TWO YEARS AGO on the morning of 6 September, Anita Singh, principal secretary to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was informed that thousands of people from the neighbouring states of Haryana and Delhi were gathering at a village in Muzaffarnagar district. A “Jat Mahapanchayat,” a large-scale political meeting of the region’s Hindu Jats, was scheduled to take place the following day, curdling an atmosphere already soured by threats and suspicion. Some days earlier, two young Jat men and a Muslim youth had allegedly been murdered in an altercation; rumours had circulated of the latter harassing a young Hindu woman. A number of Jat-affiliated outfits had responded by organising the mahapanchayat, with the involvement and encouragement of the local cadre of the Bharatiya Janata Party. All this had divided local Hindus and Muslims, and the regional authorities were on edge, anticipating violence.
Orders prohibiting assembly under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code were in force. The men occupying the posts of senior superintendent of police, and district magistrate, had been transferred out twice in the last fortnight. Thousands of police and paramilitary personnel were mobilised in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts to maintain the state’s control over a potentially inflammatory situation. An additional director-general of police, Arun Kumar, had come west from Lucknow to keep an eye on the proceedings. Yet instructions to actually stop the mahapanchayat never arrived from the secretariat.
On this day, Uttar Pradesh’s youngest-ever chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, was in Delhi to inaugurate the new headquarters of the information technology body NASSCOM. The offices had been set up in Noida, the part of the National Capital Region that falls under his governance, but he was presiding over the ceremony from the Taj Mansingh hotel in central Delhi. Since assuming office in 2012, Yadav had inaugurated several major Noida projects remotely, usually from Lucknow. Many speculated that this was because of persistent stories about the “Noida jinx”—a political superstition that no chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who visited Noida got to keep his or her seat in the following election. It had created some bad press for Yadav. Journalists covering the inauguration wanted to know whether Yadav, a tech-savvy environment engineer who went about distributing laptops to his state’s students, was falling prey to baseless belief. A reporter asked him why a young and modern chief minister was scared of Noida. Yadav, smiling, delivered a riposte in Hindi: “Because you guys live there.”
The Noida jinx preoccupies the “pancham tal,” or fifth floor, of the Uttar Pradesh secretariat in Lucknow, where the chief minister’s offices are located. For at least 20 years now, every man in the post has considered a visit to Noida as a bad omen for their career: anyone who visited, it was said, would not get another term in office. This had happened to Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Veer Bahadur Singh, and Rajnath Singh. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh’s father, went to Noida during one of his terms, failed to be re-elected, and did not repeat the trip when he regained power. Akhilesh’s predecessor, Mayawati, tried to break the jinx in the last few months of her tenure, but was taken to have failed when she lost the assembly elections in 2012.
In his keynote address at the NASSCOM inauguration, Yadav talked of Uttar Pradesh’s progress in the information technology sector, and his Samajwadi Party government’s scheme for distributing laptops to citizens. They were now planning to set up a cyber-security lab at the NASSCOM headquarters. “We have spruced up the police control rooms to check the law and order situation in the state,” Yadav said. “With CCTVs and GPS-enabled police vehicles, the action forces will reach the scene of the crime faster. The response time will be reduced.”
On the following day, 7 September, Nangla-Mandaur village was engulfed in a sea of people. Over a lakh and a half had arrived to attend the mahapanchayat, many armed with guns, spears, daggers, swords and batons. Local media recorded clips of the proceedings, complete with inflammatory speeches and sloganeering. Calls to save Hindu daughters and daughters-in-law from Muslims, and to avenge the deaths of the young Hindu men, were relayed on local cable channels and through WhatsApp.
That evening, rumours began to spread that hundreds of Hindus, on their way back from the meeting, had been waylaid and killed by angry Muslims, who threw the corpses in the Jauli canal. By midnight, the anti-Muslim violence had begun. By the morning of 8 September, when some forces finally received orders to act, over 50 people had already been murdered, a number of women allegedly raped, and several thousand people displaced.
The GPS-enabled police vehicles and CCTVs Yadav had talked of so glowingly in his NASSCOM speech had never seemed less relevant. “The local administration and the Lucknow headquarters were receiving minute-by-minute updates for two weeks before the incident,” an additional superintendent of police who was present in the Muzaffarnagar area on the day of the mahapanchayat told me. “We did not need GPS. We needed orders.”
The state government’s response to the violence was sullen and defensive. It had been slow to defend those under attack, and seemed slower still to galvanise relief for the affected. Yadav himself visited Muzaffarnagar on 15 September, over a week after the riot had broken out. He made boilerplate statements to the press at the time. Two days later, when he updated his Facebook status, he seemed not to be thinking about it at all. His post read, simply: “Life is mobile.”
Yadav’s state, the world’s most populous local unit, is home to some of India’s poorest people, and some of its most deeply entrenched social conflicts. Police violence, often reported with an ugly dimension of casteism to it, is a fact of life. Anti-caste and pro-poor politics have a long and vibrant history here; so, however, does a deeply entrenched culture of caste and gender violence.
For several years, rural Uttar Pradesh had escaped the scars of major religious riots. Following the great churn of 1992, when Hindutva activists led by senior BJP politicians demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the state’s villages escaped mass violence. The divisive but massively influential Mulayam Singh, who founded the Samajwadi Party just months before the mosque’s destruction, has often been seen as key to that precarious stability. The Samajwadi Party itself was founded on the basis of a powerful voter alliance between Hindu Yadavs and Muslims, a compact that more or less held even in the face of strong political opposition and successive electoral defeats.
Now, thanks to one of the worst incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the state’s history, this accord seemed to be in danger of failing, and the party exposed for its opportunism and incompetence. Sure enough, when general elections rolled around in 2014, the Samajwadis were crushed. The BJP, which had won 10 seats out of the state’s 80 in the 2009 elections, won a staggering 71 this time around.
Meanwhile, Yadav continued to inaugurate projects in Noida in absentia, mostly from his Lucknow residence. According to official reports, he has launched a women’s helpline, 1,056 GPS-enabled SUVs for police to improve the law and order of the state, and 300 air-conditioned ambulances. He has distributed over 1.5 million laptops to students.
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.
But his personal attributes, and his family connections, remain the most recognisable thing about him. Over the course of several months, I interviewed more than 60 people, including Yadav’s friends, family, party members, bureaucrats and political rivals. The same adjectives came up repeatedly as they described him: well-behaved, respectful, gracious, and sharif, or courteous. The former Samajwadi Party leader Shahid Siddiqui said that his problem is that he is “too sharif to run a government.”
