Akhilesh Yadav is the politician to look out for no matter the magnitude of his success in Lok Sabha elections 2019

Regardless of whether the grand alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal succeeds in denying the Bharatiya Janata Party a rich harvest of seats in Uttar Pradesh, the 2019 Lok Sabha election has established Akhilesh Yadav as the leader of the future. His sagacity and realism are the principal reasons why the alliance has become the foremost impediment to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which won 73 seats out 80 in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, from returning to power.

This isn't to say that Akhilesh is the driving force behind the BSP-SP-RLD alliance, which, in fact, has acquired momentum because of Mayawati's capacity to transfer her Dalit votes to whichever party she wants. This is precisely why every political party vies to align with her.

Mayawati, however, has been reluctant to forge alliances in Uttar Pradesh as she believes the other parties cannot or do not transfer their votes to the BSP. In her perception, social groups supporting the other parties baulk at voting for a predominantly Dalit outfit, or their leaders themselves are unwilling to accept her as their equal, let alone accept her supremacy, because of her caste identity.

 Akhilesh Yadav is the politician to look out for no matter the magnitude of his success in Lok Sabha elections 2019

File image of Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav. PTI

It is to Akhilesh’s credit that he has succeeded in assuaging Mayawati’s doubts. No doubt, the compulsion of survival prompted them to sweep aside the bitterness of the past, including the murderous attack that the SP MLAs mounted on Mayawati on 2 June, 1995. Both performed disastrously in 2014 and were battered, all over again, in the 2017 Assembly election. They realised that the only way they could challenge the BJP was by pooling their resources.

But their instinct for survival could not have flowered into a vibrant political relationship without Akhilesh accepting Mayawati as the senior partner in the alliance. For instance, it was Mayawati who spoke before Akhilesh when they held a press conference in January to announce the alliance between their two parties. Akhilesh could be said to have voluntarily conceded ground to Mayawati, whose party did not win a single seat in 2014, and was also three percent behind the SP’s vote-share.

Yet realism persuaded Akhilesh to accept that Mayawati could transfer her votes to the SP more readily than he could to the BSP. The January press conference set the tone for the future — at every joint rally of the alliance thereafter, he has spoken after her; he has taken her lead in attacking the Congress for dividing the alliance’s votes, and hinted that he would support her bid to become prime minister.

Akhilesh also showed sensitivity to the quest among Dalits for equality and respect. This was most tellingly symbolised by his wife, Dimple, touching Mayawati's feet at the joint rally of the alliance at Kannauj last month. This gesture reversed the traditional Indian norm of a Dalit, whether old or young, showing deference and subservience to those ranked higher in the social hierarchy, as Akhilesh and Dimple are to Mayawati.

The feet-touching episode at Kannauj was, at the same time, the SP leader’s message to his caste brethren to vote for the BSP in the 38 constituencies it is contesting. The message could be decoded thus: 'If my wife can touch a Dalit's feet, why can't you vote for the BSP?' This has a special meaning in Uttar Pradesh, where the Yadavs not only enjoy a superior status to Dalits but also employ them on their farms.

For those steeped in caste politics, Dimple’s gesture might seem a reflection of her husband's desperation — after giving away 38 seats to the BSP, thereby ruling his party out of contention in half of Uttar Pradesh's 80 constituencies, his very political survival depends on the alliance preventing the BJP from performing exceedingly well. Should the alliance fail in its endeavour, Akhilesh 's decision will be mocked at, not least by his estranged uncle, Shivpal Yadav, who will renew his bid to wrest the control of the SP.

Yet the election campaign over the last seven weeks bears out that the BJP could have steamrolled the Opposition in Uttar Pradesh but for the BSP-SP-RLD alliance. It testifies to Akhilesh’s realism that he hopes to rule over half the kingdom, so to speak, than to be completely deprived of it. Neither hubris nor vanity could prod him to punch above his weight, realising that he simply cannot take on the BJP on his own in Uttar Pradesh.

Akhilesh's realisation is an outcome of his own experiences. As Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister between 2012 and 2017, Akhilesh tried his best to redefine the image of himself as a Yadav caste leader. He adopted development as his political mantra, refrained from appealing to caste identity and belatedly sought to break away from the control of family elders. He sought to nurture a cross-caste appeal; he was hailed for his political style. Yet when it came to the 2017 Assembly election, the upper castes did not vote for him.

It embittered him and prompted him to change the tack of his politics. He articulated his angst in his speech before last year’s Phulpur Lok Sabha bypoll. Akhilesh did not attack the upper castes but the BJP, the principal recipient of their votes. Yet his message could not have been lost on the upper castes. For instance, he listed the development programmes his government had successfully completed — the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, 18 lakh laptops distributed to students, and a new pension scheme. Then he delivered the punch: “I never thought I was a backward. But I must thank the BJP for telling me that I am a backward [caste], not forward [caste], but no matter how backward we are, our work is forward.”

In the manner of the prodigal son returning home, Akhilesh sought to reforge the SP’s old social base. He fielded a Kurmi from Phulpur and a Nishad from Gorakhpur last year. He made overtures to Jats in west UP. But his options, in a sense, were limited — some groups among the Other Backward Classes, like the Kurmis and Rajbhars, had floated their own parties and aligned with the BJP, which had successfully depicted the SP as the party of Yadavs. The fragmentation of the OBCs prompted the SP and the BSP to come together, as the latter too had witnessed the extremely backward castes desert it.

It is one thing for Akhilesh to share the stage with Mayawati, quite another to convince his caste members to vote for the BSP. He has sought to use the election campaign to educate the voters. For instance, he responded to Mayawati’s SOS and pitched for the BSP candidate in Bhadohi, where the Congress had fielded a Yadav. He has pointed out to the Yadavs that even though their status is superior to Dalits, they have encountered discrimination under the chief ministership of Adityanath. To bolster his point, he referred to the purification ceremony undertaken at the Chief Minister's residence after he vacated it.

The political transformation of Akhilesh is because of the essence he has distilled from his own experiences — the realisation that he will be viewed through the prism of caste whether or not his actions and decisions are casteist. It imparts authenticity to his politics. Authentic politics is rarely divorced from realism, which is why he accepted Mayawati’s seniority. Authentic politics also turns the acquisition of power into a larger socio-political project, which is why Akhilesh Yadav’s career needs to be tracked, regardless of the magnitude of his success in 2019.

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Updated Date: May 18, 2019 10:41:12 IST