Travelling with lieutenants of Samajwadi party Uttar Pradesh Samajwadi party unit chief Akhilesh Yadav, you would be forgiven for thinking the Samajwadi Party is already in power. We are driving past an empty stretch of land just outside Lucknow, having a normal conversation. There are just the two of us in the car. Suddenly, lowering his voice, Akhilesh's right hand man says: "that's the place where we will manufacture the laptops". Free laptops to students is one of the poll promises made in the SP manifesto. Preliminary negotiations have already been held with a Japan-based company that will set up a plant in UP and will be allowed to produce computer hardware-provided it delivers a certain number of laptops to the state government-that SP hopes it will head after 6 March when the results of the assembly elections are out.
The move has 'Akhilesh' written all over it. The younger Yadav has put his heart and soul into campaigning and has been working with indefatigable energy for more than a year-first, inviting applications for candidates, then assessing them (and rejecting them) and then passing them on for scrutiny by a committee-comprising father Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav), Ramgopal Chacha (Ramgopal Yadav, his father's brother) and other senior members of the party. It helped that Mulayam made him the president of the state unit of the party in 2009.
It is ironic that Akhilesh should have become the head of the party as a result of a move initiated by a man who is now considered a bitter enemy of the SP. Former SP general secretary Amar Singh was responsible for changing the rules of the game in SP. Recognising Mulayam Singh Yadav's loneliness after the long illness and death of his first wife Malti, and his long association with Sadhana Gupta, it was Singh who persuaded them to make the relationship public. When Prateek, Mulayam and Sadhana's son got married, the wedding was attended by Anil Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan, further sanctifying the union. When Akhilesh announced he wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart Dimple, the daughter of a Thakur Army officer, it was Amar Singh who persuaded Mulayam to accept his son's choice of a wife. And it was Amar Singh who told Mulayam that if the Samajwadi Party wanted to ditch its image of being a backward, revanchist, casteist party that was anti-modernity, Akhilesh was the way the image of the party could be changed.
Amar Singh explained that the (relatively) highly-educated, English-speaking Akhilesh (who went to study in Sydney to get an environmental engineering degree but did not submit his thesis) would herald the badly-needed image makeover that the SP needed. Akhilesh had grown up amid political discussions over the support price for 'ganna'; but was much more interested, back then, in the fortunes of Man U, Arsenal and Tottenham Spurs.
At first wary, Mulayam accepted the suggestions but made sure he calibrated the pace of change. But the party was slow to respond. In 2009, Akhilesh recognised that he would have to shake up things-when his wife Dimple lost the Firozabad seat that Akhilesh vacated, choosing to retain Kannauj.
What really happened in that election? Amar Singh tried his best, bringing both Jaya Prada and Jaya Bachchan to campaign. But angry that Yadav had chosen to vacate the constituency and had fielded his wife instead, the voters opted for Raj Babbar from the Congress who won by more than 85,000 votes. This was a big setback for Akhilesh-he was UP President of the party and his own wife had lost the election! Someone had to pay and obviously it couldn't be him. Amar Singh was thrown out of the party. But it was a wake-up call for Akhilesh-that to head the party, he had to do more than just look good and talk knowledgeably about football.
A clean-up act followed. The SP did not have a reputation for being wholesome. Nearer the assembly election, Akhilesh denied a ticket to anti-social elements like DP Yadav overruling Chacha, Shivpal Yadav and one the tallest leaders in the party, Azam Khan. Many others who were denied nominations left the party grumbling that young people who had no idea of politics had taken over the party. Overruling Azam Khan and Shivpal once again, Hasnuddin, the brother of one of Mayawati's most prominent Muslim ministers, Nasimuddin Siddiqui was denied entry into the party at Akhilesh's behest. State spokesman of the party Rajendar Chaudhry conceded that Hasnuddin was 'neither in the party, nor out of it".
Comparisons are odious but they become inevitable in UP when two princes-neither little any more, being in their forties-are in the fray. Rajiv Gandhi had the harder job of it-he had to rebuild the party organisation. But Akhilesh didn't have it easy either: he had to change mindsets and fight vested interests discreetly.
As the clash between the two heads towards a denouement, it is clear both can't win. So how will each deal with defeat? That is what has to be watched.