This may be why he appears to have others to do it for him. When Akhilesh was sworn in, it was reported as a foregone conclusion that the real power would still be held by party veterans—his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav; his uncles, Shivpal Yadav and Ram Gopal Yadav; and Mulayam Singh’s close ally, Azam Khan, one of the most influential Muslim politicians in northern India. Three years into his term, the general view is still that this division of power remains in place, with the addition of the senior bureaucrat, Anita Singh, said to command a great deal of power on the pancham tal.
Yet Akhilesh’s critics see him as a symbol for the deterioration of Samajwadi politics into incompetence and opportunism—a feeling rooted in the visible growth of caste-related crimes, increasing complaints against the malfunctioning machinery of law and order, and a sense that after three years in power, the chief minister has earned the blame for being unable to take decisive action in these matters.
The last relief camps for the displaced of Muzaffarnagar were vacated in January 2014, around the time the Yadav family was busy with the annual Saifai Mahotsav, a glitzy cultural festival held in their hometown. The Mahotsav was attended by the entire extended Yadav clan, as well as some of Uttar Pradesh’s most influential ministers and bureaucrats. Seven planes were chartered to fly in celebrities. Salman Khan, who once campaigned against the Samajwadi Party in 2009, performed on stage with Madhuri Dixit. Faced with criticism, Akhilesh defended the spectacle. “The Mahotsav has proved as a platform to promote youth power,” he said. “Don’t the people in the villages have the right to enjoy?”
His personal recognition of a “right to enjoy” may have endeared him to some sections of his electorate, but it has earned him the name “Mauj Masti Baba”—the fun-and-games kid—among some of his bureaucrats. A senior Urdu-language journalist characterised it as part of the “Modi-fication” of India’s chief ministers, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years: “Where there are no ethical priciples in the pursuit of development, the competition is a clash of personalities in the elections, and there is no correlation between the façade of progress that is built up, and the figures.”
A former Samajwadi member, who left the party in 2013, had a more personal view of things. “Akhilesh’s strength is that he is not a fanatic but a relatively harmless person,” this person said. “At the same time, he is a mediocrity. He is only motivated by his promotion in the party, rather than any ideology. That is why his individual actions are inane. But collectively, they create a destructive system in which he is actually complicit.”
THE CHAMBAL RIVER, which begins in the northern Vindhyas, empties into the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. In the Mahabharat, the Chambal is called the Charmanyavati: a river formed by the blood of the thousands of animals sacrificed by the Aryan king Rantideva. Over hundreds of years, its water has eroded the soft lands through which it flows, forming deep and high ravines. For at least a century, the ravines have been the battlefields on which rebels and bandits wage war against upper-caste landowners and their forces.
This landscape, mysterious and sinister to many Indians who know of it only through newspaper reports, is a stone’s throw away from the little village of Saifai, which falls in Etawah district in central Uttar Pradesh. Here, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a self-proclaimed political heir to the great Indian socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, and three-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was born in 1939. Akhilesh Yadav was also born here, in 1973, the same year that an 11-year-old Phoolan Devi, later to become a gun-toting outlaw of Chambal legend—and Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party colleague in parliament—was married off to a man much older than her.
Mulayam Singh himself had been married as a child, and nearly 16 years passed between the wedding with Malti Devi, and the birth of their first child, Akhilesh. Tragically, the birth caused severe medical complications for Malti Devi, who was rendered permanently unresponsive, and possibly in persistent vegetative state. A person with close personal and professional links to Mulayam Singh, who told me the story, said that she had become “a vegetable” after delivering her son.
Mulayam Singh had already been elected as a member of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh for Lohia’s own Samyukta Socialist Party, which made him a busy man in Lucknow. He did not attend the birth, and appears not to have visited his family very often in the years to follow. When the baby was a year old, Mulayam Singh was re-elected as the assembly representative from Jaswantnagar constituency, a seat he held seven times until 1996. (The incumbent MLA, who has held the seat for four consecutive terms, is his brother Shivpal, the second-most powerful leader in the Samajwadi Party.)
The boy was brought up by his paternal grandparents, a rural farming couple with no education. They neither paid much attention to his date of birth or a formal name for him. A village elder in Saifai told me that he was known simply as “Tipu,” a nickname bestowed on him by the village pradhan. Parcelled out to relatives, Tipu’s early education was divided between a local Saifai school, and one in Etawah town.
He found an older companion in Shivpal, who had just passed out of school at the time. The two spent hours in the potato fields around their home. (In August 2014, Akhilesh’s government announced that it would put some of those potatoes to use by setting up an Rs 800-crore vodka plant in the vicinity.)
When Indira Gandhi’s government declared an Emergency in 1975, Mulayam Singh was arrested and held in custody for 19 months. A friend of his sister’s family accompanied Tipu to help admit him to St Mary’s school in Etawah. The enrollment official suggested that it was not a good idea to put a nickname on the school roster, so the friend came up with some suggestions for an official first name, and Tipu chose “Akhilesh.” In later years, Akhilesh told journalists in Lucknow that his date of birth was registered as 1 July 1973, picked to coincide with the first day of the academic session.
Until the mid-1980s, Mulayam Singh’s socialist politics did not embed itself deeply in Etawah. Here, the Congress party had long held sway among three of Uttar Pradesh’s most influential voting constituencies: Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims. Elections had long been a messy affair in the state, mired in poverty and feudal patterns of land ownership. Often, wealthy upper-caste landlords and politicians attempted to influence outcomes by using dacoits to wreak violence on the region’s lower-caste majority. But just over a decade into Mulayam Singh’s political career, two forces had upset this pattern of intimidation and control.
The first was the rise of OBC assertiveness in opposition to the Congress, led by men such as Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Jat leader who briefly became prime minister in 1979, and “Netaji,” as Mulayam Singh himself came to be called. The second was the growing strength of dacoits from backward castes, fighting to assert control over land and political power. When Akhilesh was eight years old, Phoolan Devi—who was born into the Mallah sub-caste, also classified as OBC in Uttar Pradesh—achieved notoriety for the vengeance her gang of outlaws extracted for her rape, killing 22 Thakur men from Behmai village. It was 1982; the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, VP Singh of the Congress, ordered a crackdown on the region’s dacoits, and party forces and state police responded with ferocity.
