How countering Mayawati contributed to Akhilesh Yadav’s rise

In countering Mayawati, Akhilesh came to be the visible face of the Samajwadi Party on the ground, and later become Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. COURTESY SAMAJWADI PARTY
04 June, 2019

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal won only 15 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Yesterday, Mayawati announced that her party would split from the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP to independently fight the upcoming assembly bypolls in the state. “If we feel in future that SP chief succeeds in his political work, we’ll again work together,” she said.

Mayawati has served as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh four times, and the SP has been the most formidable political rival to her party. In the following excerpt from “Everybody’s Brother,” a profile of Yadav published in The Caravan’s September 2015 issue, the journalist Neha Dixit reported how countering Mayawati helped the SP heir stake his claim to power in the party, and later become the state’s chief minister.

Yadav first made his mark as a popular leader in 2008, when he led statewide student protests against the Mayawati regime, ensuring that he would be the obvious candidate for a fresh face when the beleaguered Samajwadi Party began to look for new representatives. His yen for technological solutions, and image as the clean young politician who enjoys the support of Uttar Pradesh’s youth, continues to sustain his reputation to some extent.

The transformation of caste politics in Uttar Pradesh also threw up a formidable rival to the Samajwadi Party. The Bahujan Samaj Party was founded in 1984 by the Dalit leader Kanshi Ram and led, after his death, by Mayawati, under whose rule the BSP achieved unprecedented electoral success. Between 1995 and 2012, Mayawati served four times as chief minister, the last of these a full five-year term with a single-party majority between 2007 and 2012. (Akhilesh sometimes refers to her as “bua,” or aunt, in conversation with journalists.)

In countering her, Akhilesh came to be the visible face of the Samajwadi Party on the ground, and a viable candidate for the change of guard that the party had come to realise it desperately needed. As a grown-up, he had undergone his own transformation of sorts. He was elected twice to parliament from Kannauj in central Uttar Pradesh, and had become a married man and father. Since 1999, the year he returned to India from Sydney and became an MP, he had largely based himself in Delhi. He made little news other than the odd item in the society pages

The Samajwadi Party has nurtured local student politics since inception; it wields influence on its support base of young men through the rhetoric of machismo and caste power. This was not an area in which Mayawati commanded much strength. The BSP has never had a powerful students’ wing; its core vote base of Dalits has few educational opportunities in Uttar Pradesh, and relatively few political platforms to engage with at the student level. As chief minister in 2002, Mayawati capped the age for student elections in Uttar Pradesh. This struck a direct blow to career student politicians, many of whom are enrolled in college for years at a time, seeking a chance to lead students’ unions, and to leapfrog from there to full-fledged party politics.

Her approach to student politics gave Akhilesh an opening to stake his claim to power on the ground in Uttar Pradesh. In January 2008, a BSP minister, Nakul Dubey, scheduled a visit to Lucknow’s Kanyakubj College. In response, one of its student leaders organised a protest, against fee hikes, and a ban on student union elections that Mayawati had imposed the previous year. This leader was Sunil Yadav, who went on to become the national president of the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, and is one of Akhilesh’s right-hand men.

“We planned this with Bhaiya earlier,” Yadav recalled of the protest. “The moment Bhaiya gave me a go-ahead on the phone from Delhi, I led a group of students to display black flags to Nakul Dubey.” Chaos ensued, as policemen charged the students with batons. Almost simultaneously, students in the state’s other cities spilled out of their classrooms in protest. Sunil Yadav, bleeding heavily from his forehead, appeared on televisions everywhere in the state.

The following day, Akhilesh reached Lucknow to join the protests, and was arrested, along with 30,000 other students around the state. The situation on the ground began to resemble a riot, and the BSP could not help but look autocratic, caught on the back foot. As Sunil Yadav put it, the “bhaiya peedhi,” or generation of young men, had made its mark.

The bhaiya peedhi became Akhilesh’s local support group, and helped define his political identity. He had never been to college in Uttar Pradesh, but in some ways, his lack of insider clout made his approach seem refreshing. With his new coterie of young men, he was courteous and chatty, dispensing advice on cars and bikes with the best mileage, and opinions about cricket. “He was, in the true sense, everyone’s bhaiya,” Sunil said. “Every single youth wing member can call him on the phone. Which senior leader remembers the name of all his workers? He does.”

As Mayawati grew from strength to strength, her 2007 electoral strategy, the “sarvajan samaj,” based on an unprecedented Brahmin-Dalit voter alliance, became a blow to the Samajwadi Party’s traditional arrangements, and they failed to recover in time for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

In February 2011, Akhilesh was formally elected as the UP state president of the party. The following month, the Samajwadi Party launched a massive campaign targeting the BSP, decrying the “deterioration in law and order, crimes against women,” and widespread corruption. As if to confirm their accusations of repressive state power, Mayawati placed Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh under house arrest in March that year, ahead of their planned agitation. But this backfired. The arrests unleashed violent protests across the state, and the issue was raised in parliament.

The BSP lifted the arrests, but held Akhilesh twice more in the next ten days. In their book describing the run-up to the election, Battleground UP, Manish Tiwari and Rajan Pandey write that the Mayawati government “could not control the thousands of SP workers who had come out in the streets in various cities to burn Mayawati’s effigies, despite police threats. Sitting in his party office, Akhilesh Yadav was flooded with phone calls from across the state informing him about the protests held by Samajwadi activists. Yadav looked elated with his party’s show of strength. And there was a sense of contentment within the party as well. The new leadership had finally delivered.”

Akhilesh’s campaign involved a bicycle yatra through rural Uttar Pradesh, accompanied by a motorcade. The state government denied him permission to carry out one such yatra on the spleet-new Noida-Agra Expressway. “Bhaiya then told us, let us go under the flyover through the muddy alleys,” Anand Bhadauria, one of Akhilesh’s companions on the ride, told me. “He said that one day, he would inaugurate the Expressway. Which he did later.”

This is an excerpt from “Everybody’s Brother,” the journalist Neha Dixit’s cover story for The Caravan’s September 2015 issue. It has been edited and condensed.