Mulayam Singh Yadav managed to push his son into the chief minister’s post after the Samajwadi Party’s big victory in 2012 after stiff resistance from the senior leaders in the party, including Azam Khan and Shivpal Singh Yadav. It was quite clear that the elder Yadav knew that the political future of the family and the party lay with his son. Akhilesh seemed the torchbearer of the future in any way. He represented the generation next with his educational qualifications — he did his engineering from a college in Karnataka — and he seemed to bear himself in a different manner than the others in the party. Mulayam Singh may have sensed it or he may not have but Akhilesh connected with the emerging youth constituency in a way that Shivpal Singh could not. Though he got the top post because of his father, it was more than a case of mere nepotism.
Akhilesh represented the change of guard, which was needed. Kanshi Ram had passed on the torch to Mayawati in the Bahujan Samaj Party, but she has not yet found a successor to speak of. The BJP had managed the change of guard in 2013 in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by choosing Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate and it had succeeded as well. But in Uttar Pradesh, the party has not done well on this score. Kalyan Singh, the party’s chief minister, who left the BJP and came back, is a closed chapter. Rajnath Singh, who served as chief minister, was a fresh face in 2001 but he did not emerge as popular leader of the party in the state. The Congress has no leader in the state to speak of, and this has been the case for more than two decades. So Akhilesh remains the one new generation leader, followed by Mayawati. Akhilesh was the chief minister for the last five years but he seemed to have remained a titular head of the SP government, hemmed in by the older leaders in the party.
It was evident to anyone that Akhilesh was not his own man until he asserted himself earlier in the year, and the faceoff with his uncle, Shivpal Singh, brought the party and the government to the brink of collapse. Disaster was averted when Mulayam Singh stepped in, and made peace between his son and his brother. The unintended fallout of the family feud was that Akhilesh emerged as the credible face of the party, and it seems that the supporters of the party have greater faith in him than even in Mulayam Singh. In his 40s, a relatively young Akhilesh has shown himself to be a leader without compromising on his credentials as a contemporary and modern leader compared to others in the state. The Uttar Pardesh chief minister is so confident that he can treat Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with a certain indulgence. He has no rivals in the state in his age group and in his political class, which can be described as bantamweight.
In what appears to be a close race between the SP, BJP and BSP, Akhilesh is the only one who promises an upset victory despite the anti-incumbency factor. He might be indulging in the same kind of mindless and reckless pre-election populism by announcing schemes worth hundreds and thousands of crores of rupees. The BJP is fighting the UP Assembly election in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but Akhilesh is not fighting the election in the name of his father or even that of the party. He is staking out his claim for himself, and it is the SP that has to reap the benefits of his incipient charisma. It has been a long time since UP could reckon with a leader from its own ranks. Mayawati, strictly speaking, is a BSP leader and she won the election because the people of the state chose the party based on caste, class and social affiliation, but she is not from the state. The advantage enjoyed by the BSP and BJP is in terms of the strength and appeal of the party. In the case of Akhilesh, he stands on his own feet while the party and its supporters are sure to flock to him because they think he is the man and leader of the present and future.