The following year, Mulayam Singh sent Akhilesh to Dholpur Military School in Rajasthan. In Winds of Change, her biography of Akhilesh, the journalist Sunita Aron writes that Mulayam Singh, who had been a wrestler in his early years, was convinced by a friend that the disciplined atmosphere of a military school would be good for his son. Still, it was Shivpal who went with Akhilesh to complete the admission procedures.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote his daughter enough letters from prison to fill a book. By contrast, Mulayam Singh remained a distant figure to Akhilesh; he visited him only twice in all his years at school. Aron writes that Mulayam Singh “wrote his son a letter in school which could have easily been a telegram. It said: Padhney mein mehnat karo. Kaam aayega. (Study hard. It will help you).”
In Lucknow on school vacations, Akhilesh frequently found himself in an empty house, in which the only other people he saw were the sort who were not meant to sit down with him: police constables, office staff, housekeepers and orderlies. No amount of socialist egalitarianism could bridge the gaps of an essentially old-fashioned arrangement. “He was a minister’s son,” one of the orderlies who worked in this house told me. “We couldn’t call him by his name so we started to call him bhaiya”—brother.
On one such vacation in 1988, according to a person close to the family, Akhilesh met Sadhana Gupta, a former civil servant who was to be acknowledged as Mulayam Singh’s wife in 2007. “It is only after Sadhana’s entry in his life, he became the chief minister. So Mulayam considers her lucky,” this person told me. The teenaged Akhilesh, however, did not get along with Gupta, and allegedly slapped her at one point in the holiday. After this, “Akhilesh was constantly seen as a disturbance in Netaji’s life,” the family friend said, “and was packed off from one place to the other.”
In 1989, Mulayam Singh, as leader of the Janata Dal party, became chief minister, just as India entered a period of turbulence whose effects still mark the country’s political life. That November, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered the controversial “shilanyas,” a ceremony to break ground, for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, near the Babri Masjid. The following year, right-wing factions led by the BJP began to clamour for the demolition of the mosque, which they claimed had been constructed over the true birthplace of Ram, and Mulayam Singh earned the scornful title of “Mullah Mulayam” for his famous promise to protect the Babri Masjid. “Yahaanparinda bhi parr nahin maar sakta,” he said—not even a bird may flap its wings over the mosque.
It was a crucial moment in the forging of the Yadav-Muslim alliance. However, a spooked Congress, fearful of losing its upper-caste Hindu voters, withdrew support to Mulayam Singh’s government, and he lost his position in 1991. The BJP, which seized its chance to form the government, propped up its own OBC leader, Kalyan Singh, in Lucknow instead. In October 1992, Mulayam Singh formally announced his new samajwadi, or socialist party. Just months later, on 6 December, rampaging crowds destroyed the Babri Masjid.
By this time, Akhilesh, nearly 20, had been sent on from Dholpur to an engineering college in Mysore. He told his biographer, Sunita Aron, that he found out about the new party through a report in the Deccan Herald.
He remained in Karnataka for the next few years, even as the political cauldrons of Delhi and Lucknow simmered. Mulayam Singh was now in the thick of coalition-building at the centre, as successive governments came to power and fell for lack of support. Mulayam Singh even staked his claim to become prime minister of a Janata Dal-led coalition, but lost out, first to HD Deve Gowda, and then to IK Gujral. When Akhilesh returned to Lucknow in 1996, a full-fledged engineer, Mulayam Singh was defence minister in the United Front coalition government.
One October evening that year, a group of journalists were celebrating a birthday at a restaurant in Lucknow’s Taj hotel. A young man with a cloth towel slung around his neck swaggered into the quiet, upscale environs. He went up to the restaurant’s piano, asked the seated pianist to make room for him, and then started to bash away at it. The manager moved the group of journalists to another restaurant. A week later, a small snippet about the whimsy of the defence minister’s son made its way to the pages of India Today. “That year, he was packed off to Australia to do his masters in environmental engineering,” a family friend told me.
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.
Then, in February 2007, Mulayam Singh filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, which publicly acknowledged his wife Sadhana and son Prateek for the first time. The affidavit was filed as part of a case alleging that the Yadav family held assets disproportionate to their income. A preliminary report filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in July 2007 revealed that Mulayam Singh and Sadhana were married, although it does not reveal the exact date of this marriage. (Malti Devi, Akhilesh’s mother, died in 2003.) The report went on to state that Prateek Yadav is Sadhana’s son “from her earlier marriage. She was married to Chandra Prakash Gupta in July 1986 and Prateek was born on July 7, 1987. She divorced him on March 5, 1990.”
Several people, including three members of the Samajwadi Party, told me that Mulayam Singh’s official acknowledgment of a second wife and son in the affidavit made Akhilesh desperate to wield influence in Lucknow. He now wished to be acknowledged as a force in the Samjawadi Party, and Mulayam Singh’s heir.
“‘Youth’ is all he had that was unique in the feudal, patriarchal party,” a veteran journalist covering the state for a national newspaper said to me. This was literally true. Akhilesh was now notionally the head of the party’s four youth wings—the Yuvjan Sabha, Lohia Vahini, Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha and Mulayam Singh Youth Brigade, but he had been only occasionally involved in their activities. Around this time, news of brutal violence on Indian students in Australia was making headlines in India. For some years, the nativism of the Mumbai-based politician Raj Thackeray had been making national headlines, as he whipped up sentiment against migrant workers from UP and Bihar with calls of “Bhaiya Bhagao, Maharashtra Bachao”—chase off the bhaiyas, save Maharashtra. According to Anand Bhadauria, head of the Lohia Vahini, this inspired Akhilesh’s involvement at ground level. He started to call up several students across the state, and formulated a plan to take control of youth forces.
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.”
These new loyalists became links in a network on which Akhilesh still relies. An officer in the Lucknow police’s Local Intelligence Unit told me that to this day, if news comes in of trouble from anywhere in the state, Akhilesh cross-checks his information with the local contacts he made during the 2008 student protest.
The Samajwadi Party’s fortunes improved in time for the 2009 general elections. Akhilesh himself contested those polls from two constituencies, won both, and had to give up one—the old Samajwadi bastion of Firozabad. Much to its surprise, however, the party lost that by-election; and the consequences of that result came to be a turning point in Akhilesh’s career.
In 1995, just before leaving for Sydney, Akhilesh had met a Lucknow schoolgirl named Dimple Rawat, with whom he stayed in touch through his time in Australia, and wished to marry when he returned. Several people told me that Mulayam disapproved of a match between his Yadav son and a Pahari Thakur from Uttarakhand—a community with which Mulayam Singh had come into friction in the past. The potential damage to the family’s reputation with their OBC electorate was of grave concern. Akhilesh threatened rebellion, but found support from an unexpected quarter—Mulayam Singh’s close ally, the former Congress leader and businessman Amar Singh.
