LUCKNOW/SITAPUR/KHERI — On Monday, Colonel Pradeep Srivastava and his co-pilot Captain Aditya Parmar had readied the state-of-the-art chopper that would take Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to seven rallies in seven hours, his most hectic day of campaigning for the U.P. Assembly polls yet.
While they waited, the veteran pilot and the young captain chatted about everything other than politics --until this reporter joined them. "Did you find anything similar between Modi and Akhilesh," I asked Srivastava, a former army pilot, who has flown several leaders including Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee. "They're sensible, polite and firm guys. They are punctual and extremely serious about what they are doing," he replied.
The 43-year-old chief minister was set to speak at Sidhauli, Misrikh, Maholi, Lakhimpur, Sevata, Mehmoodabad, Biswan, seven Assembly constituencies all having sitting lawmakers from the SP, but not without tensions and dissensions. The flying time of 10 to 20 minutes between each stop meant that the helicopter would land and take off 14 times in seven hours. "This could be hectic," said Srivastava, scrolling down the day's itinerary.
The five-seater helicopter was stocked with bottles of water, fruit juice, chips, energy bars, sweets and mints. Food from the CM'S house preceded him. There were cheese sandwiches in Chhappan Bhog boxes as well as homemade parathas, aloo sabzi and green pickles. The norm, Srivastava told me, was for everyone on board to share the food.
A fleet of white cars signaled the arrival of the CM. Surrounded by his staff and commandos, kurta-clad Akhilesh took long strides across the tarmac towards the helicopter.
Even before getting into the logistics of the day's trip, the CM asked Parmar whether he was okay. The captain had suffered a minor injury to his face after a bird had entered the helicopter on their last trip. "One bird came and met him, last time," the chief minister told his staffers who giggled politely. Suppressing a smile as he closed the door, Parmar told Akhilesh, "We have seven points today, sir." "Yes, lets do this quickly," replied the CM, pushing back his hair and rolling up his sleeves.
Akhilesh Makes The Contest About Himself
As the helicopter lifted smoothly off the ground, Akhilesh turned to me and smiled broadly. "All well? You will see a lot today. I hope it is a good experience for you," he said, speaking over the din of the engine.
There were no airs about the young CM who leads India's most populous state of 200 million people. His replies to my various questions were to the point. His criticism of opponents was measured and laced with humour. At one point, while scrolling through the news alerts that popped up on one of his two i-phones, Akhilesh said, "So what is Modi ji saying today."
It was only in the last two years of his five-year tenure that Akhilesh started coming into his own, positioning himself as a development-oriented leader with a clean image and also proving himself to be a shrewd politician. In the family feud that erupted in the run up to the U.P. Assembly elections, Akhilesh emerged as the undisputed leader of the party, sidelining Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shivpal Yadav, his father and uncle.
With less than a week for people to vote in the U.P. polls, Akhilesh is shouldering a marathon campaign on his own. The family feud may have eliminated the competition inside the party but it has also shrunk the pool of star campaigners. While Mulayam is blowing hot and cold, Akhilesh keeps his uncle at arms length.
When I asked him about the feud, the CM said that it was time for everyone to move on. "In politics, you have to take a decision at the right time. Not before, not after. Now that it is decided we are going with it," he said.
In politics, you have to take a decision at the right time. Not before, not after.
On being asked if he enjoyed campaigning, he said, "You don't really enjoy a campaign. But if there is a big crowd then it feels good. A campaign is always tough."
Every time we came in for landing, Akhilesh would marvel at what looked like a sea of humanity kept at bay by the khaki-clad police personnel. When the CM got down, he circled the helicopter once, waving to the crowds that strained at the barricades. It was to the slogans of "Long live Akhilesh Yadav and "Long Live Mulayam Singh" that he rose to speak.
Akhilesh gave speeches on similar lines in all seven Assembly constituencies, covering the achievements of his government and various benefits he had planned for the future, emphasizing pensions scheme and education for women.
While stating the routine, Akhilesh also spoke on the more controversial issues including the law and order situation under his government, the alliance with the Congress, which some deem one-sided or actually harmful, and even his family feud.
In one sentence, the young chief minister told the public that he had emerged stronger from the family feud and he also made himself the focus of the elections. "There used to be five chief ministers, now there is only one standing. Will you vote for that one?" he asked.
There used to be five chief ministers, now there is only one standing. Will you vote for that one?
Akhilesh had his share of funny stories and political jibes. He confided that while he cannot give seven different speeches at every venue, he mixes up the stories. At one rally, the CM narrated the story of a baby who was born while his mother stood in line to withdraw money after demonetization. "The child was named "Khazanchi" (cashier) but actually belonged to the poorest family of the locality," he said.
At another rally, he quipped that the statues of the elephants, which stood in the park built by his rival Mayawati in Lucknow, remained exactly the same. "The elephants which were standing are still standing and the elephants which were sitting are still sitting," he said.
Before heading to the next constituency, he would ask me: "So did you get a chance to speak with the people."
Raveena, 30, who had travelled quite a distance to see Akhilesh on Monday, gushed that she would have gone to America to be at his rallies. "No one has done development like Akhilesh. No one has done justice like Akhilesh. No one has given a voice to the poor like Akhilesh," she said. "He has done work for every woman, for every person, for Hindus and Muslims. He has done good."
