15 February 2012 Last updated at 00:44 GMT
Akhilesh Yadav emerges as challenger in Uttar Pradesh
With the regional Samajwadi Party emerging as the main challenger to
the government of Dalit icon Mayawati in the ongoing assembly
elections in India's Uttar Pradesh state, the spotlight is on Akhilesh
Yadav, the party's young president who is being credited with its
turnaround. The BBC's Geeta Pandey in Lucknow profiles the new star on
the politically crucial state's horizon.
A few hundred people have gathered on a winter evening by the roadside
in a crowded commercial area in Lucknow.
Overhead hangs red bunting with the smiling faces of party leaders and
pictures of a bicycle - their election symbol.
Almost all the men in the crowd sport cloth caps in red - the party colour.
We received a lot of benefits when his father was chief minister"
Isa Kalim Weaver
Soon, a bright red bus, escorted by a couple of dozen young men on
bikes, comes into view and the crowd gets into a frenzy.
"Long live Akhilesh bhaiyya [brother]," they chant.
The bus comes to a halt in the middle of the road and Mr Yadav is
hoisted onto the roof on a mechanical lift.
The member of parliament is the son of Mulayam Singh Yadav - a former
wrestler who served three times as the chief minister of Uttar
He is the star campaigner for the Samajwadi Party and the reception he
gets here befits a rockstar.
His flag-waving supporters surround the bus and throw rose petals at
him. They call out his name and raise their hands to touch him.
Many in the crowd take his photo on their mobile phone cameras.
Mr Yadav appears at ease with the adulation, bending forward to catch
the marigold garlands flung at him from below. He knows nearly all the
party workers by name and invites a few of them to stand on the bus
His speech is short and lively. He uses humour while listing the
failures of the Mayawati government. He pokes fun at her for spending
billions of rupees on building parks to Dalit icons and erecting their
"Some people love stone statues, but we love people," he says to loud
claps and cheers.
Samajwadi Party supporters at a rally More than 40 million voters in
Uttar Pradesh are below the age of 30
He talks about what his party will do if elected: "We will give
laptops to students who finish class 12 and tablets to those who
complete class 10." His young supporters cheer wildly.
In a country where age is regarded as a sign of wisdom and where most
politicians are in their 70s and 80s, Mr Yadav at 38 is rather young.
But he is not new to politics. First elected to parliament in 2000, he
is serving his third term as MP.
"Two years ago, he took over as the party president and has been
leading the effort to win back power in the state," says Lucknow-based
journalist Sanjay Bhatnagar.
"He is spontaneous, he has a presence, he has his own ideas. His
father opposed English for being a language of the elite and computers
for taking away jobs of poor people.
"But he's a contemporary and educated person. He has contributed a
youth flavour to the party manifesto by talking about English and
laptops for students."
It's a clever strategy in a state where 40 million voters are below
the age of 30.
Mr Bhatnagar says Mr Yadav is being projected as the next leader by
the party: "Yadav senior is getting on in years and his health
problems are well-known. If the party wins, Akhilesh will be the
obvious choice as chief minister."
Comparisons are also being made with Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the
Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who is leading India's ruling Congress party's
revival bid in the crucial state elections.
These elections are being seen as a litmus test of their leadership.
Mr Bhatnagar says: "Comparisons with Rahul Gandhi are natural. But
Rahul is a national figure, whereas Akhilesh is purely a state leader.
"Rahul is a crowd puller but he is an outsider here. He has an urban
image whereas Akhilesh has a more rural image which in Uttar Pradesh
is an advantage."
For Mr Yadav though, his main adversary is Ms Mayawati and her Bahujan
Samaj Party (BSP).
Since September, when the election campaign went into top gear, he has
covered a lot of miles.
"I have travelled 8,000km (4,970 miles) by road and visited more than
250 of the 403 constituencies," he tells the BBC.
Now in the thick of the campaign, he is always on the move. He covers
four to five constituencies a day, hopping from one meeting to another
in a helicopter.
He offers me a seat in his helicopter during his tour of Ambedkar
Nagar - a stronghold of the BSP which won all five seats in the
district in the 2007 assembly elections.
We visit four constituencies and at each one he is welcomed by
thousands of flag-waving, slogan-shouting supporters.
And his speeches are tailored to address local issues.
In Jalalpur constituency, he talks about inflation, the problems of
farmers and the lack of development: "The government took away all the
funds meant for building hospitals and schools for you and spent it on
In Tanda, a town dominated by Muslim weavers, he tells a huge rally:
"We will give free electricity to weavers if we are elected."
Samajwadi Party supporters at a rally Mr Yadav's rallies have been well attended
Isa Kalim is sold on the promise: "We received a lot of benefits when
his father was chief minister. He gave us power at 65 rupees ($1.32;
84 pence) per loom. If they make it free, that will benefit us
Later, as we head back to Lucknow, Mr Yadav says: "The people are fed
up of bad governance, they want a change."
He is confident his party will return to power. "The government is
facing a strong anti-incumbency and that will help us. We will win,"
But, analysts say, it's easier said than done. The biggest challenge
the party is facing is a negative public perception.
Their earlier stints in power were associated with a surge in gang
violence when thugs threatened shopkeepers and harassed women.
"During Mulayam Singh's rule, chain snatchings, thefts were common,
people had to pay protection money to goons," says journalist Ashwini
"Serious atrocities were committed against Dalits and other low-caste
people and memories of those years are very strong in [the] public
mind and people fear that petty crimes will go up if the party wins."
It is a perception Mr Yadav is fighting to change.
"We will not shelter or harbour ruffians," he has said. And last
month, he stalled controversial politician DP Yadav's attempt to join
the Samajwadi party.
But critics point out that many of his party candidates have criminal
records and some of them are contesting from inside the jail.
They say that if the Samajwadi Party is elected, it will be back to
the old days of muscle-power ruling the state.
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