Singh, a Thakur himself, joined the Samajwadi Party in 1996. He was directly routed to the Rajya Sabha, much to the discomfort of party old-timers, who saw his steep ascendancy as a betrayal of their Lohiaite, socialist principles. But Mulayam Singh seemed to trust him to navigate the capital’s political circles successfully, and gave him charge of the party’s affairs in Delhi.
The numerous stories I was told about Singh made it clear that between 1996 and 2010, the years of his formal association with the Samajwadis, he brought major change both to the party, and in Mulayam Singh’s family. Akhilesh allegedly told an activist who has met him several times, “Khatiye pe sone waale mere baap ko five star ki aadat laga di”—he put my father, who needed only a simple cot to sleep on, in the habit of five-star hotels.
According to a Lucknow-based newspaper editor, Singh had convinced Mulayam Singh to send Akhilesh to Australia after the piano-bashing incident, and worked hard to ensure public legitimacy for Sadhana and Prateek. In 1999, when Akhilesh threatened to go against his father’s wishes to marry Dimple, Singh was instrumental in convincing Mulayam Singh to let the marriage take place, persuading him that the match represented an opportunity to reach out to Thakur voters, this editor said. Akhilesh and Dimple were married in November that year, soon after he became an MP.
Meanwhile, Singh transformed the outlook and functioning of the party in many ways. As chairman of the UP Development Council, he exercised his considerable skills at lobbying to rope in support from some of the country’s top industrialists and movie stars, including Adi Godrej, Anil Ambani, Kumaramangalam Birla and Amitabh Bachchan, all of whom were nominated to the council. “Amar Singh’s entry made money-making the focus and corruption an honest endeavour in the party,” the former party member Shahid Siddiqui told me. Singh was responsible for the Samajwadi Party’s increasingly conspicious consumption, much to the disdain of some of the party’s veterans, dyed-in-the-wool Lohiaites, to whom I spoke about this period. Nowhere was this more apparent than Singh’s big push for the Saifai Mahotsav in Mulayam and Akhilesh’s home village, an annual cultural extravaganza at which major Hindi movie stars perform regularly.
What I understood from my conversations with these Samajwadi Party veterans, however, was that the widespread dissatisfaction with Singh chiefly sprang from the fact that he had blocked the rest of the leadership from access to Mulayam Singh. This was a blow that many felt personally: Mulayam Singh’s considerable interpersonal skills had knit the party together. Further, none of Singh’s glamour was helping the party through the 2000s. 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.
Unlike most of his party colleagues, Akhilesh’s seat was secure, and doubly so. He contested and won the 2009 polls from both Kannauj and Firozabad, and decided to stay with the former. Firozabad is an old party bastion—its current MP is Ram Gopal Yadav’s son and Akhilesh’s cousin, Akshay—but the 2009 by-election resulted in a stunning upset for the party, as the Congress’s candidate, the former actor Raj Babbar, handed a crushing defeat to the Samajwadi Party nominee, Akhilesh’s wife, Dimple.
Singh had been responsible for persuading the party to put Dimple up for the Firozabad by-poll. Babbar and he were old rivals. Babbar had once belonged to the Samajwadi Party, but he had been fired in 2006 over a dispute about electoral tickets with Singh. “Amar Singh anyway took it upon his ego to engineer a crushing defeat for Babbar,” one senior Samajwadi Party leader told me. “He proposed Dimple’s name. He thought she will be the safest candidate since she is from the family.”
But Singh’s missteps during the campaign proved costly. In a Muslim-majority area, his decision to bring into the party Kalyan Singh—formerly the BJP chief minister who presided over the Masjid demolition—went down poorly. A movie star inadvertently contributed to his downfall, too: several people told me that Singh alienated Muslim voters by speaking slightingly of one of Babbar’s campaigners, Salman Khan. Fans of Khan, who commands a legendary loyalty from his followers around the country, may have found this as urgent an electoral issue as any other, judging from accounts of the time. At any rate, Dimple was defeated, and Singh suddenly found himself out in the cold.
SOON AFTER THE BY-ELECTION, the party started inviting applications for tickets for the 2012 assembly polls. Akhilesh began to look into these applications personally, joining senior party members as they interviewed prospective candidates. By this time, many party leaders understood that something was badly wrong with their old strategems. A leader who was present at an internal review meeting after the 2009 Lok Sabha election recalled that Amar Singh, excoriating them for being out of touch, had asked the assembled group: “Do any of you know who Hannah Montana is?” No one did. Singh allegedly said, “Ask Akhilesh. He knows. That’s why we need the young generation leading the party.”
Akhilesh, perhaps unwilling to rest on his laurels as the resident Disney expert, commissioned a round of surveys that conclusively established that voters were now seeing Samajwadi rule as a form of “goonda raj”—thug rule. He tried to minimise this, denying tickets to candidates whose chargesheets were hard to ignore, such as DP Yadav, accused in multiple murder cases. Out of 403 candidates, the party eventually fielded 85 who were under 40 years old. (In spite of efforts to clean up its image, however, the party still fielded the most candidates with criminal cases to their name in the 2012 polls.)
Through the year, relations with Amar Singh deteriorated swiftly. According to one Samajwadi Party leader who has been a member of parliament, Akhilesh’s uncle Ram Gopal, who disliked Amar Singh, invested all his energies in grooming Akhilesh to assume power. This former MP said that Akhilesh in turn, took radical measures to ensure that Mulayam Singh’s security and his staff cut all communication, including phone calls, between Mulayam and Amar Singh. In January 2010, Singh and his ally, the former actor Jaya Prada, resigned from the party, and were formally expelled from the party a year later, for their “attempt to sully the party’s secular and socialist image.” The secretary to a senior Samajwadi Party leader claimed that Singh had been sacrificed to demonstrate that the party was turning a new leaf.
Preparing for a starring role in the push for victory, Akhilesh handpicked a team of professionals to design his campaign. They included the film music composer Nikhil Kamat, part of Hindi cinema’s composer duo, Nikhil-Vinay. The journalist and radio show host Neelesh Mishra wrote songs, and came up with the tagline “Ummeed ki Cycle”—a reference to the Samajwadi Party’s electoral symbol, the bicycle. Arjun Sablok, director of the Hindi film Neal & Nikki, took charge of the ad campaign.
