India: THE DAREDEVIL SOCIALIST
Akhilesh is Hercules of Indian Socialism.
By Frank Huzur in Lucknow
Wrapping up the mega-marathon series of whistle-stop campaigning from wheel to walk, cycle to chopper, young Indian socialist Akhilesh Yadav has not only rejuvenated smirking Socialist Party of India (Samajwadi Party) in the course of cantering 9000 kms in the dustbowl of Uttar Pradesh, the charismatic heir apparent has also raised the bar for others who want to become Hercules of politics.
He is only 38 years old. For the minefield of Indian politics, any age below 40 could be a gawky position to start the race. Worse for dark and stormy politics of Uttar Pradesh, it could be like having two left feet and two left hands. This is the heart of India, where six Prime Ministers have sharpened their political grammar skills and polished their realpolitik positions. In the spring of 2012, he is nimble-footing the pedal of bicycle of Indian socialism. The young warhorse talks softly and walks briskly. His hello on mobile phone is heavy with scent of honey-jar happy expression. Any punctuation in conversation is dotted with solemn, quick-wit humour and big smile. The smile shorn of scowl, sneer and smirk! Happy expression falls in torrents when he appears in the crowd. In the midst of mammoth public rally, his right hand rises in gentle whip to greet each of the expectant eyes. His strong personal charm lifts the spirit of the crowds when his left hand joins the right hand to offer a salute of delight and dignity. The red socialist cap, sitting prettily on his sheaf of cropped black hair, puff up the picture of pride and joy. When he rides his cycle, he shuffles his blackberry between his right and left hands like a trapeze artist, shooting messages to socialist cadre through facebook statuses and tweets. His statuses on facebook are mission statements. He tweets to tease the tweeple. Facebook and twitter are his gravy train. Akhilesh considers internet as a strong force of democracy. The tech-socialist is an adventurer in his own rights. Undoubtedly, he is the politician who takes risk.
He steers the wheel on shiny stations of virtual world as ingeniously as he rides bumpy roads of villages and towns. A swelling army of socialist cadre dotes on him. They address him by many affectionate titles, Bhaiya (dear brother), chhote Netaji (veiled reference to his father, socialist patriarch who is hailed as Netaji, dear leader) and samajwaadi yuvraj (the socialist heir apparent). This is Akhilesh Yadav, the state president of Socialist Party of India, Samajwadi Party, and a man of the moment in the battleground UP elections for more than one reason.
So, what violent gust of wind has propelled a shy, simple and smooth talking young socialist politician into the centre of national and international attention? Six months ago when he was bracing for the big battle on snazzy red motor chariot of revolution (Kraanti Rath), Indian media was guarded in its judgment. Far from being a toast of mocktail discourses in neon-lit salon of New Delhi and Bombay, he was dismissed by heavy list of opinion makers and mediaratti as ‘son of his father’s socialist palace which was pockmarked with un-sophistication and complex legacy. The blue bars of corporate Indian media didn’t give him a notch above the ‘darling dynast of Gandhi family,’ Rahul Gandhi, the 42 year-old man billed as the original heir apparent. In bewildering contrast, the arc-light on Akhilesh wavered and he was just a naïve member of Parliament, unschooled in guile and stratagem of power politics though remembered and acclaimed in certain political quarters for his guileless, artless and unaffected manners.
Rahul Gandhi had proved cynics in 2009 General Elections that he was not a Peter Pan. Only three springs later, he began to belie the expectations. In Uttar Pradesh election campaign, he was an angry man, rolling his sleeves beyond the elbow in fit of rage-fight. Quite a bunch of youngsters applauded his desperate act when he tore into a piece of paper, claiming he was tearing the list of promises of Opposition parties but media camera zoomed in to expose he was tearing the paper bearing the name of Congress party members. The young socialist Akilesh had the last laugh when he quipped on his campaign trails that Rahul might jump off the stage by the time electioneering comes to a close. Humour is the high point of Akhilesh’s electoral campaign. Rahul’s antic was ridiculed as a public stunt. Akhilesh’s spontaneity and retort amused press and public alike. Little wonder, his comments drew nation-wide attention.
Rahul’s each public appearance was a television spectacle whereas Akhilesh’s toiling on his cycle and chariot in villages and towns was a blank grain on the television screens. Akhilesh was, however, austere in his resolve. He was stirring a quiet revolution in hearts and minds of hungry eyes and broken hearts of rural hinterland. There was a long road to walk before he could accomplish his starry dreams. His party so assiduously crafted in homes and hearths of 200 million people of Uttar Pradesh by his father Mulayam Singh was in shambles in the summer of 2007. The party was badly mauled at the husting. Its reputation hit rock bottom for some monstrous allegations of hooliganism, retrogressive public policies, such as anti-English and anti-Computer public posturing, not to speak the mounting assault on socialist charter of the party from left, right and centre. Gerrymandering was the constant refrain from the vast swathe of opponents. English has been used to target Indian socialsits in the past. Mulayam, the socialist stalwart, himself was an English teacher at school.
