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In the biting cold of December 1999, two newly-weds were walking down a Dehradun street when a phone call interrupted their conversation. It was Mulayam Singh Yadav on the line. “Ghar laut aao… tumhe Kannauj se Lok Sabha ka upchunav ladna hai (Come back home. You have to contest the Lok Sabha by-election from Kannauj).”
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Those close to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav are fond of recounting this anecdote, implicit in it the message that their young leader is an “obedient son” who has never challenged his father’s authority. For them, that’s a necessary message that needs to be sent out, especially now, with the Samajwadi Party going through a murky fratricidal battle that has seen those in the party openly take positions: its Uttar Pradesh president Shivpal Yadav and his supporters on one side and Akhilesh Yadav and his loyalists on the other. And in the centre, as the glue that binds these two factions, at least for now, is Mulayam, though the SP chief has openly chided his son and said he would stand by his brother Shivpal.
That day in 1999, Akhilesh, 26, and his bride Dimple, 21, had been discussing their next vacation, a toss-up between London and Sydney, when they had to pack their bags for his ancestral home in Saifai and from there to Lucknow.
Mulayam’s phone call had interrupted more than their cosy conversation: Akhilesh, a graduate in Civil Environment Engineering from Mysore University, was planning to move to Delhi to set up an ‘environment research centre’, and Dimple, the daughter of an Army officer, was determined to stay away from politics.
In the Lok Sabha election that year, Mulayam had won from two seats, Sambhal and Kannauj. Though he decided to vacate Kannauj, it was a seat close to his heart: his ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia had been elected to the Lok Sabha from that seat in 1967. Besides, it was a party stronghold and continues to be one. As the BSP announced that it would field senior leader Akbar Ahmad ‘Dumpy’ from Kannauj, party insiders recall how the SP leadership went into a huddle. The leaders suggested that only a member of Mulayam’s family could retain the seat and Akhilesh’s name came up several times in the course of that meeting. Mulayam, however, was reportedly reluctant to bring his son into politics, fearing that the Opposition would attack him for the decision. It was senior leader Janeshwar Mishra, party sources say, who convinced Mulayam to field Akhilesh, saying, “Aise padhe likhe log rajneeti mein aane chahiye (politics needs educated people like Akhilesh).”
So it was Mishra who finally accompanied Akhilesh to the Kannauj district election officer to file the nomination papers. After the formalities had been done, as media persons surrounded Akhilesh and questioned him about the party’s ‘dynasty politics’, Akhilesh looked nervous. Mishra then stepped in and said, “Yeh satta ka pariwarwad nahin hai, yeh sangharsh ka pariwarwaad hai (this is not a political dynasty but a dynasty of struggle).”
Mishra had saved the day, but Akhilesh was quick to learn from there on. He toured villages and held nukkad sabhas (street-corner meetings) and when the results of the February 25, 2000, Kannuaj bypoll were declared, he was a clear winner: he had defeated the BSP candidate by a margin of around 59,000 votes.
That was well begun, but as Akhilesh, who is known to play both cricket and football, would soon realise, politics wasn’t an easy game.
The Samajwadi Party, a regional party founded on Lohiaite principles and headed by dhoti-wearing, Hindi-speaking socialist leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav and Janeshwar Mishra, was hardly a party that appealed to the youth. That’s where Akhilesh made a difference. Soon after he entered politics, he activated the youth fronts of the party and visited universities across UP, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It was during one such visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi that he identified student leader Udayveer Singh, who is now a member of the UP Legislative Council. (Last week, Shivpal expelled Udayveer from the party for “anti-party activities” — he had written a letter to Mulayam, alleging that Shivpal and other members of the family were hatching conspiracies against Akhilesh.)
“Akhilesh is a good learner. He was an MP when he attended his first training camp for youth leaders in Jhoonsi, Allahabad, from September 8 to 12, 2000. Mulayam and Janeshwar Mishra invited Akhilesh on to the stage but he insisted on sitting with the youths in the audience,” says Sanjay Lathar, an MLC and a youth leader who was among the seven leaders expelled by Shivpal on September 19 and who is now ready with an Akhilesh biography, titled Samajwad ke Saarthi.
Two years after that training camp, at the concluding session of the SP’s national convention in Bhopal on August 3 and 4, 2002, Mishra declared Akhilesh as the national in-charge of the party’s four youth frontal organisations— Lohia Vanini, Yuvjan Sabha, Chhatra Sabha and Mulayam Youth Bigrade. Akhilesh is still in charge of these wings and that explains the support he has been getting from youth workers during the ongoing crisis in the party.
Before the 2002 elections, Akhilesh brought up the idea of an unemployment allowance and also demanded that student union elections be regularly held in universities and colleges. When Mulayam became CM in 2003, replacing Mayawati, he kept both of Akhilesh’s promises — student union elections were held across campuses in the state and those who registered at employment exchanges were given a monthly unemployment allowance of Rs 500.
