How the cycle turned full circlehttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/how-the-cycle-turned-full-circle/

How the cycle turned full circle

How did a party that was in the dumps till as recently as 2009 power to victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections?

In 2009,after Dimple Yadav,Samajwadi Party candidate and daughter-in-law of Mulayam Singh Yadav,lost the Ferozabad parliamentary by-election to the Congress’s Raj Babbar,people in Shikohabad,part of the same parliamentary constituency,celebrated by bursting firecrackers. For the SP,the defeat rankled like none other—Shikohabad is the birth place of Mulayam. This was a defeat that hit hard at the SP’s very existence as a regional force in the state and it was left holding little more than its proclaimed Lohia legacy. Nothing,it seemed,was going right for the party.

Around the same time,the party lost crucial assembly by-elections in Bharthana and Vidhuna. Bharthana is in Mulayam’s home district of Etawah and the SP chief had in the past won from here. Vidhuna is in Kannauj,son Akhilesh Yadav’s constituency.

Meanwhile,the Congress had made a remarkable recovery in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections,riding on Rahul Gandhi’s charisma. Suddenly,it looked like a direct contest between the Congress and Mayawati’s BSP,with the SP out of the picture. Uttar Pradesh had left behind its Mandal politics,which had once catapulted Mulayam to power. The Bihar assembly election,which had left fellow Mandalite Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD irrelevant,was fresh in the minds of people. SP’s trusted Muslim-Yadav combination was broken. The SP looked like a party out of sync with times,opposed to computers and English.

Stirrings of change

That’s when Akhilesh took control of the party. Though he had been state president since June 2009,he was largely in Mulayam’s shadows. Akhilesh’s first strike came with the expulsion of Amar Singh,the most high-profile face of the party till them. Singh,considered the ‘eyes and ears of Mulayam’,had till then called the shots in the party. Party stalwarts such as Azam Khan and Ram Asrey Vishwakarma had been expelled and others such as Balram Yadav sidelined. Amar Singh,with his friends in Bollywood and the industry,brought in the glamour quotient but that overshadowed the SP’s pro-farmer image. Akhilesh sought Amar Singh’s expulsion,a decision that had his uncle and party general secretary Ram Gopal Yadav’s backing. Amar Singh’s resignation was accepted in January 2010. “Every decision is in the party’s interest and our aim is to rebuild the party,” Akhilesh had said then.

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The decision went down well with party workers. A day after the expulsion,as a huge crowd of workers and the media gathered to greet Akhilesh at the party office,he sat nonchalant,charting the roadmap for the party’s revival,a process that had been set in motion after the drubbing of 2007.

The party had made some wrong moves and these had to be set right.

Muslims had for long been the mainstay of the SP,a key part of its M-Y combination. Mulayam’s Muslim tilt had earned him names like Rafiq-ul-Mulk and Maulana Mulayam. But his decision to join hands with estranged BJP leader Kalyan Singh,in the hope of an OBC consolidation in his party’s favour,backfired. None of the party’s Muslim candidates won in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The party’s tally was down to 23.

“It was a major setback for the community. Muslims regarded Mulayam as their leader and his association with Kalyan Singh did not go down well with them,” says Zafaryab Jilani,member,All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB).

The decision to ally with Kalyan Singh was reversed and on July 15,2010,Mulayam issued a public apology. Given his long record of solidarity with the Muslims,his apology was accepted.

The stage was thus set for the re-induction of Azam Khan,a Muslim face and a firebrand leader who had been removed from the party during Amar Singh’s reign. It was an emotional reunion. Mulayam was in tears when Khan rejoined on December 4,2010. Mulayam’s brother Shivpal offered his resignation from the post of leader of Opposition to accommodate Azam Khan. Khan tore the resignation letter into pieces.

Another baggage the party had to shed was its goonda-raj image. So when western UP ganglord DP Yadav tried to gain entry into the party through Azam Khan,Akhilesh refused and when party national spokesperson Mohan Singh came out in DP Yadav’s support,Akhilesh clipped Singh’s wings.

Further,in an attempt to widen the SP’s OBC base,Akhilesh elevated non-Yadav OBC leaders Vishambher Prasad Nishad and Ram Asrey Kushwaha and made them national general secretaries of the party.

Agenda 2012

As state president of the party,Akhilesh issued instructions that election tickets would not be given on recommendations alone. Applicants had to apply on a prescribed format with a non-refundable fee of Rs 20,000. It was also mandatory that applicants subscribe to the party mouthpiece Samajwadi Bulletin. “It was necessary for applicants to be aware of the party’s ideology and principles,” says a leader who is involved in bringing out the magazine.

Many old-timers shrugged off these changes. The party received nearly 3,000 applications,including for seats held by senior party leaders. That was when they realised that wouldn’t qualify by default anymore—they would have to apply and face interviews,like any fresher would.

“I did not get the ticket but at least my application was considered and I was interviewed along with senior party leaders,” says Rajesh Yadav,an applicant from Barabanki.

Those days,the party office resembled a management institute holding campus interviews. Leaders waited for their turn,clutching onto files that had their bio-data and newspaper clippings. “Despite being in the party for the last two decades,this is my first interview,” said a senior party leader as he waited for his turn.

