When some of them called on Mulayam when he lost his wife a few years ago, the same practice was followed.
Of all those who’ve wondered aloud if Akhilesh has the maturity needed for his new job, he has had a disarming request: “Aapka ashirvaad chaahiye” (I need your blessings). One meeting with him, and even the most grumpy (about his accession) are charmed, say members of his youth brigade. Says a senior party member, “Netaji ke sanskar achchey hain. Pradesh ki baagdore sahi haathon mein gayi hai.” (Mulayam Singh has inculcated good values in his son, the state’s reins are in safe hands).
The SP headquarters in Lucknow on Vikramaditya Marg is just 500 metres away from the Yadav mansion, home to the party’s first family, on the same street. As the ballot count surged in its favour on 6 March, the street got jammed with SUVs flying the party flag, a cycle on a red-
and-green background, some of them with embossed pictures of Mulayam. A shop on the street sold about 10,000 of these in two days, while shops near the city’s MLA quarters at Darul Shafa sold an estimated 5,000.
Meanwhile, BSP flags—a silver elephant on a dark blue background—lay in gunnysacks dumped under the counter. Across town, dejected BSP workers have been packing up and moving out of their usual haunts. Some of them wearily discuss their party’s rout. “Mayawati has lost the election, but Akhilesh has not won it,” says S Ram, a BSP worker from Hathras. He and his cohorts are not shocked, though, since they had seen it coming long ago; they just couldn’t convey it to her. Of the18 district chiefs of the BSP that I spoke to, only two had seen Mayawati in Lucknow in the past two years. “I told her office that I have to discuss important election issues with Behenji alone, but I was never allowed to see her,” says a district chief from a Western UP district, “Now Behenji will disappear for five years to Delhi. She will never sit in a house [of legislature] led by Akhilesh.”
As Mayawati exits, she leaves UP a stony legacy of marble sculptures of elephants, statues of Dalit icons (herself included) and stupas of Mauryan design that she put up in grandiose parks across the state. Akhilesh has clarified that he will not waste crores of public money on demolishing all this. But not every challenge he faces can be met with such ease.
The unitary command structure of Mayawati might have been a factor in her undoing. But its compete absence in Akhilesh’s case could also make life difficult for him as Chief Minister. His first battle on the way to that position was fought for him by his father. Mulayam Singh Yadav prevailed upon two powerful party leaders with chief ministerial ambitions: his younger brother Shivpal Singh Yadav (who in party circles is held responsible for perceptions of the SP’s ‘goonda raj’ last time in power) and Azam Khan, the party’s most influential Muslim leader. When the two expressed reluctance to serve the new government under Akhilesh, Mulayam suggested a role at the Centre for one, and the Vidhan Sabha Speaker’s post for the other. Since then, both have come round and agreed to work under Akhilesh, but only after Mulayam made it clear that this was his “wish”.
Akhilesh has to perform a fine balancing act to make it work. Shivpal Singh Yadav and Azam Khan have been promised ministries of their choice and free reins. But, as some expect, would they become Akhilesh’s Bairam Khans? The name refers to Mughal Emperor Akbar’s powerful mentor who guided him in his youth, but later had to be eased out (sent off on Hajj) for Akbar to gain full freedom as a ruler. Akhilesh’s cabinet could be in for a similar drama over his tenure. “His first real test will be to deal with these two,” says an SP Lok Sabha member.
They are but the most powerful of the many who are laying claim to the spoils of this victory. Speculation has been rife at the VVIP guest house in Lucknow where senior party leaders had been camping before Akhilesh’s swearing in. There were three streams of supplicants: MPs, jubilant party workers and expectant MLAs in town to lobby for ministerial berths or other posts that could entitle them to cars with a ‘lal batti’ (red beacon light), bureaucrats lining up to reaffirm their solidarity in lieu of prized postings, and, last but no less noticeably, businessmen with thick gold chains around their fleshy necks on the lookout for fat government contracts. Despite the queues, it is clear that there will be multiple power centres in the government (unlike the Mayawati regime). For the moment, Shivpal Singh Yadav and Azam Khan will report directly to Netaji, explains an MLA who expects a ministerial berth from Shivpal’s quota.
The cabinet, it seems, may not be the final policymaking forum. If differences arise, as is sure to happen, the old guard will seek Mulayam Singh Yadav’s intervention. As Akhilesh has clarified, his government in its initial stages will indeed function with the ‘ashirvaad’ (blessings) of his father. In any case, it is his father who is vetting cabinet portfolio allocations. Akhilesh, says a senior at these meetings, is an observer in this process. No wonder expectant MLAs have been talking to Ram Gopal Yadav, Shivpal Singh Yadav and Azam Khan.
The advantage that Akhilesh wields is the backing of the SP’s energetic youth wing, and his affable manner appears to mask a resolve to make the most of this verdict. Remember, he was the one who had DP Yadav and his gang of thugs ejected from the party. The new CM has been firm on the need for party members to abide by the law. But the going may get tougher for him. Internal party ego play has already cost him his close aide and party spokesperson Rajiv Rai, who he had to sacrifice for upsetting Azam Khan with a few words uttered on the latter’s unhelpful behaviour. It will not be easy. How this tug-and-pull will be resolved could hold the key to the failure or success of Akhilesh’s government.