In a significant development that could turn the tide of the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Election Commission on Monday recognised the Akhilesh Yadav faction as the official Samajwadi Party, allowing it to retain the bicycle symbol. It has confirmed the perception among many that the UP Chief Minister has managed to consolidate his position at the helm of the party ahead of his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. In the ongoing feud with the old guard led by his father, Akhilesh has sought to project an image of a dynamic leader of his generation, who wants to move beyond the traditional mould of Muslim-Yadav identity politics that has defined the old guard. He has also managed to build up perceptions among the electorate that he espouses clean politics and seeks to stem the influence of law breakers, an evil which was considered synonymous with the party. With Modi’s development mantra achieving major hits since the general elections (except in Delhi and Bihar) the Yadav scion seems to have read the writing on the wall. Supporters of Akhilesh claim that he wants to change the perception of the party, articulating the politics of development and empowerment. After the relative success of the free laptop scheme, which was announced before the 2012 Assembly elections, the UP government has this time gone on to a float a free government-sponsored smartphone programme. The messaging is quite clear. In its adverts, the Akhilesh government has said that the smartphone would facilitate faster dissemination of government information and provide an accessible platform for availing of the various utility services electronically. Again, the ideas of empowerment and development remain core to his message. Moreover, in the past year, the UP Chief Minister has carried out an extensive presidential-style public relations campaign to build his brand based on critical development and social welfare projects undertaken by his government. Reports from the ground seem to suggest that public sentiment is in favour of Akhilesh, although not necessarily the party. By consolidating his position in SP, the overriding perception now seems to be that the party may defy anti-incumbency.
Following the Election Commission’s decision, an announcement by senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad that his party would fight the upcoming elections in alliance with the ruling SP could prove to be another shot in the arm for Akhilesh. For the past two decades, the Congress has remained politically insignificant. So why would the UP Chief Minister covet an alliance with the grand old party? Despite all the talk of development and empowerment, the politics of identity and patronage remains a major factor in electoral outcomes. In allying with the Congress, Akhilesh has sought to send a signal to the Muslim community that despite the current split in his party, the alliance presents a genuine secular alternative to the BJP among a whole host of parties seeking their vote. With nearly 19 per cent of the population, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh constitute a significant segment of the electorate. Of course, research suggests that the Muslims do not necessarily vote en masse for a single party. But this has not stopped parties from seeking a significant share of the community vote. This is beyond cold arithmetic calculations and more symbolic of the message Akhilesh aims to send to the community. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party has given an incredible 97 tickets to Muslim candidates in a bid to carve out a Muslim-Dalit alliance. It’s hard to tell how the Muslim vote will be split amongst the parties this time. Beyond the Muslim vote, Akhilesh wants to win over a small fraction of the loyal Congress vote, which is primarily made up of a segment of upper castes and Dalits that have not gone for the SP in the past. Reports indicate that the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal will also join the SP-Congress alliance. In the last general elections, the RLD had to surrender its citadel of Western UP to a BJP, riding high on the Modi wave. Leaders from the RLD now believe that voters from the rural Jat community who had switched sides to the BJP in 2014 are now returning to the fold, although it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of this claim. For the Congress, an alliance with the Akhilesh-led SP is essential for its survival in the state. As a pillion rider on Akhilesh’s cycle, the Congress will settle for fewer seats. In a state, where it has been out of the corridors of power for 27 years, the party is seemingly happy just to regain a foothold in the state.
One worry for the potential grand alliance is that they have not released their list of candidates. Despite making a lot of noise, their campaign has not necessarily gathered any real momentum. Finally, Mulayam Singh might end up playing spoilsport, notwithstanding his son’s assurances that he remains the face of the party. After the Election Commission’s decision on Monday, the party patriarch played the Muslim card and accused his son of sending out “anti-Muslim” messages through his official appointments. “I always advocated the interest of Muslims. When I ensured the appointment of a Muslim as the state Director General of Police (DGP), Akhilesh did not talk to me for 15 days. He did not want any Muslim on this post. It sent out an anti-Muslim message,” he alleged. Again, it is hard to discern whether the current split in SP will divert a large segment of its Muslim vote to the BSP. To prevent the possibility of his father playing spoilsport, Akhilesh has made clear attempts to reach out and resolve their differences through Tuesday. Watch this space for more.