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UP Election 2017: Akhilesh Yadav might survive SP feud, but he is battling against time

Can Akhilesh Yadav win the Uttar Pradesh election on his own? Can he survive without the cycle or the blessings of his father?

In every opinion poll conducted in Uttar Pradesh, in spite of the varying projections of seats for different parties, one finding has been consistent: Akhilesh Yadav is invariably the top choice for chief minister’s job.

Since the advent of Narendra Modi in Indian politics, elections in India have become more and more personality-centric, almost presidential in style and nature. Having favourable popularity ratings helps a leader cut through the pack, start off as the front runner.

This was evident in at least three recent elections. First in Delhi, where Arvind Kejriwal’s superior rating, first compared with Harshvardhan and later with Kiran Bedi, helped the AAP sweep the Assembly polls in 2014 even when opinion polls were mixed. Similar trends were visible in Bihar and Assam, where the popularity of Nitish Kumar (JD(U) and Sarbananda Sonowal/Himanta Biswa Sarma (BJP) helped their parties decimate the rivals even when their parties appeared caught in tough battles.

The reason is simple: If a leader’s popularity levels are high, they help him cut through the traditional caste-community-class divides and rise above party affiliations. In a personality-centred election, the face becomes the message and the ideology, not the party.

With elections just a month away, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister has the advantage of being bigger than his own party, and perhaps larger than contenders from other parties. But, can he pull off a Modi/Kejriwal/Nitish Kumar/Sarma/Sonowal in the assembly polls? Can he turn his own popularity ratings into the talking point for voters, the leitmotif of the election?

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. ReutersUttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Reuters
It is apparent from Akhilesh Yadav’s moves so far that he had plotted a coup within the Samajwadi Party several months ago. He was ready for a situation where either the SP becomes his, or he becomes the face of a new party. Around six months ago, he had started an image-building campaign in UP by putting his own face on hoardings, banners and TV commercials, pushing the party, its symbol and his own father and benefactor in the background.

So far, Yadav has succeeded in achieving some of the things he had set out to do. With a massive campaign focussed on his personality, he has towered over other stalwarts in UP politics, including Mayawati and his father. Since the BJP has so far not named anyone as its presumptive CM candidate, voters have not had the option to make a choice. But, the talk within UP — and this may worry the BJP because it is almost identical to the chatter in Delhi two years ago — is that ”Modi ji in Delhi, Bhaiyya ji in Lucknow.”

Also, by waging a public war against Shivpal and hoodlums who got tickets from Mulayam Singh, the chief minister has cleverly shrugged off a bit of anti-incumbency against himself. Like Indira Gandhi in the 60s, he has positioned himself as a crusader against the SP establishment, including his own parivar.

In normal circumstances, the combination of high popularity ratings, absence of, or low, anti-incumbency should have worked for any chief minister facing an election. He should have been optimistic also because of the confusion around demonetisation and its impact on the lives of farmers, daily wage earners, labourers who have returned to villages because of slow-down in economy and traders.

Contrary to popular perception, the biggest problem for Akhilesh would not be his inability to contest under the SP banner, on the cycle symbol. His strategists are confident that if they are allotted a new symbol, they would be able to take it to the hinterland without too many problems. The decision to fight for the ‘cycle’ symbol, in fact, has two objectives: One, obviously, to contest next polls on it. Two, deprive Shivpal faction the option of using it. This, the chief minister’s strategists believe, would not only ensure votes meant for Akhilesh are not mistakenly cast on the traditional symbol but also the demise of the rival SP faction, which, in the absence of established leaders and dedicated workers, would struggle to establish a new identity.

Yet, Akhilesh has too many problems to contend with and too little time to sort them out. The first phase of elections is just a week away from being notified. While most of the parties are in campaign mode, giving final touches to their strategy and candidate lists, the chief minister is stuck in Lucknow, fighting on the domestic front.

Since the rapprochement — or break up — with Mulayam is still not final, there is confusion also about the status of his allies. Nobody knows if he would finally contest alone or with the Congress and the RLD. And since there is still confusion around the future of the speculated alliance, the list of candidates is also in abeyance.

The longer the uncertainty lasts, the more difficult it would be for Akhilesh to hit the campaign trail with all his ammo and allies. Finding his campaign in disarray, not sure of his chances, some of his voters may defect to the BSP and the BJP.

Akhilesh is not just fighting against the three Ms–Mayawati, Modi and Mulayam–in UP. He is also battling time, an enemy that is invincible.

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