Akhilesh Yadav has a formidable challenge ahead of him as the all important UP assembly elections loom Image Credit: AFP

Akhilesh Yadav, 48, Tipu or bhaiyya (brother) was the youngest chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state with the biggest political swag in India. Yadav became CM at 38. UP has 80 Lok Sabha seats and is one of India’s most populous states.

UP is also the bastion of a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The present BJP CM, Yogi Adityanath, 49, is just a year older than Yadav.

Yogi Adityanath recently taunted Akhilesh Yadav with repeated sly references to his “abajaan” — Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has also been multiple term CM of UP.

As Yogi Adityanath made the loaded references to Yadav senior, you knew the UP elections were just months away, six to be precise, and all the principals squaring up in their corners were relying on their traditional sources of strength. In the case of Yogi, a loaded dog-whistle to the minority community in UP.

Yadav is a heirloom politician, a trained engineer with a picture perfect family — wife Dimple Yadav and three children. It is also no secret that Yadav has had a difficult relationship with Mulayam Singh Yadav — the “abajaan” that Yogi referred to.

Yogi vs Akhilesh
UP: It is a head on electoral contest between BJP's Yogi and Akhilesh Yadav, leader of SP Image Credit: AP and ANI

Make or break elections

The upcoming UP elections could be make or break for all the contenders in the fray.

If Yogi wins it will confirm his status as the uber saffron-swathed chieftain who’s next job will be in South block where the prime minister of India sits. It will also give Narendra Modi the wind he needs beneath his wings for a record third term in office and confirm the status of the BJP as the principal party of Indian polity.

With the stakes so high, the battle for UP is do or die for all political parties. Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which he ruthlessly captured from his father and assorted uncles, is currently the opposition that the BJP is eyeing because the SP did well in a series of local municipal polls.

Yadav has previously tasted defeat in UP and the national stage when he took his party into an ill-judged alliance with the Congress party. The BJP wiped the floor as the “UP kei ladke” (UP boys) — the tag line of SP-Congress alliance — lagged behind. Yadav who is considered a “nice guy” across the political spectrum, had conceded a giant slice of tickets to the Congress, which proved to be a non-starter.

A similar alliance with the other regional giant Mayawati and her BSP (traditional rivals of the SP) also saw them biting the dust with Mayawati unable to transfer her vote share to the SP despite her loud claims.

A bitter Yadav wised up fast. He has now ruled out any alliances with large national parties (read Congress) and has already kick-started the campaign for the upcoming assembly elections.

Caste and minority votes

A chastened Yadav knows that he is running out of electoral options, post his serial defeats and if he is unable to hold on to his Yadav vote bank, accreted with Muslim support, the SP’s future is dismal.

The SP’s winning formula has been the traditional Yadav voters along with a share of the Muslim voters in UP. Mulayam Singh Yadav was regularly dissed by BJP as “Maulana Mulayam” — in a reference to the minorities who voted for him.

This time around, Akhilesh Yadav has to convince his traditional voters that he stands for them. The BJP has been denting his Yadav base as it projects the Other Backward Classes (OBC — Yadav and other castes) as a united Hindu vote.

UP, despite all claims to the contrary, is guided by caste votes and currently Yogi Adityanath is tagged with running a “Thakur Raj” (rule of the Rajputs) — his own caste brethren.

This has made the other castes unhappy and restless including the Brahmin voters who had gone all out to support the BJP. Yogi Adityanath’s disastrous handling of the second wave of COVID-19, which saw bodies floating on the Ganga, has also given voters pause.

Biggest battle of his career

Yadav, on the other hand, is battling to get the OBC vote back to the SP. The contest for the Muslim votes in UP will be also with Asaduddin Owaisi, who other players derisively term as the BJP’s “B” team.

Yadav has hit the ground running, which is why Yogi Adityanath is training his fire power on him.

The supposedly disenchanted Brahmin voters are being courted by the Congress and Mayawati, the leader of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Priyanka Gandhi, who remains a helicopter politician, is unlikely to set the Gomti river on fire with Congress’ performance. Mayawati, who is also accused of being the BJP’s silent support, has ruled out allying with any party.

So Yadav knows that this is going to be the biggest battle that he has fought in his political career. A combative Yadav, who dealt ruthlessly with his father, was seen as unable to take on his opponents.

But that may be over. Sample Yadav now — when an editor recently asked him on TV that Yogi wakes up at 4am to work 24/7. Akhilesh Yadav simply punctured him with “how do you know”?

Yadav will need to bring this pugnacity to the big fight of UP.