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.” During this yatra, Akhilesh’s step-brother, Prateek, married Aparna Bisht, the daughter of a well-known Lucknow journalist. Aparna is also a Pahari Thakur, but this time, perhaps predictably, Mulayam Singh had no objection to the match.
Ashish Yadav, who is now the party’s media manager, told me that on counting day in March 2012, Mulayam Singh asked him thrice if they would win. That evening, once results were announced, the movie starlet Zayed Khan dropped in at party headquarters to congratulate Akhilesh personally. “Do you know who that was?” Ashish says he asked Akhilesh. The chief minister-elect nodded, and gnomically quoted Ashish a line from the 2008 Hindi film Fashion. “Kehte hain success ki seedhi chadte hue jin logon se mulaqat hoti hai, wahi log phir se seedhi utarte hue bhi milte hain.”—they say that the people you meet while climbing the ladder of success are the same ones you encounter on your way down.
MOST OF THE UTTAR PRADESH bureaucrats and political workers I contacted for this story were easily reachable via WhatsApp or SMS. (Almost no state bureaucrat ever responded to an email.) Several of my interviewees had taken to looping me into their WhatsApp forwarding circles. I became a regular object of flirtation for many of these people, who sent me amateurish love poetry and romantic shayari—in Uttar Pradesh, a standard way for men to interact with women who aren’t related or otherwise closely known to them. One party worker even told me that a person whose texts I had steadfastly refrained from replying to told the party worker not to talk to me, as I was a “characterless” woman.
“Characterless” is a popular insult for women in these circles; one of my interviewees, a former member of the state’s women’s commission, confessed to me that she was branded characterless when she refused to accompany a male senior on a daura, or tour—a codeword for getting out of town to have sex. This was “not because you refused,” she said. “But it is assumed that you are already sleeping with someone else.”
I had made casual mention of the WhatsApp texts in a conversation with Ashish Yadav. Just as I was winding up the last interviews for the story, my phone buzzed with a text from Akhilesh Yadav’s personal number. He was agreeing to interview requests I had made a month earlier. I called Ashish for details. He said that he had mentioned the shayari problem to “Bhaiya,” who had been deeply embarrassed to hear it, and decided to grant me an appointment.
In early July, I arrived at the chief minister’s residence in Lucknow an hour ahead of our scheduled meeting, and waited in the huge lobby, newly redecorated with traditional chikan fabrics. At the far end of the ceiling, a tidy sculpture made of junk cycle parts was suspended in the air, lit in such a way that its shadow on the near wall formed the shape of Mulayam Singh’s face. I had been told that after his swearing-in, Akhilesh had stripped the house of its blue tiles—a colour associated with his predecessor’s BSP—and redone the whole house.
In an hour, I was called into a large office, which overlooked a lawn with a football goalpost at one end. On the shelves behind the long, unoccupied desk, I spotted an embossed image of Lohia; small idols of Sai Baba and Vishnu; a golden globe; and a bottle of Chanel Bleu perfume. A stack of books included HG Wells’ s The New Machiavelli, and biographies of Benazir Bhutto and APJ Abdul Kalam. I craned my neck to try and read the labels on the files stacked neatly on the desk, but the chief minister walked in before I could manage.
Yadav spoke in both Hindi and English to me. He flat-out refused to answer any questions I had about his childhood or personal history. He asked me to “write about government” instead. “I am not saying that it has been a long journey,” he said, “but I certainly got to see so much.” He began to speak, quickly and without pause, about the difficulties of understanding Uttar Pradesh and its politics, and the inflation of his responsibilities over time. “While you and I are talking, we are celebrating World Population Day. During the metro programme today I said in my speech that we need the metro, because the population is increasing.”
Without waiting for prompts in the form of my questions, he explained many of the schemes and improvements that the party had promised in its election manifesto, all of which he claimed it had kept—the laptops, the new schools and colleges, the electricity supply, the highways, free irrigation. “We have passed all those tests,” he claimed. “I would say we have done all the work and are taking Utta Pardes on the path of core development.” His dialect of Hindi, like Mulayam Singh’s, transforms the state’s name to “Utta Pardes.”
At a break in the proceedings, I asked him to list three of his major achievements as chief minister. “Three major achievements I will tell you,” he said, before I had finished my question, and gave me the government line: infrastructure, health and social schemes.
His optimistic pitch for the government’s performance is not entirely borne out by facts. The problem is compounded because official documentation of social ills and injustice has often proved questionable in Uttar Pradesh. Take, as one example, the question of farmer suicides. The official Uttar Pradesh figure, released in April 2014, was 80 such deaths in 2013. Yet a National Crime Records Bureau report claimed that 750 farmers committed suicide in the state that year. In April this year, the state government received a grant of Rs490 crore from the centre to distribute as compensation for the loss of crops in unseasonal weather. It reached farmers late; some cultivators found that they had been disbursed no more than Rs100. Others got even less.
Farmer suicides were a national problem, Akhilesh acknowledged. “We have helped families of those who have committed suicide. But what has the central government done? They should also say that they have helped.” Fluctuating sugar prices, he said, had been destructive for the state’s sugar farmers—the riot-torn areas of western Uttar Pradesh are part of one of India’s largest sugarcane belts—and his government was doing their best to ensure that farmers were paid. “We are giving them money from our own budget. Sugar mills should work, rates should be controlled, payments should be made,” he said. “But the centre has to step in.” His government had written to the centre so often for help, he said, that he would “compile a booklet” of the letters and give it to me.
“Same people voted for us”—in the assembly elections—“and for you”—he meant the BJP in 2014’s Lok Sabha elections. “Your MPs won by a larger number. Now why don’t you work for development?”
Like many chief ministers, Akhilesh has not been immune to the dream of re-fashioning his capital city as a global metropolis: once, early in his term, he allegedly told listeners in a closed-door meeting that he would make Lucknow Singapore, so that when rural migrants visited, they would spread the word through the region of how adept the government was at development. In July 2012, he commissioned a R102-crore project called the Lucknow Eye, along the lines of the London Eye. The head of the Lucknow Development Authority called it Akhilesh’s “dream project.”