In 2005, Akhilesh changed the way the SP treated campus politics. Despite its Lohia influence, the party’s student wing, Chhatra Sabha, usually fielded upper-caste youths for student union elections. That year, Akhilesh fielded Hemant Singh, a Dalit, in the Allahabad University student union election and Rajpal Kashyap, a Most Backward Caste candidate, in Lucknow University — both won the post of president.
All this helped establish Akhilesh as a new, youthful face of the party. But it was in 2009, after he replaced Shivpal as state party president, that Akhilesh came into his own. With the SP out of power and tainted by its ‘goonda raj’ image from its previous term, Akhilesh decided to do something different.
As state president of the party, Akhilesh in 2011 issued specific instructions for potential candidates — that election tickets would not be given on recommendations alone, applicants would have to apply on a prescribed format and they would have to subscribe to the party mouthpiece, Samajwadi Bulletin.
The party received nearly 3,000 applications, including for seats held by senior party leaders. That was when the old-timers — who, until then, had shrugged off these changes — realised that they wouldn’t qualify by default anymore.
In September that year, while other parties were busy with ticket distribution, Akhilesh embarked on a bus yatra, the Samajwadi Kranti Rath, across the state. He addressed over 250 meetings, covering around 12,000 km, some parts of it on cycle.
Akhilesh and his team had everything chalked out for the 2012 elections — logistics, media management and route map for campaigning. Those who got the tickets were given specific responsibilities and told to constitute booth-level committees in their constituencies. In an attempt to widen the party’s appeal, Akhilesh brought in political novices: former captain of the UP cricket team, Jyoti Yadav; former Lucknow University students’ union president Tej Narain Pandey; and former IIM-Ahmedabad professor Abhishek Mishra. (Both Pandey and Mishra won: the former defeated BJP veteran Lallu Singh from Allahabad and Mishra won from Lucknow North).
That was also the time the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had taken the country by storm. Mulayam sensed that the SP needed a fresh, clean face — and he didn’t have to look far. In the 2012 Assembly election, the SP, under Akhilesh’s leadership, won 224 seats, its first and biggest majority. At 38, Akhilesh became the youngest chief minister of the state.
So far, Akhilesh has lived up to his image of being “a clean face”, even taking on his father and uncles in the process.
When western UP don D P Yadav tried to enter the party through Azam Khan, Akhilesh put his foot down. And when party national spokesperson Mohan Singh came out in D P Yadav’s support, Akhilesh got Singh’s wings clipped.
In 2013, gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed managed to enter the SP and even contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Shrawati. Though he lost the election, he stayed close to Mulayam but Akhilesh kept his distance from Atiq. At an even in Kaushambi on May 30 this year, when Atiq got on stage and moved towards Akhilesh, the CM shoved him aside. Raja Bhaiya, despite being in Akhilesh’s Cabinet, has little access to the CM.
In June this year, under pressure from Akhilesh, the party had to call off its merger with mafia-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari’s Quami Ekta Dal, a merger that had been mediated by Shivpal on Mulayam’s directive. “Mukhtar Ansari will not be welcome in the party. We don’t want such people in the party,” Akhilesh had said during a television show in Lucknow.
Earlier this month, Shivpal hit back, announcing that the SP-QED merger was on. While Mukhtar Ansari is in jail, his brother QED president Afzal Ansari, who had blamed Akhilesh after the merger was called off in June, is more careful this time. “Nobody has heard of Akhileshji opposing the merger in recent days. He has accepted the decision,” he says.
As state party president and later as CM, the Blackberry — and iPad — toting Akhilesh also strove hard to distance himself from the party’s anti-English, anti-computer stand. Two-and-a-half years after Mulayam spoke against computers and English education in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the SP, on November 22, 2011, Mulayam’s birthday, placed full-page advertisements in a leading daily. The ads displayed the URL of the SP website, the email ID of the party, along with the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the party’s youth wing, the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha, and asked readers to voice their opinion, convey their thoughts and ask questions of the party. The ads were Akhilesh’s brainchild and it was clear who he was reaching out to. The only concession Akhilesh made to Mulayam’s son-of-the-soil, wrestler legacy was by sticking to Hindi in all his official communications and public speeches.
“There was a time when our party was seen as outdated and anti-technology. But Akhileshji changed that. He distributed lakhs of laptops to students and used technology to improve the public service delivery system,” says Tax and Registration Minister Yasir Shah, who is in the Akhilesh camp.
Akhilesh, however, continues to have his critics among the party old-guard. Om Prakash Sharma, the senior-most member in the UP Legislative Council, who heads the ‘teachers’ group’ in the House, says Mulayam was “far better as CM compared to Akhilesh”. “Netaji was more social than Akhilesh. He frequently met teachers and resolved their issues. Netaji always attended the annual conferences of the Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh (a teachers’ association). After the 2012 polls, when I went to invite Netaji for the association’s conference that was to be held in Varanasi, he asked me to invite Akhilesh who was then the new CM. For the past four years, I have been inviting the CM but he hasn’t had time for the event,” says Sharma.
