akhilesh: Akhilesh, now his own man, emerges as ‘The Challenger’

(This story originally appeared in on Jan 09, 2022)

After five years as CM of India’s largest state and two decades in politics, Akhilesh Yadav is leading an assembly election campaign, all on his own, for the first time.

Backed by the Samajwadi ranks, Akhilesh seems to have firmly established himself as the main challenger to BJP in these assembly elections, matching Yogi Adityanath rally for rally as his ‘Samajwadi Vijay Yatra’ crisscrosses the state and energises the cadre of red caps to take on the formidable saffron machinery.

The emergence of Akhilesh from his father Mulayam Singh Yadav’s shadow and the relative quiet in the BSP and Congress camps has seen battle for UP being billed as a bipolar one. Akhilesh has done his part with his bootson-the-ground visibility – he is no longer the “Twitter neta”, even to detractors – and quick retorts to stay in the conversation. For instance, right after Modi’s “UPYogi” coinage in the CM’s support, Akhilesh hit back with “Un-UPYogi”.

After a bitter battle for supremacy within the Yadav clan in 2016 and suffering defeats in two consecutive elections that followed, the Samajwadi scion has managed to get his act together. He tamed the internal wrangling to firmly establish himself as leader of the Samajwadis. And he is working on a different alliance metric.

With his two previous alliances – with Congress in 2017 and BSP in 2019 – failing, Akhilesh has this time reached out to smaller, caste-based regional parties across UP, particularly those with non-Yadav OBC base. This was driven by findings of SP’s surveys, which indicated in the 2017 elections, over 50% OBCs voted for BJP and only 15% SP. The SP brass was keen to send a message that the party was willing to side with non-Yadav OBCs.

After backing the farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders against the agriculture laws, Akhilesh stitched up an alliance with RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary with an eye on the Jat vote. Akhilesh and Choudhary are in seat-sharing talks as SP looks beyond its M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) image to build a coalition with Jats, Kurmis, Rajbhars and Dalits. It has, meanwhile, been trying to court Brahmins through overtures like installation of Parshuram statues across UP.

To firm up ties with smaller outfits, Akhilesh backed the idea of a caste census. SP has with Keshav Dev Maurya’s Mahan Dal, former BJP ally Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Party (Socialist) for the supRajbhar and Noniya Chauhan communities, respectively.

Within the party, Akhilesh buried the hatchet with uncle Shivpal, who had formed a breakaway outfit but will now help the SP manage the Yadav belt. At Akhilesh’s rallies, large gatherings, particularly of youths who wait for hours to see and hear him, have enthused the SP cadre. They will hope it translates into votes.

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