If Akhilesh manages to pull it off, he could well acquire the moniker of a centrist Modi.
More than a year ago, labourers began digging the flanks of the widest, but pot-holed road in my colony. Inquiries on its purpose provided little help. Within days, mid-sized concrete blocks were piled up in heaps along the length of the road. These were affixed in two lines almost three feet apart creating lanes on both sides. Negotiating the road became more torturous and as it got constricted, choking traffic flow. Within weeks, the lanes became stretches of garbage dumps and we had no answer to why Rs 90 lakhs — as per the local mill — were spent on the exercise. Everyone presumed that officials colluded with contractors and dished out two-phased contracts — first to fix these concrete blocks and later take these out. Anyone familiar with how public works are executed in the PPP mode would be familiar with this.
A year later, people know why lanes were separated from the road. Roads are being dug up in several areas to demarcate lanes. These will be reserved for cyclists. In poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, where I live, the project is being executed with gusto to demonstrate the government’s success with “development”, the only problem being that they are woefully short of time now. If this was not enough, there are spectacles every other day when fleets of police patrol cars crawl past the thoroughfare with piercing sirens and blazing flashlights. These new black-coloured Innovas and other older-generation cars have Dial 100 emblazoned on them. The crawl through markets and beyond appears similar to Colonel Hathi and his brood’s march in Jungle Book. Clearly, something is being flaunted — in this case the police presence and its new look.
I live in one of the first UP colonies as one drives out of Delhi into Ghaziabad and people here have never seen so many police vehicles at one go. Urban alteration currently underway in UP mirrors the makeover of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s public image. Over the past months just as the state government has gone on overdrive to publicise its “accomplishments”, a concerted bid has been in progress to revive the promise that Akhilesh had been when he stepped into the state’s electoral arena in 2011. He took charge of the Samajwadi Party’s fledgling campaign and given it a badly-needed modernist impetus. It worked in harmony with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s old-style politics and played a significant role in the SP winning the highest number of seats any party bagged on its own since the Congress sweep of 1984.
Though he was chief minister, for the first three years and more in power, Akhilesh played along with old-style Yadav politicos led by his father and uncles. The general perception was he was chief minister only in name and actual power was with his father and his proxies. Akhilesh’s objective, as it unfolded in the past year, was to separate himself from all negatives of the SP. On the face of it, he has succeeded in his objective regardless of the way the current conflict within the party is settled. Before Akhilesh embarked to reinvent and reposition himself, Mayawati was the undisputed front-runner, there was talk that the SP would be relegated to being an also-ran in the two-horsed race featuring the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party. By putting the onus for misses of his regime on Messrs Shivpal Yadav and Amar Singh, Akhilesh has emerged with a fresh face. The reinvention is aimed at attracting transient urban supporters of the BJP, looking for an alternative for reasons ranging from absence of local leadership to thumbs down to demonetisation. In the rural core constituency of the party, Akhilesh hopes to convince them that his is the “real” SP in the case of a split.
In the last year and half, speculation has mounted over potential rivals to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019. Prior to Akhilesh’s rebranding, various names were evaluated — Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, the deceased Jayalalithaa and even Mulayam Singh Yadav, considered then as undisputed chief of the SP. But over the past several weeks, Akhilesh has succeeded in being viewed as potential alternative to Mr Modi by a section of the intelligentsia, including the media. By taking his father almost head-on, Akhilesh has acquired an independent identity, distinct from the elder’s. Regardless of the way the dispute within the SP is settled, Mulayam Singh Yadav will be little but the proverbial marg darshak, with Akhilesh or without.
Akhilesh’s projected modernism, “clean” politics, glib talk and governance ideas which Mr Modi made his hallmark are primary reasons why he is seen as an alternative to Mr Modi. Samajwadi Pension Yojana, Mukhyamantri & Samajwadi Swastha Bima Yojana Health Card, Vivah Hetu Anudan Yojana, Samajwadi Namak Yojana, Samajwadi Smartphone Yojana, Samajwadi Kisan & Sarvhit Bima Yojana are among the schemes publicised by Akhilesh’s faction. These are similar sounding to Mr Modi’s programmes — just substitute Samajwadi with Rashtriya or Bharatiya and Mukhya Mantri with Pradhan Mantri. Why, just as the Modi regime made Vidya Balan brand ambassador of Swachh Bharat, Akhilesh made her the face of his pension scheme.
Akhilesh has secured the position where he stands a chance to be the first chief minister to secure a consecutive mandate in the state after decades by effective marketing and by not harshly criticising Mr Modi over surgical strikes and demonetisation. His “development” strategy is similar to Mr Modi’s. Barring the Agra-Lucknow Expressway and state highways, Lucknow Metro and elevated corridors, there is no major achievement that one can recall. Growth remains sluggish and law and order a matter of concern. Yet, the idea that “he has done a lot” has caught on. The verdict will determine if the era of Modi-Akhilesh variety of branded politics is here to stay and Mulayam-Mayawati style of politics is passé. Arun Shourie famously described the Modi government as Congress plus cow. If Akhilesh manages to pull it off, he could well acquire the moniker of a centrist Modi.