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Friday, 3 February 2012

The man who would be king

The man who would be king

With Uttar Pradesh going to the polls in the next few weeks, Akhilesh Yadav, son of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, appears well set to assume his father’s political throne.Radhika Ramaseshan meets the heir apparent

FATHER, SON AND HOLY WAR:Akhilesh Yadav addresses a rally during his rath yatra
In the last session of Parliament, those who like to follow the nuanced relationship between Akhilesh Yadav and his father Mulayam Singh Yadav noted a change in the equation. Yadav junior, who like others in the Samajwadi Party (SP) reverentially calls his father Netaji and displays no sign of familiarity, marched up to Yadav senior, seated in the Lok Sabha’s front row. Ear plugs on, Mulayam was immersed in the debate of the day. His son pulled off his father’s earmuffs, squeezed himself on the bench and spoke animatedly for 10 minutes or so without allowing Mulayam a word in edgeways. Once done, he left — looking rather chuffed.
Clearly, it was the time for the son to speak, and the father to listen.
In the Samajwadi Party, their relationship has always been a matter of debate and gossip. Once shrouded in intrigue, it appears that the muddled family hierarchy has finally been rearranged before the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Mulayam has anointed Akhilesh as his heir.
For Akhilesh, it’s been a long haul. For years, Mulayam didn’t relate to his elder son, a family source holds. At an early age, he was put as a boarder at the Sainik School in Dholpur. “Mulayam, himself a former teacher, thought his son would do well to grow up in the regimented ambience of a military school,” says the source. After getting a bachelors degree in engineering from Mysore’s Sri Jayachamarajendra College, Akhilesh went to Australia to study environmental engineering.
Even when he debuted as a member of Parliament from Kannauj in 2000, he was barely seen or heard. Everybody was convinced that the “meek” son gave in to his father’s “overbearing” ways.
The speculation was fuelled by the existing power matrix in the Yadav parivar. Mulayam’s brother, Shivpal, a legislator, was the undeclared No. 2. Amar Singh, who introduced the insular family from Etawah to a world of glamour, soft power and bling, called the shots. “Even today, he is an uncle to me, I respect him,” says Akhilesh, unwilling to say why the bonds between Amar Singh and father and son snapped.
It was a 2010 bye-election that challenged the power structure. Apparently, against his wishes, Akhilesh fielded his wife, Dimple — whom he met at a friend’s house in Lucknow and married in 1999 — against Raj Babbar of the Congress from Ferozabad, a seat Akhilesh had won in 2009. “Amar persuaded him to do it,” a source says.
Dimple was routed and the Yadavs were shattered. “It was the worst experience I had in politics. I vacated the seat and my wife lost,” Akhilesh recalls. “I don’t feel like going to Ferozabad — but I will,” he adds.
Amar Singh wielded such influence in the party then that old-timers were dismayed. “The SP became synonymous with cynicism and sleaze. Its cadres became restive. It was time to wield the broom,” says the family source.
Mulayam asked Akhilesh to sweep out the “muck”. First, he sundered the SP alliance with Kalyan Singh’s Rashtriya Kranti Dal that had alienated Muslims from the party. Then Amar Singh was booted out. Operation accomplished, Akhilesh was asked to head the SP in Uttar Pradesh — which is tantamount to being the de facto chief.
Cut to the present. Early one sunless morning at Gajraula’s Merriton Hotel, Akhilesh looks bright in a white kurta-trouser with a black woollen jacket that the youth brigade on his trail is expected to wear. He’s ready to mount the Kranti Rath which will roll down the roads of Sambhal, Moradabad, Amroha and Bijnor. The yatra was flagged off on September 12, 2011, in Lucknow by Azam Khan — Mulayam’s estranged confidant who’s returned to the party — and Shivpal chaacha, to set at rest rumours about intra-party feuds.
After a breakfast of paranthas, vegetables and papayas, he picks up his Bose speakers, iPad, a couple of mobiles and bottled water, and sets out.
The fixtures of flunkeys and “gunners” (UPism for security men) are missing. His aides — men in their 20s and early 30s — relate to him like comrades. “To us he is bhaiyya. If we wish to indulge him, we call him MP sahab and occasionally yuvraj,” says Anand Bhadauria, who heads a youth front.
Akhilesh’s choice of fellow travellers on his chariot is idiosyncratic. At times, it is a stranger who catches his fancy. As the rath tumbles along Sambhal’s uneven roads, a cavalcade of Muslims on horseback keeps apace with it. A middle-aged man falls as his horse bolts. “I want to meet the gentleman. He’s taken the trouble to be with me,” says Akhilesh.
Although there are no loud chamchas, there’s no dearth of paeans. Khalid Mian, who heads Sambhal’s Momin Hak Mashayee, recalls a recent meeting at his village (Sainfayee) when a clutch of teens asked Akhilesh for Rs 20,000 for a football match in Nainital. “He gave the money but later laughed and said they merely wanted to have a good time in the hills. The match was a ruse. But that’s how generous he is,” says Mian.
However, underlying Akhilesh’s easy manner and soft speech is a hard-headed politico who knows exactly who or what serves his political interests best. “Mulayam is gullible; Akhilesh sees through things,” an associate claims.
If he chides a distant cousin, Pinky Yadav, a Samajwadi candidate from Asmoli, for “speaking too loudly about Muslims”, his assertions are manifest in more crucial decisions. He overruled Shivpal’s move to induct D.P. Yadav, the father of Vikas Yadav (convicted for killing Nitish Katara), and had veteran Samajwadi Mohan Singh sacked as spokesperson for questioning him.
In an ambience of moral grandstanding — in which the Bharatiya Janata Party was lambasted recently for embracing Mayawati’s dubious discards — Akhilesh’s gesture has warmed the hearts of the upper castes, otherwise antagonistic towards his party.
As he registers a state-wide profile on a slate relatively unblemished by the Samajwadi’s “criminal” taint, the question being asked is if he’ll be the chief minister if the SP comes to power. Akhilesh is punctilious in his reply: “Netaji will be the chief minister.” Netaji, on the other hand, is ambiguous: “Akhilesh has a lot of other work ahead of him.”
But friends in the know maintain Akhilesh has already pencilled a blue-print that melds Nitish Kumar’s social reforms agenda with Gujarat’s “development” model, topped with his add-ons.
Akhilesh’s economic template, an associate stresses, is underpinned by UP’s heritage and resources. “If it’s Agra, he knows its tanneries have to be developed, if it’s Moradabad, it’s brassware and in Ferozabad, it has to be glassware,” he says.
Lucknow businessman Anuj Poddar cites an example. “I met him once and mentioned that I was from Gorakhpur. He immediately remembered that the Ram Gadthal Lake was lying in disuse. He said a public-private partnership would be the thing for this kind of a project.”
With the elections round the corner, Akhilesh has little time for leisure. But a stickler for routine, he goes on morning walks even during his yatra, says personal secretary Gajendra Singh. In times less demanding, he plays cricket and football with Gajendra — known to him from boarding school — and a rag-tag team of Samajwadis. When in a mood for fun in Delhi, he binges on Italian food which Lucknow doesn’t offer.
Will he be in Lucknow — the chief minister’s centre — or return to Delhi as an MP? It’s a question that even Akhilesh has no answers to.