In more than 12 years, Congress failed to open full-fledged Rahul Gandhi chapter while Akhilesh Yadav has successfully become a syllabus in Samajwadi Party in less than five years
Both the political dynasts Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, in their 40s, staking a claim to the youth vote, faced with an immovable old guard. Yet while one has emerged as the hero of the hour, commanding near-hysterical loyalty from his party cadres, the other gets only ritual obeisance. Cry ecstatic Samajwadi Party workers about Akhilesh, “Loha tap kundan bhaya,” he who has emerged as a jewel after being tested by fire. Such full-throated loyalty from party ranks still eludes Rahul.
In 2012 Akhilesh accepted the responsibility thrust on him to become UP’s youngest CM. Rahul has spent over a decade in politics avoiding substantive responsibilities. Polls will show whether Akhilesh is the vote catcher his father once was, but today he does command the allure of a hands-on chief minister. Rahul doesn’t seem to even want office, either because he simply lacks the stamina or because he doesn’t seem to realize just how much administrative experience matters to an electorate which increasingly judges according to government achievements.
The battle is far from over for Akhilesh. For the last few months Samajwadi Party has looked more like a circus than a political party, with trapeze artists swinging from one side to another with acrobatic ease. Yet in an unprecedented act for a family politician, the 44-year-old dynastic inheritor has successfully revolted against his father and the party patriarchs and gained majority support for his persistent yet low key war. He’s done what dynasts never do and if he pulls it off Akhilesh will create history.
Political sons normally don’t challenge their fathers, content to bask in papa’s shadow. The once doughty Mulayam built a formidable Samajwadi organization. Yet today it’s not him but his son who is his party’s face. In the dangal between father and son, junior has tossed dad into an overhead throw.
Contrast this with Congress. Sonia Gandhi’s shadow looms over the party and voters are expected to keep guessing when Rahul will take over. Congressmen remain unsure about Rahul’s ability to lead. While Samajwadi toughies Shivpal and Amar Singh have been marginalized, Congress remains populated by septuagenarians and octogenarians. Congress is led by the prince perpetually in waiting, SP is a regional party led by an heir who believes his time has come.
It could be argued Congress and SP can’t be compared. SP is restricted to one state, Congress is the over 100-year-old party stretching across India. Sonia Gandhi’s presence has at least held Congress together; the Yadavs are engaged in self-destructive power wrestling. Yet even with an assured succession, rather like Prince Charles, Rahul is far from naturally claiming the throne, the way Akhilesh has been able to do in the face of far greater odds.
When Akhilesh took over as UP CM, Rahul was being pressured to play a similar role in the then UPA. But not only did he steadfastly avoid any ministerial responsibility, in 2013 when anointed party vice-president he even declared that “power is poison”. Rahul’s unwillingness to even attempt to work on the political shop floor is in stark contrast to Akhilesh’s willingness to take up one of the most challenging jobs in the country. Could Rahul have pitched himself as Congress CM candidate in UP or as a Union minister in the Manmohan Cabinet? Or are we to believe as Congressmen do that the Gandhis are such lofty national leaders that they cannot be expected to serve as chief ministers or under another prime minister?
Essentially, Rahul copped out, Akhilesh didn’t. By stepping up as CM, the younger Yadav won the respect of his MLAs, which Rahul has not yet managed. Communal riots, stalled projects and law and order issues have dogged his tenure. But at least he’s a young captain leading from the front. Rahul isn’t even leader of his party in the Lok Sabha, handing that task to senior apparatchik Mallikarjun Kharge. Ask Akhilesh about any district in UP and he will rattle off facts and figures. Rahul once claimed UP was his karmabhoomi but would he be able to provide similar information?
After the 2012 defeat, the enduring image of Rahul was walking away from the camera with his arm around sister Priyanka. A cute family portrait, but bad political optics. He didn’t dive into UP’s hurly burly 24×7, his visits were sporadic. No wonder his kisan yatra before the elections has had limited impact. Both Rahul and Akhilesh were sons imposed on the family firm from above, yet while one has worked to build his own identity and clout, the leitmotif of the other remains self-doubt.
Samajwadi 2.0 as exemplified by Akhilesh is a genial, unassuming, techinclined presence, a generational change from the rustic thuggishness of the Hindi belt socialists. By consciously projecting a development-oriented young leader stance, Akhilesh has reinvented the image of the original netaji. Rahul, by comparison, is still the son or grandson, unidentified with any single cause. Dramatically tearing up a Cabinet ordinance showed a half-hearted stab at the anti-corruption plank but only ended up embarrassing his own PM, as it was not part of a sustained campaign against graft. Levelling charges against PM Modi, then disappearing for a holiday again shows a fits-and-starts approach, lots of high-five moments, less daily toil on the ground.
It’s possible that Rahul and Akhilesh will form an alliance in UP, but Congress will only be the SP’s B team. That’s because whether he wins or loses, Akhilesh is now the new netaji of Samajwadi Party, but Rahul is content on still being the betajee of the grand old party.