The importance of being Akhilesh Yadav in this Lok Sabha election

While ally Congress has little say in driving the campaign in UP, Akhilesh has the opportunity of making it work for himself and his party. Can he?
Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.File Photo | PTI

Any discussion around the Lok Sabha election has to begin with Uttar Pradesh. The 80 seats in the state that has given India nine Prime Ministers till date are where any serious poll calculation begins. More so, since the BJP reestablished the primacy of the state on India's electoral map by winning 71 seats there in 2014 and 62 seats in 2019.

Five years on, standing between the BJP and another big tally is Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav. The 50-year-old ex-CM is allying with the Congress this time around.

While the Congress has little say in driving the campaign in the state, confined as it is to the speculation over possible faces in Amethi and Rae Bareli, Akhilesh has the opportunity of making it work for himself and his party. This is especially so because of his appeal as the CM behind the first expressway in UP, the launch of the Lucknow Metro and the distribution of free laptops to meritorious students.

Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
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But the confusion unleashed in finalising his candidates for many seats, coupled with his frantic efforts to emerge as a well-wisher of the Muslims, have made his supporters wonder if Akhilesh has a firm strategy in place ahead of the first phase of polling on April 19.

His recent visit to Ghazipur to offer condolence at the death of Mukhtar Ansari -- a bid to seek the sympathy and support of the Muslim community -- has caused confusion among his supporters who had seen him taking a stand against organised crime and criminals during his chief ministership from 2012 to 2017. It is also pointed out that Akhilesh preferred to stay away from the Ram Mandir temple consecration ceremony but went to comfort Ansari’s family.

The no-truck-with-criminals CM and a lost election

Akhilesh's chief ministership had come after the Samajwadi Party had won 224 seats in the 403-member House in the 2012 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, since the SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav was not keeping well. The young son’s appeal, aided by a state-wide cycle yatra, had been instrumental in ensuring the party’s win then.

He took over as Chief Minister on March 15 -– nine days after the result was announced -- and after reported disgruntlement from many party seniors, and his oath-taking was marked by thousands of people storming the stage constructed for the ceremony. The fiasco damaged tables, chairs, microphones, public address system, flower pots, garlands and the backdrop etc, and made the entire structure come crashing down.

The embarrassment made Akhilesh take an independent stand on maintenance of law and order and he started portraying himself as one dedicated to development. He went to the extent of putting his foot down when veteran leaders of SP wanted to induct another criminal-turned politician DP Yadav into the party fold.

He carried this further in 2016 by refusing to endorse the merger of Quami Ekta Dal (QED), an outfit headed by the then already jailed gangster Mukhtar Ansari, with the Samajwadi Party.

The SP leadership had mooted this move prior to the 2017 Assembly election, but Akhilesh chose to sacrifice these votes calculating that aligning with tainted leaders may outweigh the electoral gains. However, the SP lost the ensuing election in a big way and failed to stage a comeback even in 2022.

Candidate one day, not so the next day!

The coming Lok Sabha election, thus, is a crucial test for Akhilesh where he is under pressure to post good results.

But the frequent change of the candidates in many seats by the SP has led to bewilderment among the workers especially when the responsibility of selecting the candidates has been widely believed to be his. The chaos which was witnessed by changing the candidates in Moradabad, Rampur last week was followed by the Gautam Budh Nagar and Meerut candidates too being changed.

To rub salt into the wounds, the embarrassment was used as an excuse by Jayant Chaudhary, leader of SP’s erstwhile ally Rashtriya Lok Dal, to mock Akhilesh -- since RLD is now an ally of the BJP.

Muslim vote and Owaisi, BSP threat

The latest move by Akhilesh then of cosying up to Ansari can be understood in the context of the Muslim vote, which is crucial in the state elections. The Muslim community is believed to be confused due to the BJP's dominance, the incarceration of Azam Khan, and demise of criminal-turned politicians Atiq Ahmad, his brother Ashraf and Mukhtar Ansari.

In this scenario, Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM has also jumped into the fray as a potential threat to the SP by targeting the Muslim vote. Akhilesh not only visited Mukhtar Ansari's family but also supported the demand for a probe into Ansari's death, while saying that the slain don was a benefactor for the poor. By doing so, Akhilesh aims to consolidate the Muslim vote and counter the influence of AIMIM in the state.

However, the Bahujan Samaj Party has added to Akhilesh's headaches by putting up 10 Muslim candidates so far followed by 10 Dalits and 11 Brahmins. The SP owed its earlier dominance of state politics to effectively using the Muslim-Yadav (popularly known as M-Y) combination in previous elections, but it later started adding leaders from smaller but influential castes.

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The INDIA bloc platform

Joining the INDIA bloc did not mean much as the Congress is struggling for survival in the state, but it gave SP the clout to raise issues such as advocating for a caste census, fighting against injustices faced by STs, OBCs, and Muslims.

Even as Akhilesh Yadav failed to retain his allies especially the Apna Dal (K), RLD and SBSP, he has remained the most visible and vocal opposition leader since BSP's Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi and others of the Congress preferred to stay away from an on-ground presence. For most non-BJP supporters, his appeal lies in a youthful countenance and in his performance as Chief Minister during 2012-2017.

The tale the numbers tell

It is also noteworthy that the SP has maintained a steady vote share in major elections in last ten years and managed to improve its vote share by 10% in the last assembly elections (in comparison to the previous one).

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the vote share stood as follows: BJP 42.6% (71 seats), SP 22.3% and BSP 19.8 - while the SP tally stood at 5 seats, the BSP did not win a single seat.

Interestingly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, SP and BSP contested in an alliance. While the SP got a 18.1% vote share (5 seats), the BSP got 19.4% (10 seats) in contrast to BJP's 50% (62 seats.)

As far as Assembly elections are concerned, the figures of vote percentage and seats won are:

2017- BJP 40% (312 seats), SP 22% (47 seats), BSP 22.4% (19 seats.)

2022- BJP 41.6% (255 seats), SP 32.3% (111 seats), BSP 13% (1 seat.)

Going by the math, the SP has momentum in its favour. Will it stay that way is the big question.

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