Earlier in the day, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav addressed his last rally at Ambedkarnagar, where the death of a candidate stretched the election campaign by an extra day. Akhilesh’s has been some effort — 221 rallies across the state, 65 jan sabhas, including those addressed jointly with alliance partner Rahul Gandhi, and four roadshows. At campaign’s end, he sits with a few trusted aides in his official residence, in a room with a glass wall overlooking an expanse of sprawling green where peacocks strut. Wife Dimple walks in, MP from Kannauj, and in this election, a star campaigner in her own right. “It was a responsibility given to me” she says. “I went where there were women candidates, and where he (Akhilesh) was not able to go. As the days went by, I became more confident. He would ask me every day, what did you say. I would say, don’t worry, I didn’t say anything (problematic), you will see it on TV”, she smiles.
But the air of pleasant placidness in the room can be deceptive — in the course of an interview with The Indian Express (to be published tomorrow), UP’s affable chief minister is sometimes caustic, often combative.
Asked about his missing minister Gayatri Prajapati, accused of rape, about whom the UP governor Ram Naik, a former BJP veteran, wrote him a questioning — and controversial — letter even while the campaign was on, Akhilesh says: “The police is searching for him (Prajapati), they will find him. I have asked them to intensify their efforts. It will send out the wrong message otherwise.”
“I do not say the governor’s letter was inappropriate”, says Akhilesh. But, he adds, pointedly, “The governor keeps writing letters to me. He has written thousands of them, on all sorts of issues. I reply to each one. No governor would have written as many letters to a chief minister”.
It is not the UP governor’s conspicuous zeal, however, that most preoccupies, and provokes, Akhilesh in this moment. The BJP would have been “wiped out” in UP had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not campaigned, he says — “at least, because of him, it fought”. But he (Modi) raised “such irrelevant issues, made misleading statements”.
“He (Modi) spoke about the Badayun case, called it our karnama (misdemeanour). But he does not seem to know what the CBI, a central agency, has said on the matter”. (The CBI had filed a closure report in the 2014 death of two minor teenage girls in which the prime accused were Yadavs, ruling out rape and murder). Then, “he (the PM) said the SP has taken over the thana. He is trying to suggest that Yadavs control the police station. But what about the IPS and IAS officers? What about Dial 100 (the helpline)? The Centre stopped giving funds for police modernisation, so I created Dial 100 from my own (state) funds. The phone call doesn’t come to the thana. It comes to Lucknow and we have created a response system here, which includes women. The PM thinks the thana is running the police.”
“I am not competing with the PM, mera sapna bada nahin hai (I don’t have bigger dreams). I don’t dream of Delhi”, says Akhilesh, even as he picks on and counters Modi’s statements in the just concluded campaign, holds up a list the SP has compiled of comments made by the PM and Amit Shah on him, and asks “aise kaun chara khilata hai, bina kaate (who feeds cows uncut grass?)”. The last is a comment on PM Modi’s photo-op with cows in Varanasi towards election’s end.
By all accounts, this election saw Akhilesh’s SP take to social media in a never-before way. But was it enough to combat the Modi-BJP’s political communication machine — the question hangs in the air. “I have said in my speeches that corruption is not only the giving and taking of money. It is also about breaking your promises. It is also being seen too often on TV”, he says.
Asked if the BJP may have beaten its rival parties in packaging demonetisation for the people, he says: “Hamne bahut samjhaya, par gareeb sapnon mein chala jaata hai, bada sapna sabko achcha lagta hai (we tried to explain the effects of demonetisation, but the poor lapse into dreams, people like grandiose dreams)…Log samjhaane se nahin, behkaane se vote de dete hain (Voters get swayed more by spin than by argument).”
Of course, the indefatigable campaigner isn’t conceding this hard-fought election before the results come in. “And in any case, if they themselves had been so confident of demonetisation, they wouldn’t have doled out tickets according to minute calculations of caste,” he says.
The SP had held on to a respectable vote share even in the BJP’s best election, says Akhilesh. “In 2014, the BJP swept, mopping up the new voters. Now, we have the Congress with us, it will make some difference, if not a lot (‘bahut zyada nahin par fayada hoga’). And there is the development vote, at least a little, if not much”.
Beyond defeat and victory, for Akhilesh, the major takeaway from this campaign: “In this election, more than any other, I saw young people in the rural areas wear jeans, flash their mobiles. UP mein yeh change hai (UP is changing)”.
And: “Jo Delhi se door rahta hai, zyaada raj karta hai (he who keeps his distance from Delhi is more powerful)”. Dimple Yadav adds, as if completing his sentence: “Aur sukhi bhi rahta hai (He also remains more content)”.