A Huffpost-CVoter snap poll has confirmed ground reports from Uttar Pradesh, that youthful chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is gaining in popularity with every round of fighting in the Samajwadi Party's first family. In fact, last week's ugly screaming match between Akhilesh, father Mulayam Singh and uncle Shivpal Yadav in full view of a party gathering in Lucknow seems to have added several percentage points to Akhilesh's already soaring image. His popularity ratings were up by 6 percent, from 77 % in September to 83 % in October, according to the poll.
Akhilesh has clearly fired the imagination of a younger generation of voters, particularly the more educated and aspirational ones, as the harbinger of cleaner, development-driven politics. By taking on SP's old guard, as represented by his father and uncle, he has successfully positioned himself as an agent of change.
Unfortunately, winning a popularity contest does not necessarily yield electoral dividends. It is important to remember that Akhilesh's popularity is high in comparison to his ageing father and an uncle, both of who have come to symbolize the twin evils associated with SP – corruption and goonda raj.
To get a proper sense of where he stands in the electoral battlefield of UP, Akhilesh's political standing must be juxtaposed against that of his opponents.
To get a proper sense of where he stands in the electoral battlefield of UP, Akhilesh's political standing must be juxtaposed against that of his opponents, the main ones being BSP, which has a formidable leader in Mayawati, and BJP, which seems to have decided to fight the upcoming elections with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its face. The bigger picture is an overwhelming reminder that the young chief minister has a long haul ahead before he can encash his image for victorious votes.
His chief handicap in the battle for UP is that he does not control his party. His popularity may be high but the levers of power in the party are firmly in the hands of uncle Shivpal, who is the UP chief of SP, and father Mulayam, who is its national president. They, not Akhilesh, will take the most crucial decision at election time, which is the distribution of tickets.
SP circles are bracing themselves for a major showdown when the time comes to decide nominations for next year's polls as Akhilesh and Shivpal vie to corner the lion's share of tickets for their supporters.
Akhilesh's attempt at brand creation, his November 3 yatra and his US election style campaign video, featuring himself, his wife and kids without any mention of his father, are all part of a pressure building exercise in anticipation of the upcoming tussle.
Akhilesh's attempt at brand creation, his November 3 yatra and his US election style campaign video, featuring himself, his wife and kids without any mention of his father, are all part of a pressure building exercise in anticipation of the upcoming tussle. While Mulayam cannot ignore his son's popularity among SP voters, it is unclear how much he can accommodate Akhilesh's demands at the cost of annoying Shivpal. Indeed, even if he wants to, Mulayam may not be in a position to overrule his brother. The explosion in the family underlines the weakening hold of an ageing patriarch whose health is failing.
Realising this, Akhilesh has been toying with the idea to float his own party. Reports from UP indicate that he and his main advisor and backer, Mulayam's cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, have been exploring options for some time now. They have been in touch with constitutional experts. Ram Gopal even visited the Election Commission recently, apparently to clarify rules and regulations governing new parties, the allotment of symbols and other issues that come into play at election time.
Ram Gopal even visited the Election Commission recently, apparently to clarify rules and regulations governing new parties, the allotment of symbols and other issues that come into play at election time.
They have also been in talks with other parties, namely Ajit Singh's RLD, Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and the Congress, about a possible grand alliance to fight the BJP. It is significant that Congress leader in charge of UP, Ghulam Nabi Azad, as well as Nitish recently praised Akhilesh. This was seen as a positive response to feelers from the Akhilesh camp.
It is in reaction to these moves that Mulayam has suddenly warmed to the idea of a grand alliance too. In a bid to pre-empt his son, he dispatched Shivpal to Delhi to meet Ajit Singh and JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav. The ostensible purpose of the visit was to invite them to attend SP's anniversary jamboree on November 5 but Shivpal is believed to have also conveyed that SP was willing to consider a grand alliance on the lines of the Lalu-Nitish Bihar model to fight the BJP in UP.
Even as Akhilesh tearfully protested that he has no intention of splitting his father's party, it is clear that he and Mulayam are engaged in a cat and mouse game to out-manouvre each other.
All this does not augur well for either SP or Akhilesh. A split in the party will confuse and divide the Yadav clan. The elders remain loyal to Mulayam even as their children gravitate towards Akhilesh. As for other constituents of SP's winning social alliance in 2012, notably Muslims and non-Yadav OBCs, all of them are likely to be on the lookout for alternatives as they watch the turmoil in the family.
Akhilesh may not gain much in the upcoming election then. But age is on his side. If he stays the course and builds on the popular goodwill he has garnered over the past couple of months as he took on the old guard, he could gain momentum in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls leading into the next assembly election in UP in 2022. Mulayam and Shivpal are the past. Akhilesh can be the future is he has the patience and the mettle.