Akhilesh busted the myth by unleashing a hi-tech campaign. Enthralling young electorates who have swelled by over a million in the province, he announced laptop and tablet to higher secondary graduates in a stark departure from anti-automation image of the socialist party. Further icing on the cake was the splashing of party advertisements in English on English dailies. The caravan of change doesn’t stop here. He questioned crown prince of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi’s ridicule by saying why doesn’t he canvass in English when he had raised the issue of Akhilesh’s command of English and provoked voters by saying that Mulayam doesn’t want them to learn English while he has got his son Akhilesh to learn English. Akhilesh was pumped up the next morning to give a befitting reply. He told the national press, “The Socialists are neither anti-English nor anti-machine. They want people to learn English as contact language or link lingua franca. But the software is available in vernacular languages, Hindi and Urdu, so they can make most of it. In China, France and Spain, people are proud of their mother tongue. Why should we feel inferior about our mother tongue?”
The Amar Singh phenomenon had created a wedge among several socialist stalwarts, including Azam Khan, a firebrand Muslim leader and others. Only to burn more holes in the socialist bandwagon, Akhilesh was shaken with the unexpected defeat of his better half, Dimple, in October 2009 bye-elections in his own bastion, Firozabad, the city of bangles. The defeat at hands of Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party left socialist ship sailing in the sunset of its confidence. The fiasco of Firozabad was a personal tragedy. Akhilesh was badly afflicted with Rahul’s decision to campaign during elections. For the man who may not be a deity dancer, it was an act of god. Hereafter he drew the battle line and resolved deep within to set on the silent voyage of resuscitation that would surprise people and pundits alike over the next couple of years.
The challenges before the young socialist were herculean. He was hoisted in the office of state presidency by his father and told in no uncertain terms to reverse the setback. Debacle, actually, was a blessing in disguise for Akhilesh. When I met him in 2009, he was on the ball with arrows of assault. He told me, “I’ve known defeat, suffering, struggle, loss and have found my way out of the depths. Come what may socialism will not die in India. I will meet people with fresh set of ideas and programmes and reinvent socialism to wipe out their fears and despairs.”
The way he toiled in the past three years has left political observers in India with their foot in the mouth. An environment engineer by degree and training from Mysore and Sydney, he set the ball rolling by launching mass engagement with young and old on the social network sites. No other Indian politician could connect with so much felicity and fruition as Akhilesh did. Indians are crazy about their fortune stars. Being a son of ex-defense minister of India as well as three times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh had its head-start as well as hiccups but he shed the cloak of being a socialist patriarch’s son and began to communicate with netizens in their lexicon, like a boy next door. Even when he was soaking in the scent of mustard flower and sugar plantations in the green fields of farmers as well as courtyard of peasants in Bundelkhand who are trapped in sinkhole of debt, drought and distress, he kept parity with learning and unlearning lessons.
Slowly and steadily, he was marking out the path of his revolution in neat details. He had eyes on everything, from recording of socialist jingles to the designing of poster, bill, bunting and flags of the party. He would quip sometimes to me, “The devil is in the detail. Socialism is not only about economic equality and caste and class-free society. It is also about smart dressing and physical drills. I am a fitness fanatic. So I want every single person to work as much on fitness regimen as on his economic and social responsibilities. Flags are first stop. They are as good as the face of leader.” Like a polymath, he handles everything from designing of posters to mapping the path of his political journey on tablets.
I recall an interesting commentary of Imran Khan about Rahul Gandhi in the summer of 2008. During my visit to Pakistan I was interviewing legendary cricketer-turned-politician for his biography. Imran had read in Pakistani papers about Rahul Gandhi’s visit to a Dalit home where the Gandhi scion spent the night on the stringing cot under the dark Sun. The leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) was infatuated with the taste of Rahul. He told me that Bilawal Bhutto should learn politics from Rahul Gandhi. Today when I look back at Akhilesh’s political pilgrimage, I wonder whether Imran would exercise discretion in branding the banal value of political histrionics. Mass engagement is the epitome of parliamentary democracy. If at all Bilawal has to carve a niche in politics, the Oxford-student son of slain Benazir Bhutto would learn quite a lesson from Akhilesh Yadav.
Akhilesh has been eating his meals cooked by a Dalit for years but he never advertised the identity of his kitchen captain. Especially in Uttar Pradesh, where identity politics trumps merit of all hues, the young socialist could have chosen to scream from the rooftop but it was quite a non-issue to him. It was a humane issue for him. He wonders, “Why should a Dalit home and meal become an issue? It is about the intentions. Somewhere intentions of advertisers of having slept and taken food of a Dalit are suspect. Dalit are as much human as anybody else. Why make a political capital out of eating at a Dalit’s home? I have been eating Dalit-cooked meal for a decade.”
Dalit, the black-skinned aboriginal, often abused as untouchables, have been victim of ‘social segregation’ in the Hindu-caste pyramid. They constitute around 25 per cent of Indian population but have been subjected to social discrimination on the lines of apartheid in Africa. Mulayam Singh Yadav forged an unbeatable alliance with a Dalit icon Kanshi Ram in 1993. The consequence was storming to power with two-third majority but the marriage couldn’t last beyond eighteen months. The endgame was a chess game at the altar of exigencies of politics which only harmed the greater interests of Untouchables and socially and economic backward classes. The unity was casualty of ‘divide and rule’ politics. Nevertheless, socialists are the only political umbrella to display noble-intention in transcending the caste pyramid.
