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Lok Sabha 2024: Akhilesh Yadav Fights For Political Relevance

When the author strolled around Saifai, it looked like a moderately prosperous Hindi heartland town.

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(This is the tenth in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters get ready to celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

(Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here, part eight here, and part nine here.)

How a decade is enough to dissolve all the pomp and glory.

The author was here more than a decade ago when there was an air of festivity, celebration, and an unbridled display of political and muscle power. Folks were gigging about the voluptuous dance moves of some starlet who was about to perform on stage the next night.

Banners and hoardings to hail the young chief minister (CM) and his father could be seen everywhere. The public display of an in-your-face assertion of political power was abundantly visible everywhere on the streets.

Yes, we are talking about Saifai, the birthplace of “Netaji” Mulayam Singh Yadav, the town that had become globally famous (or notorious) for the Saifai Mahotsav. This was in late 2013 when Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav was the CM of Uttar Pradesh. The horrific Muzaffarnagar riots had just drawn global attention.

Yet, the SP and Akhilesh looked invincible with a comfortable majority in the assembly and 23 Lok Sabha MPs. Even seasoned and prescient analysts had no hint of the tidal wave of support that the then-ramshackle Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was gathering, set to destroy the aura of the SP and Akhilesh.

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When the author strolled around Saifai, it looked like a moderately prosperous Hindi heartland town. The roads are exceptional and there is a typical bustling market. There is a clear hint of the approaching summer as the sun shines brightly. SUVs careen around the streets, narrowly missing e-rickshaws which seem in no mood to give way. Posters and banners of Akhilesh and Dimple Yadav can be seen in many places.

Dimple Yadav, Akhilesh’s wife, has already been announced as the candidate from the nearby Mainpuri constituency, a seat held by Mulayam Singh Yadav till he passed away. Dimple had comfortably won the by-election held after that. Almost everyone seems to think she will win again. Yet, there is an air of despondency about the future.

Most people are not interested in talking about the Saifai Mahotsav. “Those days are gone. Now, it is a battle for political survival,” says Dinesh Yadav, a man in his 50sm who has been a Mulayam supporter since the days of the Ram Temple movement. But some youngsters do feel nostalgic about the pomp and glory of those days.

Sonu, who prefers to be called Sonu, is in his late 20s. He recalls the 2013 Saifai Mahotsav when he and his friends had the time of their life watching film star Madhuri Dixit dance live on stage. He hopes that those days will come back. At the same time, he admits times are tough for the SP and its supporters. “A double wave, Ram and Modi, is building up once again. We will vote for our candidates. But we can no longer say with complete confidence what the youngsters of my community will do this time."

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For any independent observer, there can be little doubt that Akhilesh Yadav is fighting for political relevance. Let’s look briefly at what has happened since the 2013 Saifai Mahotsav. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept the state and the SP managed to win just five seats in its traditional bastions. In 2017, Akhilesh tied up with the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress party for the assembly elections and was walloped by the BJP.

In 2019, he tied up with arch-enemy Mayawati to halt the BJP juggernaut in the Lok Sabha elections. He failed and the SP tally was stuck at five. In the 2022 assembly elections, Akhilesh made a series of alliances with smaller parties and put up a good fight. The vote share of the SP-led alliance was the highest ever in its history. Yet, it was way behind that of the BJP. So, what is going to happen in the 2024 elections?

Barring some bombastic and brave talk about the SP surprising the BJP in more than 20 seats, most admit that the going will be tough for the SP and that Akhilesh should start preparing for the 2027 assembly elections. According to these veteran political workers, the impact of the Ram Tempe is so big that most people are still underestimating it. It seems to have electrified voters across the state, cutting across caste divisions.

There are two more challenges confronting Akhilesh. The first is that even with allies who brought in non-Yadav OBC (Other Backward Class) votes, the SP-led alliance managed a vote share of 33 per cent in the 2022 assembly elections. Vast swathes of OBC votes have shifted to the BJP, and Dalit voters remain reluctant to vote for his party.

What does he do when the BJP keeps getting more than a 45 per cent vote share? A bigger challenge is that even young Yadav voters seem so impressed with Narendra Modi that they are ready to vote for the BJP, at least in the Lok Sabha elections.

Akhilesh is not a dynast cut off from grassroots politics. He knows he is fighting for political relevance. He has yet to find that magic potion.

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Akhilesh Yadav 

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