Akhilesh’s image as the technology-loving modern man has taken occasional blows. At a conclave held in Delhi in June 2014, 20 investors from the United States confirmed an investment of Rs20,000 crore in the state. Since their preliminary meeting took place with the senior bureaucrat Alok Ranjan, the investors also wanted to meet Akhilesh. During the meeting, which took place in Lucknow, the investors made presentations about the kinds of projects they had in mind. Akhilesh allegedly interjected, at one point: “So you are from New York? You have the Statue of Liberty there, no? Can’t we have something like that in Lucknow?” A bureaucrat who was present at the meeting and told me this story claimed that the investors were shocked at this apparent frivolity.
One of the principal secretaries I spoke to had told me that Akhilesh perpetually looked at his phone during meetings, sometimes pausing to read out jokes he had received on WhatsApp. When he started swiping through his phone during our interview, however, it was to read a news item off his screen to me: “Mainpuri will progress at the speed of the Expressway. The Expressway is 102-kilometre long. Ten districts and 232 villages will be covered including 19 villages from Mainpuri. There will be 13 small and 52 large bridges with four big vegetable selling points. Ponds have been dug up on the way for beautification.”
He read, paused to explain the scheme to me, then read again. “I’ve had all of them dug, small and big,” he said, pausing. “There will be medical and engineering colleges and shopping malls,” he read. Pause. “We will only provide space and regulate. There will be tenders for private players.”
He read further. “Two lakh plants will be planted along the way.” He stopped again. “Just two lakhs? We will plant crores of them.”
The question of whether Uttar Pradesh can accommodate the sort of business promised by big investments and high-octane publicity largely remained unanswered—not only by Akhilesh, but also by my other interviewees. A person who works as a government contractor in the state’s irrigation department was pessimistic. It was not as though the Mayawati government was clean, he told me. Any sign-off on a project had always required an advance commission of ten percent, he alleged: five percent would go to the party fund, and the rest distributed between the concerned legislators and bureaucrats.
But in the Samajwadi regime, he said, there was no longer a fixed percentage he could factor into his calculations: a commission could range from 10 to 65 percent. It helped, after a fashion, to be a Yadav. (He is a Yadav himself.) “And if you are a Yadav who can pay more commission than the other Yadav who has been assigned the project, it will be handed over to you instead,” he added. “The other Yadav won’t even get back his advance commission.”
IN JANUARY 2013, ten months after Akhilesh became chief minister, a group of activists met him with a request to consider the implementation of the food security legislation in the state. “A 35-minute meeting was granted. He spent 20 minutes interrogating Jean Drèze”—the Belgian-origin economist—“on how he could speak Hindi so well,” the activist who has met him several times, and was present at this meeting, told me. “For a trained engineer, he could not make sense of the maps we showed him. When we pointed out that the malnutrition rate in Uttar Pradesh was high, he said ‘Accha, UP is lower than Bihar also?’” The activists told him that Uttar Pradesh would be able to implement the Right to Food Act in the state much before the United Progressive Alliance government at the centre would be able to do so. The activist says that Akhilesh then looked at NC Bajpai, the head of the State Planning Commission and said, “You know our Food and Civil Supplies Minister. Only Netaji can convince him.” He was referring to Raghuraj Pratap Singh, better known as Raja Bhaiya, an MLA who heads a group of independent Thakur legislators, who were key to the Samajwadi Party’s government formation.
Akhilesh’s deference and lack of assertion make a striking contrast to Mulayam Singh’s command of a large and disparate group of powerful political actors under the Samajwadi Party umbrella. A text I was sent early on in my reporting read: “Kyun re Sambha, kitne chief minister thhe?,” or “Why, Sambha, how many chief ministers were there?”—parodying the famous line from Sholay. (Lowbrow political comedy is as common as flowery shayari on WhatsApp.) I repeated the joke to a principal secretary in the state government whom I met that afternoon. He laughed and supplied the punchline before I could. “The answer is 5.5.” The state’s five chief ministers, the joke goes, are Mulayam Singh, Shivpal, Ram Gopal, Azam Khan, and the principal secretary to the chief minister, Anita Singh. Akhilesh brings up the rear as the point-five chief minister.
In contrast to his father’s rule, that of Akhilesh was marked from the very beginning by the evidence of a fractured centre of power. Mulayam Singh looms large over Uttar Pradesh, and much of the power in the government and administration remains in the hands of allies and cronies of his generation, rather than the “bhaiya peedhi.” Shivpal holds the portfolios of the Public Works Department, as well as Irrigation, Revenue, Land Development and Water Resources. Ram Gopal has represented the Samajwadis in both houses of parliament, and holds the party’s brief in Delhi—something for which, I was told, he had fought Amar Singh hard. Both have sons also closely involved with the party, and may well be rivals to Akhilesh in the future. Khan, a founding member of the Samajwadi Party, exerts the single greatest influence any politician currently has on the region’s Muslims. He runs his home constituency of Rampur like a fiefdom, a former Samajwadi leader told me: “He wants to be the patriarch of the Muslim community.”
The Samajwadi Party’s leaders all derive their significance from tremendously loyal support bases, and the ability to form strategic alliances. When Akhilesh came to power, the general impression in Lucknow was that he was neither able to compete with his elders, nor capable of rising above the usual bureaucratic games of appointments and transfers. “The fact is that he does not even want to go beyond it,” a senior bureaucrat who has worked in the chief minister’s offices told me.
But Akhilesh’s rivals are not limited to men of his father’s generation. Writing in FirstPost in March 2013, the journalist Alka Pandey quoted an unnamed union minister visiting Lucknow, who was asked for his opinions on the Akhilesh Yadav government. “Earlier we had the impression that there were multiple chief ministers in the state,” Pandey quoted this minister as saying, “but now what we see is that there is someone who supersedes even the real chief minister.” Pandey claimed that the minister was clearly referring to Anita Singh, who works with Akhilesh but is widely seen as personally loyal to Mulayam Singh and his wife Sadhana. It appears that this has put her at odds with her boss: a young member of the party who is part of Akhilesh’s core team told me this summer that the chief minister and the bureaucrat had not met for almost a year.
This core team member told me a story that demonstrated the game of one-upmanship in which Anita Singh and Akhilesh had engaged from early on in his chief-ministerial term. On 15 November 2012, Akhilesh announced to a gathering of the state’s bureaucrats and ministers that he had been receiving threatening texts and calls in derogatory language. Akhilesh claimed that the caller asked when he would get the laptops and tablets that the government had promised to distribute. The party insider said that this little speech was Akhilesh’s attempt at taking a dig at the bureaucracy, and thereby Anita Singh, over delays with funds for the promised laptops, and the breakdown in their distribution.
