The last few months have been among the best for the Opposition in a long time — giving it a plethora of reasons to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. And yet, conspicuous by his silence and the absence of any overt projection of speaking up against his political rivals has been former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Where is the young Yadav? Why is he keeping such a low profile when elections in his state are not even two years away? Why is he not aggressively visible during this crucial time, especially when his last two electoral outings were absolute debacles and he needs to lap up every possible chance to prove his worth as a leader?
Akhilesh Yadav’s problem is that apart from the initial euphoria around him, given his youth and grounded appeal, nothing much has worked in his favour. He became too used to crutches — first his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncles, then the Congress and then the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — and now without a pole, seems rudderless. His ‘remaining in the shadows’ at this crucial juncture isn’t quite helping matters.
While Akhilesh remains on ‘crutches’, an ailing Mulayam Singh Yadav showed up on the first day of the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament.
Rules have changed
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have changed the rules of politics. Working quietly and behind-the-scenes is no longer the norm for any ambitious leader (people like Naveen Patnaik are rare aberrations). One has to be loudly heard and widely seen in this era of hyper-communicative, hyper-visible and hyper-connected politics, especially for someone like Akhilesh, who needs to put his not-so-glorious recent past behind, reinvent himself and project the image of being a strong challenger to the BJP.
Akhilesh Yadav, however, has all but vanished from both news and mind space. Even the more erratic and prone-to-disappearing Rahul Gandhi has managed to sustain an aggressive campaign against the Modi government. The last six months have been all about easy chances to corner the government, and the former UP chief minister seems to have squandered it all away.
Missing opportunities, one after other
This has been among the more difficult phases for the Modi government, ever since it came to power in 2014. There was little ammunition the Opposition had against the government, especially after it changed course, following Rahul Gandhi’s “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe. The other big failures, such as demonetisation, had mixed responses among voters, and hence, were hardly fertile ground for the Opposition. This is precisely why the Congress clutched onto straws like the Rafale allegations, even though they only ended up boomeranging.
The current term, however, has been different — a fast-slipping economy, a health emergency that turned in to a humanitarian crisis, China on the borders, NEET-JEE controversy and the resulting youth ire. The list of issues that Opposition parties could have used to target Modi is fairly lengthy. And this is just over the last six months — the Citizenship (Amendment) Act-National Register of Citizens protests came just before these.
All of these are right up Akhilesh Yadav’s alley. His electoral track record may be less than cheer-worthy, but he has the image of a grounded leader from the heartland. The migrant crisis and the impact of a fumbling economy on the voter should have been taken up by him aggressively and visibly. As a youth leader, job losses and the NEET-JEE anger could have been his best weapons. Akhilesh must know that mere tweets would never suffice.
At the state level, the Yogi Adityanath government’s poor track record on the law and order front should become another important issue for Akhilesh to raise to further his politics.
Lost in the heartland
Akhilesh Yadav seems more lost than in-control. His last visible campaign against the Modi government was over the CAA-NRC issue. Since then, he has retreated into a shell. This is not to say the Samajwadi Party leader has retreated into inactivity. His Twitter handle is active and regular in taking on the government, both in Delhi and Lucknow. He has been present in Lucknow and leading his party from the front, including affecting organisational reshuffles and regularly engaging with his party workers through video calls.
Akhilesh has also been busy trying to rebuild a careful balance of castes coalition and ensure the Samajwadi Party remains the party of choice for the OBCs in the state, especially the non-Yadav OBCs, unlike the 2017 assembly election. His silence is especially more inscrutable as the government debates carving and re-structuring the OBC quota, which can potentially dismantle his voter base.
Uttar Pradesh-based journalists point out how Akhilesh’s entire machinery is lagging. Even the down-and-out Congress and the political baby of the state, the Aam Aadmi Party, are faster and more effective in getting their message across and managing the media, they say.
The Uttar Pradesh assembly election is due early 2022 — about a year-and-a-half from now. This is precious time for Akhilesh because his electoral decisions, political acumen and ability to build his own brand have been under serious question since the 2017 loss. He came to power in 2012 riding on the party organisation and careful caste equation put together by father Mulayam Singh Yadav, not to take away his own charming appeal. In the 2017 election, he found a new pole in the Congress and in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in the BSP. Both these crutches let him down.
The year 2017 proved that mere caste coalitions may no longer be enough to win an election, even in a state like UP, and that you need to add that extra zing that Modi has brought to the BJP. How then can Akhilesh make himself more attractive and appealing to the voter? He should have been seen as hitting the streets. Even the Congress UP chief Ajay Kumar Lallu managed to make a statement with his arrest in the ‘bus-for-migrants’ political drama. The other ‘UP ka ladka‘ Rahul Gandhi, despite his image being far worse than Yadav’s, has put together a strategy to remain relevant and visible with his interviews.
The Indian voter today is exacting, unforgiving and has an impatient and short memory. Akhilesh Yadav cannot afford to remain out of the limelight and be seen as a backstage manager.
Almost a year ago, I had written in these columns an article arguing that the Samajwadi Party chief was on his way to becoming his party’s Rahul Gandhi. Unfortunately, for Akhilesh Yadav, he now seems to be on his way to beating Rahul Gandhi in seeming politically inept and unable to take on the rock-solid BJP.
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