Bureaucrats, however, say Akhilesh is refreshingly different from his predecessors in that crucial aspect. A former officer who didn’t want to be named says that earlier, it was not easy for an IAS officer to meet the CM. “But Akhilesh is accessible to all. If an officer wants to meet him, he immediately calls him and listens to him. He does pull up officers, but the difference is, there is no humiliation,” he says.
His aides say that the chief minister is a “family man and unless there is an emergency”, he never takes on any official work after 8 pm, preferring to spend time with his family. That, they say, is unlike his father Mulayam, who rarely made that distinction between politics and parivar.
The party has five MPs in Parliament, all of them from within the family. Besides, at least 18 members of the family are in Samajwadi politics.
That makes Akhilesh’s job a tough one — to be perpetually judged and upbraided by his father Mulayam, to manage the clashing egos and aspirations of uncles Shivpal and Ram Gopal, and to handle Azam Khan and Amar Singh, the other big leaders in the party.
Mulayam lives with his second wife Sadhna — his first wife, Akhilesh’s mother Malti Devi, died in 2003 — their son Prateek and daughter-in-law Aparna, at 5, Vikramaditya Marg in Lucknow. Akhilesh lives next door, at 4, Vikramaditya Marg, with his wife Dimple and their three children, Tina, Aditi and Arjun.
While Prateek stays away from politics, his wife Aparna is the party candidate from the Lucknow Cantonment seat. Party insiders and those close to the family in Etawah and Lucknow say Sadhna Yadav, aided by Shivpal, has emerged as a power centre in the family.
Though the differences between Akhilesh and Shivpal came out in the open only in June 2012, over the QED merger with the SP, the relationship had begun souring in 2009, when Mulayam replaced Shivpal as state party president and named Akhilesh instead.
“That rift deepened in 2012 when Mulayam decided that Akhilesh, by then a three-time MP from Kannauj, would be CM. Shivpal wasn’t too happy with the decision and proposed that Mulayam should be CM and that he should hand over charge to Akhilesh after 2014 Lok Sabha elections,” a leader said.
During the family drama that played out at the party headquarters on October 24, Mulayam openly backed Shivpal and Amar, saying, “I can’t tolerate anything against them.” About his son, he said, “Hum inhe padhate hain, yeh samajhte nahin (I try to educate him, he does not understand).”
While many see that as irreparable damage done to the father-son relationship, others say that these differences are limited to issues of party organisation and government affairs. “Both father and son regularly interact with each other. Akhilesh has recently shifted to his new residence, 4 Vikramaditya Marg, that is adjacent to Mulayam’s. The wall between the two bungalows has been demolished and Akhilesh frequently meets Netaji (Mulayam). Netaji too spends time with Akhilesh’s children,” says a party leader who frequently visits Akhilesh at his residence.
Cabinet Minister and party spokesperson Rajendra Chaudhary says Dimple does not involve herself in the affairs of the party. “Dimpleji attends government events and visits her Lok Sabha constituency. Otherwise, she spends time with her children,” he says.
For now, in the middle of a messy family battle, Akhilesh has set out on his own. While Shivpal is looking for allies ahead of the 2017 elections, Akhilesh is building a parallel machinery.
On October 9, he inaugurated the office of the Janeshwar Mishra Trust at Kalidas Marg, adjacent to the SP’s headquarters in Lucknow. Present at the inauguration were Sanjay Lathar, Sunil Yadav, Anand Bhadauriya and Udayveer — four youth leaders whom Shivpal had expelled from the party last month for allegedly making “derogatory remarks against Mulayam”.
These four youth leaders, who had handled Akhilesh’s Kranti Ratha Yatra in 2011, have been tasked now with conducting the ‘Samajwadi Vikas Rath Yatra’ for which he will set out on November 3.
For the 2017 poll campaign, Akhilesh has also engaged political consultant Steve Jarding, who teaches public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Party sources say that Jarding, who has held three meetings with Akhilesh so far, plans to add value to ‘Team Akhilesh’ in the areas of “campaign management practices, media training and messaging”.
His critics dismiss these “grand plans” and say the chief minister is projecting himself as the sole leader of the party. Mohammad Shahid, who has been named by Shivpal as the party spokesperson, says, “Netaji, Shivpalji and Akhileshji all have unitedly worked on schemes for welfare of the masses. The party’s election manifesto was drafted jointly by all of them. But Akhileshji is making it all about himself.”
He may have been referring to a three-minute campaign video, released on Twitter by the official CMO handle. In the slickly shot video, Akhilesh is the indulgent father (taking a break from office to play cricket with his children), the family man (lunch with wife and kids), the public speaker, the brooding leader in the boardroom and much more. But barring a portrait of Lohia in one of the frames, there is not a single other senior Samajwadi leader.
That’s exactly the point Akhilesh’s team would want to make.