As it happened, that gathering was an event meant to launch a women’s phone helpline. Following the chief minister’s speech, while the vote of thanks was proposed, Anita Singh called over the then-DIG, Navneet Sikera, and whispered something to him. As the meeting was breaking up, Sikera stepped up to the mike and announced that no woman had spoken at the launch of their helpline, and so Anita Singh would do the honours. Against protocol, Anita Singh followed the chief minister, and spoke at length on the subject of making Uttar Pradesh safer for women. Akhilesh fidgeted in his seat and pretended to check his cellphone. A police officer who attended the launch said, “It was an open display of a power game to establish who was the boss.”
Akhilesh and Anita Singh’s professional relationship began at a standoff, and worsened progressively. Several bureaucrats and Samajwadi Party politicians to whom I spoke told me stories of one blocking the other at crucial points in their decision-making processes. The young bureaucrat who is close to Akhilesh told me that Anita Singh repeatedly bypassed the chief minister in decisions about administrative transfers and appointments. A senior police officer told me that ahead of the Muzaffarnagar violence, the ADG Arun Kumar reached out to her for clear instructions for the deployment of the Provincial Armed Constabulary in the area, but received none in a timely fashion, because communications between the chief minister and the principal secretary had broken down. When I interviewed Akhilesh, he refused to answer any questions about Muzaffarnagar. I sent several messages to Anita Singh’s office, asking for an interview, but received no response.
This alleged standoff constituted part of a costly set of mistakes. From March 2012 to September 2013, the first 18 months of Akhilesh’s rule, 115 people had lost their lives and over 50,000 were reported displaced in incidents of communal rioting, according to official figures. For several months in 2013, director-general and assistant director-general posts in five of the most crucial state police branches lay vacant—these were the Police Recruitment and Promotion Board (UPPRPB), Intelligence Headquarters, Vigilance Establishment, Economic Offences Wing, and Security Headquarters. Four out of these five branches report directly to the chief minister. The principal secretary who laughed at the “5.5 chief ministers” joke alleged that many senior police officials preferred not to work with Anita Singh, a relatively young officer—she is from the 1990 batch of the Indian Administrative Service—and were put off by the conflict between her and Akhilesh.
Law and order has been a particular bone of contention in Akhilesh’s regime. According to one Samajwadi Party veteran, in April this year, Mulayam Singh secretly met Shivpal and Ram Gopal at his residence in 5, Vikramaditya Marg, Lucknow, in order to plan the ouster of Lucknow district’s police chief, Yashasvi Yadav, an Indian Police Service officer from the Maharashtra cadre, known to be close to Akhilesh. The chief minister had manouvered to have Yashasvi appointed to the post in December 2014, appearing to ignore allegations of corruption against Yashasvi in the officer’s previous postings. At this point, Shivpal and Ram Gopal came together in support of Mulayam, in spite of their own differences: the goal was ostensibly to take Akhilesh down a peg or two. After Yashasvi was transferred at the beginning of May, Lucknow went without a police chief for 45 days.
Still, father and son have forged a kind of political co-existence in which both survive by playing set roles—Mulayam Singh the disappointed disciplinarian, and Akhilesh the chastened and obedient son. A former Samajwadi Party member revealed the details of a 2012 meeting in which Mulayam scolded Akhilesh openly for the dysfunction in the government. “It is a drill, a clear understanding between the son and the father for years,” the former member said. “Netaji scolds him publicly. The seniors think that Akhilesh is being scolded and revel in Netaji’s non-partisan leadership.” In a party full of chachas, it serves as reassurance. To old-time socialists who have been Mulayam’s fellow-travellers for decades, it provides a measure of satisfaction that their brash new leader can be held in check. “Akhilesh is happy with the obedient boy image,” the former Samajwadi member continued. “It creates space for Akhilesh the baccha”—the child—“to survive.”
I MET NAVNEET SEHGAL, principal secretary of the information department, in his office in Lucknow in May this year. During our meeting, an official came in, sat across the table, and told Sehgal about a complaint registered against the seeds department by someone waiting for an overdue payment of Rs6 crore. Sehgal immediately made a call to a reporter. “Our seeds department is doing great work,” he said over the phone. “Do a positive story on it. We will provide documents to you. Also mention that someone is trying to extort Rs6 crore from us.”
Sehgal was a powerful bureaucrat in the Mayawati government, but transferred out following the regime change, to so-called punishment postings elsewhere in the secretariat. He was brought back to the chief minister’s office this year in order to change perceptions about the Samajwadi government, which once again felt that it was suffering from an image management problem.
When I asked the chief minister about his administration’s focus on public relations, he said, “The government should hire as many PR agencies as it needs for each of its schemes, so that there is awareness.”
The clamour for publicity contrasts directly with the danger in which journalists in Uttar Pradesh have found themselves. This summer, the grisly death of the freelance journalist Jagendra Singh made national headlines. Singh died of major burns after he was allegedly set on fire: in his last declarations, he placed the blame on a Samajwadi minister, Ram Murti Verma, against whom he had levelled accusations of wrongdoing in his stories. At the time this story went to press, it appeared that the Akhilesh Yadav government had given Jagendra Singh’s family some compensations, and was winding down the inquiry into the matter. The government took no steps to suspend Verma for the length of the inquiry.
Three days before I met Akhilesh, several news outlets reported that the mother of a local journalist in Barabanki had been burned alive outside a police station. I asked the chief minister if ignoring violence against journalists was a way for the government to put pressure on its critics. “In the Barabanki case, the inquiry is still on,” he said. “But from what I know, some family members gave the woman diesel to immolate herself. It did not happen in the police station. If someone outside the station instigates someone to do this, what can the police do? The police do pick up people to create pressure while interrogating, but not this. But since UP is a big state, a political state, there is so much media hype.”
In a state where social identity matters so deeply, police officers’ caste allegiances assume great significance in the daily work of law and order. The number of Yadavs in leadership roles in the state police is significantly out of proportion with its demographics—a bureaucrat in the Uttar Pradesh home department told me that 60 percent of the police stations in major police districts are headed by Yadavs, but the community may be
no more than a quarter of the total population
in the state.
When I asked Akhilesh about the entrenchment of caste allegiances in his state, he disclaimed the issue. “Caste is a problem in the north as well as the south. You have travelled so much. You know that discrimination is everywhere,” he said. “But socialists function without discrimination.”