Akhilesh volunteered to award tickets to some bright and promising candidates from both upper and lower castes, including Cambridge alumnus Abhishek Mishra and host of others. He engineered a path-breaking breaking out with the stigma of Yadava-Muslim constituency. Besides, he also built solid bridge with Muslims by inducting vivacious young, educated Muslim faces like Naved Siddique, a radio jockey and others like Nafis Ahmed. His father has lived with the epithet of ‘Maulana Mulayam’ (Cleric Mulayam) for decades after he ordered firing on band of Hindu-caste Kar Sevaks atop dome of Babri Mosque on 30 October 1990.
I was running around with Akhilesh in the first two rounds of revolutionary chariot journey in the middle of September, 2011. His father had launched his maiden chariot journey in November of 1987 from Jalaun in Bundelkhand, which catapulted him into power corridor two years later. What actually struck me during the chariot journey was the ever-swelling surge of privileged and underprivileged to steal a glimpse of him wherever he stopped for the power-punch address. He was not a star of Bollywood or Indian cricket world. Yet, his drawing power was spectacular and it had astonishing influence. His address would be brief and on the boil, “I will give employment allowance to every single unemployed. Our last government gave special allowance to girl who coveted higher education. I will finish the cycle of unemployed father in the age of inflation and price hike. Let us bring back pride and glory of socialism.” In the past 180 days, the promise of employment allowance has galvanized the huge number of jobless youth, who have flocked to register their names on employment exchange offices in various districts. Their affirmation in the leadership of Akhilesh continues to baffle observers.
The chariot would run and stop as and where scheduled stops were determined. Akhilesh would rise on the top of the chariot in the hydraulic lift and address the surging crowd in simplicity and sincerity. Once inside the chariot he would continue to look beyond the window and wave in revolutionary spirit imbued with smile and self-gratification. Just as his gaze would fall on a struggling worker fighting for his attention, he would ask the assistant for grinding halt of the chariot and immediately order his security men to bring that particular surging worker in the crowd to the chariot. There were countless occasions in Unnao, Kanpur, Rae Bareli, Jalaun, Laliltpur, Jhanshi and other areas of Bundelkhand where Akhilesh ordered unscheduled stops of the chariot to mingle with starry-eyed ladies and gentlemen.
Akhilesh is not a demonstrative politician. I can quietly argue he is the most reading politician. For the past few years he has been quietly reading about Bolshevism, Fabianism, Leninism, Maoism, Marxism, collective ownership, collectivism, communism, state ownership and biographies of a host of socialist stalwarts. Albert Einstein intrigues him as much as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In his view, Einstein was one of the towering socialists. Einstein picture with his bicycle thrills Tipu like a child is thrilled with his desirable toys. Tipu is the nickname of Akhilesh. Behind the red curtain, he was learning about the levers of social security, social Darwinism, social hierarchy, social psychology, social distortion and social health wellness while he was comparing communism, capitalism and socialism. It is true that one of India’s top brass billionaires Anil Ambani is a family friend of Akhilesh. Still later, the young socialist knows that capitalism is an economic system where all business, production, and distribution are owned by private individuals or corporations who then use the profit earned to reinvest in their companies to promote the fundamentals of free market systems. However, Akhilesh believes in command system where both socialism and communism mingles to set the stage where government owns all property rights and also makes all the decisions. In a way, he wants the government to own all of the business firms and produce what the government deemed necessary, especially where peasantry welfare is concerned. And, India is an agricultural country and the socialists draw maximum support from the farmlands. There are skeptics who argue equal opportunity society is not conceivable under socialistic umbrella because there are not enough tax revenue to pay for the large number of social programmes, especially pro-young men and women policies.
When Akhilesh began his most coveted political journey a decade back, his socialist party, Samajwadi Party, was began to shed the cloak of alleged ‘antiquated and archaic organisation.’ For next seven years he remained in the larger shadows of his stalwart father. The last couple of years would allow him to execute a series of dreamy ideas, from scientific socialism of Acharya Narendra Dev to tech socialism he himself envisioned in synchronization of his father’s pro-farmer politics. He was determined not to let the party stay in the closet. With the onset of the spring, he has achieved a turnaround even his bitterest baiters didn’t conceive. Whether he wins or loses, he has registered his presence in an emphatic way. The environmental engineer has astutely rejuvenated the socialist campaign in India’s most populous province, which is reputed for paving the way for coronation in New Delhi. The man who could engineer the u-turn in the fortune of Socialist party can as well impact the fortune of New Delhi’s Coronation Street in 2014. He is the original heir apparent of the Socialist bandwagon and radiates the promise and potential to rule not only a province but the country in future. In his daredevilry socialist politics, Indian hinterland is cherishing the birth of a new mass leader.