Akhilesh Yadav must be grateful to Narendra Modi. Thanks to the Modi wave that left the SP with only the four Lok Sabha seats on its home turf, Akhilesh decided enough was enough. He went to his father, Samajwadi Party National President Mulayam Singh Yadav, and said it was time he was allowed to run his own government. Until then, it was said the state had five and a half chief ministers, Akhilesh being only the half.
The young Yadav's transformation since the summer of 2014 has been astonishing. A close look at how he has fashioned his government shows he has simply copied the model successfully used by Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Naveen Patnaik and the late J Jayalalithaa.
Akhilesh Yadav is apparently following all features of this model.
Firstly, there has to be visible development and bipartisan populism. Small things that don't cost much money but have high visibility, are great. Such as bicycles and ambulances. In villages across UP, if you ask about Akhilesh Yadav, you will often be told about ambulances. Dial the emergency number and the ambulance is here, people tell you with amazement in a state not used to efficiency.
Also, take up key projects, do them well and get the maximum publicity out of them, such as highways and roads and the Lucknow Metro. Be generous with doles and loan waivers, because people love cash, whether it's in the name of Samajwadi Pension Yojana or any other name.
No matter what the political calculations and alliances, you will hear, in assembly elections in Bihar and Bengal, people praise Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee for development. The same is now true in Uttar Pradesh. Akhilesh Yadav is not facing anti-incumbency. This could not be said about any chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in recent memory.
Secondly, separate the leader's image from that of the party. In Bengal, the Trinamool Congress enjoys the same goonda image as the CPM used to, but Mamata Banerjee is going from sister to mother-goddess for the masses. This is by design: she plays good cop-bad cop. In Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) hardly exists, and it doesn't matter whether Nitish Kumar allies with Lalu Yadav or Narendra Modi. The election is won in Nitish Kumar's name only. Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi, Naveen Patnaik all enjoy an image separate from their parties.
For two years now, the UP government has been propagating Akhilesh Yadav's achievements, not those of the UP government or the Samajwadi Party government. Radio ads tell you how the young chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has come up with a new mobile app to solve some problem or the other. Two chirpy young women discuss the app in the add and conclude they must thank Akhilesh.
The chief minister didn't have to do much to separate his image from the party, because the divide in the party was well-known even before it became a public wrestling match this year. It is interesting to note that it was Akhilesh Yadav who escalated matters with his uncle Shivpal Yadav by changing the chief secretary known to be close to Shivpal.
Akhilesh clearly didn't feel a confrontation would go against him. He had already won such high public ratings that he felt he had the political capital to take on the old guard. Any move by the old guard against Akhilesh, ironically, helps his public image and thus electoral prospects. Funnily, this means a compromise with uncle Shivpal Yadav is actually not in Akhilesh Yadav's interest. The family feud makes Akhilesh Yadav look like a promising challenger, not a defensive incumbent.
Even if Shivpal Yadav is the party's state president and takes charge of the campaign, Akhilesh is ready with his own parallel campaign. They have separate offices and separate teams. There is a team SP and a team Akhilesh. Even if team SP tries to sabotage Akhilesh, he doesn't have to rely on them, because his messaging to the voters has been distinctly separate from the party's for a while anyway.
Heads I win, tails you lose
Thirdly, having accomplished the above two ideas, there has to be a presidential style campaign. Akhilesh has been doing exactly that for more than a year now. Simply projecting the leader's face is not a presidential campaign. A presidential campaign asks the voter, 'Is Akhilesh god or bad?' On Akhilesh, 'say yes or no'. A presidential campaign fuses the name and image of the leader with the ideas of development, progress, and everything else the voter desires. The party, the local candidates, caste calculations, everything is sought to be made secondary to the question of 'Akhilesh good or bad?'
Such a campaign can be defeated only if another party has a leader taller, more popular than you.
This is the Congress party's strategy with Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, this was the Modi campaign strategy in 2014, this is how Nitish Kumar won in 2015.
Fourthly, negative campaigning should be minimal. The chances of winning with a negative campaign are low. Candidates who indulge in negative campaign appear frustrated, lacking in confidence, sore losers. Positive campaign actually offers something to the voter, something more than 'the other candidate is bad'.
Modi won when he did positive campaigning – turning Mani Shankar Aiyar's 'come and sell tea' insult into 'Chai pe Charcha'. Modi lost when he did negative campaigning – he began his Bihar 2015 campaign by personally attacking Nitish Kumar, who turned it into a 'Bihari DNA' campaign.
Akhilesh is very clear about this. He refuses to say a single word against Mayawati, who he calls his 'bua', a respected aunt. Akhilesh knows saying anything against Mayawati only helps her, as the BJP found out some months ago. Recently, Akhilesh held a meeting of his party's first time MLAs, and didn't say anything to them about caste strategy, or the family feud, or attacking other parties. All he told them was to go and talk about his government's development work. Saying anything else would deflect from the coherence of message that a presidential campaign requires.
Spanner in the works
This strategy has a very high success rate, but only if it is implemented without any loose ends.
In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh's image is hurt by dissension and factionalism within his own party. He is yet to be formally declared CM candidate by Rahul Gandhi. You can't possibly project a leader as a presidential candidate when he is seen as being pulled down by how own people. How will he ever govern?
Similarly, Akhilesh's image projection fails at the final lap. "He is trying," goes the sentiment, "But the elders aren't letting him perform." To be the unambiguous victor in 2017, Akhilesh has to stop appearing as though he is a loser in his own family war. He has to appear to be the winner. Nobody likes to rally behind a man who can't over-power his own ambitious uncle.
In 2013, Narendra Modi was clear, he wanted the BJP to declare him as the party's prime ministerial candidate. Had that not happened, there would have been speculation about the old guard of the party in Delhi trying to stop Modi from becoming prime minister. But the declaration made him look like he had won the first round (like the primaries in the United States). It made him look like a challenger who could win against all odds.
That is why, Akhilesh needs to solve the Shivpal problem. No wonder speculation is rife in Lucknow that one last round of family in-fighting is still due before the polls take place. "We haven't played all our cards yet," an Akhilesh acolyte lets you know.
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