When Akhilesh was first elected to parliament, his Samajwadi colleague in the lower house was his distant neighbour from Chambal, Phoolan Devi. He said he had no personal memory of Chambal’s caste wars. “I studied in a Christian school, and then a military school, where there were no such divisions,” he said. Outsiders were always more scared by the thought of dacoitry than those who lived with it, he said. “Those rivalries were because of land issues. You must have seen the movie, Paan Singh Tomar?”—the hit 2012 biopic of a National Games-winning runner compelled to turn dacoit when he returned home to the Chambal valley.
He paused for a moment. “But now I have made a lion safari there,” he said with a smile, referring to the project he inaugurated in 2012 in a forest close to the National Chambal Sanctuary. “Instead of dacoits, lions will roam around there. It is a big project, in 3,000 acres. Times have changed.”
I approached the question of the Muzaffarnagar violence from a different tack. Was it now true, I asked, that the party practised strategic, opportunistic secularism, evident even in its approach to rival parties? The Samajwadis had made no major objections to thinly-veiled electoral speeches about “honour” and “defence” that the BJP leader Amit Shah had made during the 2014 campaign. Yet it blocked Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the fast-growing All India Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen, from visiting violence-affected areas in western Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps the party feared that its Muslim supporters would shift allegiance to the MIM, I suggested. “The local administration took a call on the issues of law and order regarding his visit,” Akhilesh said. “We don’t play any role in it.”
According to him, the state’s mixed population posed a problem to the BJP, which had played a deeply divisive political game to make inroads here. “That is why BJP makes all incidents of disagreements into a communal issue,” he said. This answer did not take into account the fact that riots and communal violence almost always occur because of failures or abdications of responsibility from state machinery. “The Muzaffarnagar conversation is over,” he said. “The state has helped in whatever way it could.”
“IT IS NOT THAT THE CM'S OFFICE did not know that large-scale violence was brewing in West UP,” one of the chief minister’s aides told me when we met in April this year. “It was the indecision.” One reason for this may have been the dissatisfaction the government had incurred for a law and order decision it had taken just weeks prior to the mahapanchayat. In late August, 1,698 activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were arrested from across the state for flouting a state government ban on their activities. Those arrested included high-level VHP leaders, such as Ashok Singhal, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and Praveen Togadia, who had managed to reach Ayodhya in spite of the ban. The incident had been messy for the government. “The CM office did not want a similar situation by banning the mahapanchayat,” said a bureaucrat attached to the office.
Figures of the toll of the Muzaffarnagar violence vary widely. Official documents state that the outcome was 60 deaths, seven alleged rapes and 40,000 displaced people. In a public interest litigation filed by a victim of the violence, Mohammed Haroon and others in the Supreme Court, the number of deaths is pegged at over 200. The figures may well vary; bodies of those killed in the violence were being found months after it was all over.
According to a union home ministry report released at the end of September 2013, 247 communal riots had taken place in Uttar Pradesh already that year, compared to 118 in all of 2012. The BJP’s election plank consisted, in part, of sympathy for the Jat community, whose members stood accused of rioting and were up for legal action. It was a strategy that brought the party unprecedented success; it won 71 of the state’s 80 seats, a huge leap over its previous tally of 10. The Samajwadi Party won only five seats, and the BSP none at all. For the first time in the history of independent India, Uttar Pradesh did not send a single Muslim MP to the lower house.
A person who left the Samajwadi Party shortly after the Muzaffarnagar violence told me that the Yadav-Muslim alliance had begun to witness fissures. “Mulayam was known as Mullah Mulayam,” he said. “Akhilesh will be known as Yadav bhaiya.”
But in spite of widespread discontent over the increasing religious violence, Uttar Pradesh’s influential Muslim leaders may still see the party of Mulayam Singh as their best bet. Mohammed Shoaib, a lawyer who founded an organisation called the Rihai Manch, to advocate for the release of those wrongfully accused in terror cases, told me a story that indicated how deep those connections ran.
In May 2013, the 60-year-old Shoaib was staging a protest in his neighbourhood. He was agitating for the implementation of the Nimesh Commission recommendations. The Nimesh report, commissioned by Mayawati but submitted to the Akhilesh government, investigated accounts of police wrongdoing in the case of two young men accused of serial bombings in Varanasi, Faizabad and Lucknow, and arrested in 2007. In 2013, one of them was found dead in suspicious circumstances. The Nimesh Commission submitted its report to Akhilesh’s government, pointing out serious discrepancies in the police’s story of the arrests, and accusing the state police of wrongdoing. Now, Shoaib’s protest was getting attention from the national media.
At his protest, Shoaib got a call from Maulana Fazlur Rehman Waizi, imam of Lucknow’s Teele Wali Masjid, a powerful community voice. Shoaib told me that the imam had called to arrange a meeting with him and Akhilesh. “They were trying very hard that I get a photo clicked with Akhilesh so that I am obliged and co-opted,” he said. “They wanted to end the movement.”
“SP is no different from BJP,” Shoaib continued. “Both of them breed insecurity and pit communities against each other. They need each other to polarise and survive. Like BJP panders to fundamentalist RSS, SP panders to influential Muslim fundamentalists without actually doing anything for the community.”
Back in his office, Akhilesh took an expansive view of communal harmony. He told me that his government’s laptop distribution and ambulance schemes were “the biggest socialist and secular schemes.” I asked him what he meant by socialism. “We have distributed laptops to children from all castes and religions without discrimination,” he said. “The moment you have access to internet, you create a platform for information. People who never thought they could have laptop now do. The centre recently inaugurated its Digital India scheme, gave a laptop to a woman. I saw the pictures and said, in UP, we have already distributed 16 lakh laptops. There is not a single village in UP where Samajwadis have not given a laptop.”
He was a young chief minister clearly depending on technology to fast-track his plans for development, I said. What reason could he have for refusing to visit Noida, one of the most urbane, tech-friendly environments in his state?
“Noida mein kya hain?” (What is there in Noida?) he said. “Koi jaata hi nahin hain” (Nobody goes there at all). I pushed him a little about the fear of the Noida jinx. “No, it is not that,” he said in English, and switched again to Hindi. “These things have been said for many years now, that the same government and chief minister do not return to power if they visit the place. Sometimes, we should pay heed to these things for our own good.” He repeated this for emphasis. “For our own good, we should pay heed.”
An earlier version of this story referred at one point to Anita Singh as chief secretary; to Nakul Dubey as minister of education during a 2008 protest; and to Ram Murti Verma, the suspect in the Singh murder case, as minister of dairy development. It also mistakenly referred to Kawal village as the site of a Jat mahapanchayat. The errors are regretted.