DIAL U.P. 100 Over Caste And Religion
Looking out of the helicopter window, Akhilesh pointed to the roads that were built during his tenure and spoke of the roads which he wanted to build. He also talked about his plans for more infrastructure, modernizing the dairy sector and enhancing farmer incomes.
During the course of our conversation, I asked him whether the family feud was a drama that many believed it to be, and whether his transformation had come a little too late in the day.
The first question, he answered in the negative. "This was not a family dispute. You have to understand that. My relations with my father, with my uncle don't change. He's my father and I'm his son. That tradition will always be there. The issue was political. We wanted to focus on development, and they thought that allying with some other people would strengthen us."
This was not a family dispute. He's my father and I'm his son. That tradition will always be there.
Last year, Akhilesh put his foot down when his uncle Shivpal tried to strike an alliance with Mukhtar Ansari's Quami Ekta Dal. To some Ansari is a criminal politician while others see him as a Robin Hood figure who pulls in the Muslim votes.
Behind the applause and cheers which the CM received on Monday, there are local tensions which have origins in the family feud and the SP-Congress alliance. Sitting lawmakers Rampal Yadav from Biswan and Mahendra Kumar Singh from Sevata were denied tickets but have decided to contest. Rampal, who is now running on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket, demonstrates the power struggle between the CM and his uncle. He was removed from the party by Akhilesh only to be brought back and given a ticket by his uncle Shivpal. Then his name was struck off the final list by the CM.
To the second question on whether he had found his voice too late, Akhilesh laughed and said, "Perhaps the feud should have happened sooner."
It was after the fourth stop that the body began to feel the sapping effect of the helicopter ride. The CM advised eating to keep up one's energy level. But any fatigue that one may have felt disappeared at the sight of the Hazrat Gulzar Shah shrine. As one looked down from the helicopter, a slender minaret of the shrine reached for the sky and a green dome shone like an emerald against the blue horizon. This was Biswan, a constituency with a significant Muslim population, and the venue of the last rally of the day.
While Akhilesh remarked on the stunning vista, the veteran Congress leader Ammar Rizvi, who had joined us in the helicopter, explained its significance. "You are getting down at an extremely spiritual place," he said.
While so much of the U.P. elections is based on caste and religious arithmetic, there was no mention of it in Akhilesh's speeches. During our Q&A session in the helicopter, the CM insisted that such factors no longer played a role in electoral politics. "This time it is not happening in U.P. Lives don't improve because of caste and religion. It takes jobs. We are doing politics of development," he said.
Lives don't improve because of caste and religion. It takes jobs.
Speaking at Biswan, Akhilesh acknowledged the various failings of the police such as not responding to calls for help, rude behaviour or petty extortion. He then highlighted the recently launched U.P. 100 service which guarantees that the police will arrive within 20 minutes.
"You know, one lakh people have dialled just to see whether the number works. It works. If you call, there will always be someone to respond to you politely," he told the public.
If you call, there will always be someone to respond to you politely.
At all seven rallies on Monday, this reporter met people who talked about the U.P. 100 service and the U.P. 108 service which guarantees that an ambulance will reach in 20 minutes. It is one of those rare things in the state that has amazed people because it actually works.
Munna Khan, 32, who was standing at the far end of the rally ground in Biswan, said that he regarded Akhilesh more than Mulayam because of these two services. "The ambulance and U.P. 100 service has brought considerable relief to the people. Since the U.P. 100 car has started we do not hear of any bad incidents on the road, in the fields and in the jungle," he said.
The Education Of A Chief Minister
This was the third time this reporter was watching the chief minister in action. The first instance was at the Idgah in the town of Kandhla where thousands of Muslims had taken refuge after the religious violence engulfing the districts of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar in September 2013.
Then, a rather unsure Akhilesh had tried to appease a crowd of thousands of Muslims. His government had failed to stop the riots. The after-effects still simmer. On Monday, the CM said that he had done his best to stop the violence in 2013, but many believe he did not show the resolve needed at the time.
During an interview ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Akhilesh started the conversation by playing the SP's campaign song, 'Mann se hain Mulayam irada loha hai (He is soft-hearted but iron-willed) set to the tune of Billy Joel's We didn't start the fire. He told this journalist that he was trying to reconcile the contradictions and balance the old guard with the new, but it was a struggle. Now he has broken free of it.
Some talk of Akhilesh being a prime ministerial candidate in the 2019 parliamentary elections. He rubbishes that, saying that he does not want to step out of U.P. "Look at Modi ji, he is in Delhi, he cannot work. To work you have to be in the states," he said.
Look at Modi ji, he is in Delhi, he cannot work. To work you have to be in the states.
On Monday, Akhilesh seemed to have come into his own, at the near-end of his first term running India's most populous state. I asked him if he was nervous on the day he wrested control from his father. "Well, yes, a little perhaps. I knew that I was doing the right thing, but I guess it was the uncertainty of not knowing how it would turn out."
As the helicopter headed to Lucknow, Rizvi handed me a bottle of juice. I accepted, not wishing to point out that it did not have a straw. Even though Akhilesh was engaged in another interview at this point, he stopped mid-sentence. He looked around for another bottle and handed it to me. "This one has a straw," he said.
Also on HuffPost India: