Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party has been imploding in Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka Gandhi’s episodic visits to the state impress more people in Delhi than in all of Uttar Pradesh. The Congress’ state unit has started a campaign around farmers, which is grabbing no attention or headlines.
There is only one reason the Samajwadi Party (SP) is not to be discounted the way the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are. And that is Akhilesh Yadav’s positive image. Ask the critics of the Yogi Adityanath government what they think might happen in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election, and they will tell you it should be a ‘Yogi versus Akhilesh’ contest.
This sense in the state’s political conversation is giving the Samajwadis some hopes. They are a lot that becomes over-confident the moment it sees a reason to smile. The malaise is similar to the one that the Congress party suffers from – which is the idea that one’s political prospects depend on the political dynamics of the state. The party and the leader can’t do much to change it, barring the formalities: routine press conferences, expected condemnation of whatever is in the news, and a few rallies here and there.
The Samajwadi Party thinks it only needs to say that the Yogi government is doing a poor job, and since Akhilesh Yadav comes across as a serious administrator in contrast to a priest, he should be back in power with the help of a few rallies just before the election.
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Campaign never ends
That’s not how it works anymore. We live in the era of permanent campaigning. The Samajwadi Party did not lose the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election or 2019 Lok Sabha election because people disliked Akhilesh Yadav (though they did dislike his party). The SP did poorly in both elections primarily because it has been a poor campaigner. If you don’t campaign, you don’t win. If your message does not reach the voter, and your opponent’s message reverberates in the voter’s ears with remarkable clarity, why blame the voter for rejecting you?
The SP has its own explanations for its poor performance in three elections in a row. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the ‘Modi wave’ took everyone by surprise, and Akhilesh Yadav was still coming into his own. In the 2017 assembly election, Akhilesh’s real battle was not with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but with uncle Shivpal Yadav — and he won that fight. In 2019 Lok Sabha, the BSP votes didn’t transfer well enough to the SP; more importantly, it was a national election in which the BJP managed to persuade voters to not even consider regional parties.
But now the Samajwadi Party has run out of excuses. There is no explanation about why it doesn’t seem to be doing much these days — beyond the press-conference kind of formalities of an opposition party.
Akhilesh Yadav has been forward-looking as compared to his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncle Shivpal, disassociating the Samajwadi Party from criminals, shedding its Muslim appeasement image and so on. Yet, when it comes to campaigning, he seems to be surprisingly traditional in his ways. He also tends to look for one silver bullet and then become over-confident about it. In 2017, the silver bullet was his development initiatives (the campaign slogan ‘kaam bolta hai’ or ‘work speaks for itself’ failed to give any vision for the next five years). In 2019, the silver bullet was the alliance with the BSP, and the campaign had nothing but its caste calculus to offer.
There is hardly a Samajwadi Party campaign that can be seen on the ground. And those that you see fail to capitalise on the SP’s main asset: Akhilesh Yadav. It’s been eight months since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and the next Vidhan Sabha election is due in about two years. While Narendra Modi and the BJP remain popular in Uttar Pradesh, the same cannot be said about Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (regardless of what a news magazine says). Adityanath is seen as lacking in experience, too obsessed with identity politics to care about people’s grievances, and too reliant on a bureaucracy that’s alienating the public with its corruption and arrogance. Hence, ‘Akhilesh versus Yogi’ seems to be a no-contest.
Akhilesh Yadav seems to be relying on this line of thinking, or so his non-campaigning suggests. Such thinking amounts to counting one’s chickens before they hatch.
The Samajwadi Party has been busy expanding its organisation, a rather overdue process. But what Akhilesh Yadav needs even to just charge up the party workers is permanent campaigning. Gone are the days when you could campaign just a month before the voting and win the election.
Permanent campaigning does not necessarily mean that Akhilesh Yadav has to be on the road seven days a month — though that’s also one model. That’s what Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister, did. But just look at Narendra Modi. Who can say how many votes Modi wins by wooing first-time voters through his focus on exam stress? Who is to say to what extent Modi’s Yoga Day celebrations help him get votes? But that’s what permanent campaigning amounts to and even a young leader like Akhilesh Yadav is yet to adapt to it. The idea that one will ‘begin’ campaigning does not hold anymore. One has to campaign all the time now.
Although the BJP will try its best to make 2022 a ‘Modi versus all’ election, Yogi has been working on his own branding, and it is not limited to ‘showing Muslims their place’ over the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA. His recent Ganga Yatra, for instance, was designed to impress the Nishad community.
That is what it takes to win elections today.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.