At the end of it,several old-timers,such as former minister C L Yadav and Sandhya Katheria,were left without tickets. Even relatives of the Yadav clan were left stranded. Urmila Yadav,a relative of Mulayam’s,was not given a ticket from Mainpuri,and Hariom Yadav,another relative from Shikohabad,was expelled. Hariom was later given a ticket after he publicly admitted that he had committed “grave mistakes” and pleaded for forgiveness.

For those who got the tickets,the job had just begun. Akhilesh directed every candidate to constitute booth-level committees in their constituencies. Again,some leaders who ignored the directive were forced to act after Akhilesh cancelled the tickets of 13 candidates,including of seniors such as Pandit Singh from Gonda and Ravidas Mehrotra from Lucknow.

In an attempt to widen the party’s appeal,Akhilesh brought in political novices—Kiran Jatav,a young Dalit girl from Hapur who had taken up the cause of widows who were denied old-age pension; former captain of the UP cricket team Jyoti Yadav; former Lucknow University students’ union president Tej Narain Pandey (who defeated BJP veteran Laloo Singh from Allahabad) and former IIM-Ahmedabad professor Abhishek Mishra who won from Lucknow North.

“I had my job and was well settled. Akhilesh bhaiyya convinced me that I should join politics,” says Abhishek Mishra,who is now tipped to be a minister in the SP cabinet.

As Akhilesh went about executing his plan,he ran into a hurdle: the party was packed with leaders of his father’s generation who did not always appreciate his ideas. He then stitched together a team of youngsters to spearhead his election campaign—Sunil Yadav who headed the students’ wing,Anand Bhadauria of Lohia Vahini,Nafees Ahmed of Yuvjan Sabha and some non-political names such as Vijay Chauhan who has studied accounting at Bond University in Australia,radio jockey Naved Siddiqui and educationist Rajeev Rai. All of them were given specific responsibilities and everything was neatly chalked out—logistics,media management,route map for campaigning.

“People regarded the youth wing of the SP as ruffians. It is thanks to Bhaiyya that several youth leaders have emerged from the shadows of senior leaders,” says Nafees Ahmed.

One of their responsibilities was to check hooliganism by partymen. Babul Singh,a youth worker in Allahabad,was asked to apologise to UP Congress chief Rita Bahuguna for leading a protest outside Anand Bhavan in Allahabad. Akhilesh also assured Congress leaders that SP workers would not show black flags to Sonia and Rahul when they come visiting.

Reaching out

With everything in place,it was now time to reach out to the voters. Akhilesh embarked on a yatra across the state. He started his bus journey in September 2011 with a capital of Rs five lakh from Shivpal Yadav and a flag from Azam Khan. While other parties were busy with ticket distribution,Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Kranti Rath had covered half the state. He had addressed over 250 meetings across 12,000 km,covering some part of that on his cycle. The journey established him as a leader in his own right.

The Blackberry,iPad toting Akhilesh took the farthest stride possible from the party’s anti-English,anti-computer stand. SP was now on Facebook and other social networking sites and the party manifesto promised free tablets and laptops for students.

The manifesto is said to have been drafted with Mulayam’s heart and Akhilesh’s mind.

By the end of the campaign,it was clear that the SP’s wheel of fortune had turned a full circle. With the magical figure of 224,the party attained the largest majority by a non-Congress party in the state.

‘Umeed’: different frames

Faisal Fareed & Archna Shukla

Umeed Ki Cycle’,an advertising slogan devised at the behest of Samajwadi Party’s UP president Akhilesh Yadav,may well be credited for turning around the party’s fortunes in the assembly elections.

“(Akhilesh) gave us a clear brief—no negativity,no showing the plight of poor people,no attacking rivals or harping on the failure of previous governments…,” says Arjun Sablok,a Mumbai-based filmmaker and owner of film production company Arkash Entertainment.

Apart from Arkash,Akhilesh’s poll communications team included Bollywood lyricist and writer Nilesh Mishra and Goldmine Advertising,another Mumbai-based advertising agency.

So while the Congress’s theme remained NREGS and other Central schemes,Akhilesh used the aspirational pitch of jobs and education to reach out to people.

Akhilesh asked the ad agencies to travel across the state and gauge people’s mood. This work started as early as May 2011. The team travelled across the state for 40 days,covering villages and towns and they brought back the message that people were aspiring to a better life and they wanted real change in their lives.

“We met farmers whose main grouse was irregular supply of electricity. We met a young girl,one of three daughters of a small-town family,who wanted access to good education so that she could get a good job and not be a burden on her father. We met young professionals in big cities who wanted their city to have world-class infrastructure,” recalls Sablok,who was part of such trips.

After looking at the feedback gathered,seven main issues emerged—electricity,water,unemployment,infrastructure,education for girls,health services and opportunities for higher education within the state.

Aspirations being the overwhelming sentiment,lyricist Mishra came up with the tagline ‘Umeed ki Cycle’. With cycle being the party’s election symbol,the slogan meant an immediate connect between the people and the party. What followed were 10 short television films of 20-80 seconds that had a farmer,a handloom worker,a rickshaw puller,a young girl,a housewife and young professionals,among others,speaking of what they aspire for in their day-to-day lives.

Though TV was the main campaign platform,a large focus was on print media and hoardings as well. For the first time,the print campaigns showed party leaders cutting across castes. Two sets of hoardings were cleared—one of senior leaders with Mulayam and another of young leaders with Akhilesh.

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At a time when other parties had campaigns lacking in imagination,a positive pitch by the Samajwadi Party won the day.