There's an apocryphal story about Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of the Samajwadi Party who has thrice been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. When Netaji, as his partymen call him, flies over the state, he can look at the ground and tell you the name of the village, its caste dynamic and who the gram pradhan is.
Flying recently with his son, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, was a different experience. We flew in a chartered plane from Lucknow to an Air Force strip in Gorakhpur, and from there in an helicopter to seven different public meetings in districts Maharajganj and Kushinagar. Akhilesh Yadav looked excitedly at the ground, proudly showing off his familiarity with it.
"That shining highway you see, we made it recently," he would say. "Look at the piece of land there, we have given it to a Buddhist institution. Rajnath Singh had promised them land when he was CM but they finally got it from me. They will build a hospital and educational institutions..." Before we land in Gorakhpur he starts listing what he has done for the district. As we proceed to Maharajganj, he expresses regret. "This is the only district I couldn't make a second visit to in five years."
Akhilesh Yadav is not a match for his father's intricate understanding of local caste dynamics, but the state's development landscape and its budgetary allocations are things he talks about with a childlike sparkle in his eyes.
Critics say that's exactly why he could be losing this election. The rival Bhartiya Janata Party has steadfastly built a support base amongst non-Yadav OBCs, even the swing vote in UP elections. When asked if he lost out in the caste game, Akhilesh Yadav replies: "The BJP used to talk of 'Sabka saath sabka vikas, but now they have enatangled themselves in these things (caste arithmetic). I don't discriminate. Be it expressways or ambulance or laptops or any of my beneficiary schemes, they are not distributed on caste lines. Politics of development kab aayegi?"
He labours the point, insisting there is a "progressive vote" for development. This isn't merely the rhetoric of an incumbent. It is the belief of a populist that people will reward him for tangible benefits they received.
This isn't merely the rhetoric of an incumbent. It is the belief of a populist that people will reward him for tangible benefits they received.
Trouble is, caste and religion are the only two indices with which elections are conventionally read. The Congress alliance helped Muslims tilt towards the SP rather than the BSP, but equally, created a polarising Muslim-Yadav grouping not different from what his father used to do. As a result, the BJP has been trying to create a counter-consolidation, using anti-Yadav and anti-Muslim sentiments. To win the election, the SP-Congress alliance needs to win a little more than the M-Y votes, just a little extra, but it has been difficult to find that incremental vote on the ground.
"I don't think so," says Yadav on the point of M-Y counter-consolidation. "I think - and who knows I could be wrong on 11 March - there's immense transparency these days. I can't lie about development. Everybody knows what I am doing or what I have done. There is some vote in society for good governance and development. It may be difficult to estimate its numbers but it is a progressive vote and this election it's coming to the Samajwadi Party."
In other words, this cross-community "progressive vote" is the incremental figure beyond M-Y. For Akhilesh Yadav, this election is a contest between a new "politics of development" and the old style politics of caste and religion.
Ironically, it was the BJP that managed to own the development card in 2014. In just two and a half years, Akhilesh Yadav has laid claim to it. That a chief minister in Uttar Pradesh doesn't have personal anti-incumbency at all, is a first. Since independence, no chief minister in the state has been re-elected in a successive term. If Akhilesh Yadav wins, it will be a first.
Blue jeans and smartphones
To make that happen, Yadav seemed to put all his eggs in the basket of 'development', a combination of populist freebies and visible infrastructure projects. Anxiety over lost campaign time due to the family feud led him to an alliance with the Congress so as to consolidate the Muslim vote. That drove away some of the cross-community 'Akhilesh' vote to the BJP or the BSP, or so it seems, to journalists who have covered this election, this writer included.
It's not been easy on the ground to find voters other than Muslim and Yadav who said they were voting for the SP-Congress alliance. People in cities and villages were talking a lot more positively about voting for Akhilesh Yadav before the Congress alliance was announced.
But Yadav tells me to notice how many young men in his rallies wear blue jeans, smartphones in hand. Seven times the helicopter landed in seven different assembly constituencies, and each time he marveled at the number of young men holding up their smartphones, flashlights on in broad daylight. For Yadav, the growing ubiquity of blue jeans and smartphones in rural areas is a sign of "aspirational youth". He is obsessed with the power of the smartphone, the ability it gives politicians and governments to reach out directly to people, the empowerment it brings.
For Yadav, the growing ubiquity of blue jeans and smartphones in rural areas is a sign of "aspirational youth".
In these public meetings, as Yadav gave his set speeches -– starting with demonetisation and ending by asking voters to vote him over the candidate -– this writer spoke to the people who had come to attend. It was surprising to find people other than Yadav and Muslim, especially non-Yadav OBCs, who had come to see Akhilesh and insisted they would vote for him.
"You should ask the women in these rallies if they are receiving the Samajwadi Pension Yojana," the chief minister told me. Indeed, the women said they did, and they were from different castes and communities. A group of Kurmi women didn't care if it was a Yadav-dominated party or the candidate was Brahmin. "He gives me Rs 1,500 every three months in my bank account. I buy sarees and food with it. What has Modi given me?" asked one such woman. A Dalit man said he would vote for Akhilesh Yadav because he gave him a bicycle. Shiny red bicycles are seen across UP, given by the government to registered daily wage labourers, many of who happen to be Dalit. Some of these said the SP candidate was no good, he wouldn't even return to the constituency after winning, but they would vote for Akhilesh.
How many such voters are there? It's been difficult to estimate this on the ground because non-Yadav OBCs and upper castes together make up half the population. In any part of the state, most of them said they were voting for the BJP. We are led to this conclusion because caste numbers are the only metric most people use to judge public mood in elections.
If the SP-Congress alliance still beats the BJP, it will, in large measure, be because of Akhilesh Yadav's targeted populism. The backroom offices of the Samajwadi Party have for weeks been calling up the beneficiaries of these schemes and reminding them that Akhilesh Yadav gave them these. Such is the power of freebies that even the BJP has had to promise some in their manifestoes, and Mayawati too has made similar promises.
If the SP-Congress alliance still beats the BJP, it will, in large measure, be because of Akhilesh Yadav's targeted populism.
When asked why there isn't a Bihar-like woman vote in UP, Akhilesh Yadav replies, "We have given Samajwadi Pension to 55 lakh women." In other words, he has tried to create a woman vote, perhaps the most under-reported story this election. When divided by 403 constituencies, that comes to over 13,600 women per seat. Other schemes also seem similarly targeted for different demographic profiles. If pensions target housewives, Kanya Vidya Dhan focuses on young women, laptops on first time voters, bicycles on landless labourers, irrigation schemes and a small farm loan waiver at farmers.
"I am talking about laptops and expressways. The BJP is talking about kabristan and shamshan ghats. The people will decide," says Akhilesh Yadav.
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