The Election Commission of India has placed its imprimatur on a fait accompli in Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav is now the supreme leader of the party his father built, the transfer of power in the Samajwadi Party is complete. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the old wrestler, has lost the bout, and the bicycle symbol, to the son he groomed in politics. For now, ahead of next month’s assembly polls, it would seem that Mulayam, who almost singlehandedly crafted a winning party out of a breakaway faction of the Janata Dal in 1992, is a lonely figure. And Akhilesh has it all — the political legacy and the future, the party and the symbol, and going by Congress claims, an alliance. Yet, in the longer run, whatever be the outcome of the upcoming election, Akhilesh also has the burden and the responsibility: To grow into the role that seems to have been marked out for him. For, if there was one thing that emerged clearly in the often mystifying confrontation between father and son in the SP, it was this: In the eyes of a large section of SP MLAs, workers and supporters, Akhilesh stood for cleansing the party of its taint of lumpenism and reputation for presiding over goonda raj when in power, even as Mulayam and Shivpal Yadav were seen to be ambivalent.
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It is possible to argue that the lines in the SP are more blurred than they seem. It may be that Akhilesh is more the beneficiary of a projected image than a genuine change agent. But it is also true that he has spoken up against the SP’s association with those like D.P.
Yadav in the past and Mukhtar Ansari, Aman Mani Tripathi and Atiq Ahmed in the run-up to next month’s poll. In fact, Akhilesh’s opposition to controversial candidates being given SP tickets has become an important element in the package of a more forward-looking politics, less trapped in the past, that he has come to be identified with. Ironically in 2012, Netaji himself had acknowledged the need for a reinvention of the SP and chosen Akhilesh as the instrument. Akhilesh’s installation as chief minister had followed a campaign that signalled a new openness of Samajwadis to technology and change. Alongside the old commitments, for instance, SP’s 2012 manifesto had promised laptops to students, a significant break from the past for a party seen, till then, to be stridently against English and computers.
The coming days will test Akhilesh’s ability to lead his party’s charge in the election, but even beyond that, he has a rare opportunity — to renegotiate the balance in the SP between the old and the new. For SP’s new chief, then, the real challenge will begin once the dust has settled after the polls.