Saturday, March 17, 2012
Surprise at India's assembly polls heralds a new kind of leader
Grown men flocked to him, plying him with bouquets of flowers and boxes of sweets, bending to touch his feet, pressing to be near him. The display of deference is a ritual of Indian politics, yet in a country governed by old men, Mr. Yadav represents something new: At 38, he is now India's youngest chief minister, overseeing a state with more than 200 million people, more of a country than a state.
"People have a lot of hope in me, that I can do something good," he said in an interview this week, as his cellphone buzzed with messages.
In a country where the public hunger for change is palpable, yet where politics often seems unchangeable, Mr. Yadav is suddenly, unexpectedly, a symbol of a new generation, featured on newspaper front pages and magazine covers, with photos of him riding his bicycle on campaign trips, as well as tidbits about his college affinity for the hard-rock band Metallica, his passion for soccer and accounts of his "love marriage."
The election in Uttar Pradesh, conducted in stages in February, with the results announced this month, was supposed to coronate India's better-known new generation leader, Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the fabled Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who made the state election a test of his popularity and political franchise. He failed to deliver, with voters instead endorsing Mr. Yadav.
Now all Mr. Yadav has to do is lift up the poorest state in India.
Like Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Yadav is the scion of a political family, if one rooted in the grittier, bare-knuckle traditions of Indian politics. His father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is the founder of the regional Samajwadi Party, which drew support from Muslims and some of the lower Hindu castes, before falling out of favour in 2007.
The senior Mr. Yadav served three times as chief minister, but he oversaw an administration marred by corruption, as many party workers and officials were drawn from the ranks of toughs and mobsters. Even this year, half of the lawmakers elected from the Samajwadi Party had criminal cases pending against them, a pattern repeated in most parties competing in Uttar Pradesh.
What also made the party seem out of step were some of the positions espoused by the elder Mr. Yadav, who once opposed the use of English and computers as affronts to traditional Indian culture and village industries. To an aspirational young India, English and technology are the tools of upward mobility, a point not lost on the younger Mr. Yadav as he began to change the direction of his father's party.
"India has changed a lot," he said. "You see the amount of mobile phone penetration. It is huge here. People are slowly learning how to use computers. They want to move forward."
After a boyhood in Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Yadav attended an engineering college in southern India before graduate school in Sydney, Australia, where he studied environmental engineering and tasted the wider world.
"There was a lot of development in Australia," he recalled. "I had never seen this. It was a totally different world for me."
He returned to India and soon met the woman he wanted to marry, even though her family was from a different caste and background, in a country where most marriages are still arranged. "There was a little hesitation," Mr. Yadav recalled of his family's reaction, but he persisted in what is known as a "love marriage" until his family consented.
He and his wife, Dimple, were married in November 1999, and three months later he was elected to the lower house of Parliament. He was 26, one of the youngest members of his incoming class, but he remained mostly out of the political limelight until his father lost power in Uttar Pradesh. The son then gradually assumed a bigger role in the Samajwadi Party, becoming the state president in 2009.
In this year's race, Mr. Yadav did not initially attract much attention in an election framed as a showdown between two of the country's most powerful leaders, Mr. Gandhi and the state's incumbent chief minister, Mayawati, who uses one name. But Mr. Yadav began working the state, riding his bicycle for 120 miles to lead a "yatra," or march. He also adroitly repositioned his party to appeal to the modern sensibilities of the state's growing number of urban voters: He promised to distribute free tablet computers to students and hammered away at a positive message in what became a dirty political fight.
To combat his party's reputation for lawlessness, Mr. Yadav required the party's legislative candidates to submit applications and undergo vetting, even the party's established power brokers. He vetoed several candidates with criminal records and elevated candidates with clean reputations, including an academic from the state capital, Lucknow, who would win in an upset.
Mr. Yadav was careful not to forget his roots, though. He usually insisted on speaking in Hindi during interviews on India's English-language television channels, even though he speaks very good English. He also made a point to be accessible to voters, journalists, almost anyone, admitting that he loved glad-handing and meeting people.
It made a stark and appealing contrast to Mr. Gandhi, who is rarely accessible. While Mr. Gandhi arrived at rallies in helicopters, Mr. Yadav, the local boy, travelled on a bicycle or a customized campaign bus, stopping at villages for smaller gatherings.
"I found that cycling was a better way to connect with people rather than having large rallies," he said. "I was able to meet everyone."
Yet the scale of his party's victory surprised even Mr. Yadav. Analysts had predicted a split vote and a coalition government, possibly through an alliance of the Samajwadi Party with the Congress Party. But led by Mr. Yadav - and the political organization oiled by his father - the Samajwadi Party won a stunning 224 seats in the state assembly, a comfortable majority that meant a coalition partner was not necessary.
Then the only question was who would be chief minister, father or son. When the younger Mr. Yadav was given the job last week, the Samajwadi Party, once dismissed as a relic of India's old politics, suddenly possessed an altogether different ingredient: excitement and buzz.
"I'm quite happy and quite excited," Mr. Yadav said. "But the responsibility is big. This is a state, of course, but this is a country, population-wise."
At a news conference after his swearing-in this week, Mr. Yadav got an early taste of the pressures and challenges of running India's poorest but biggest state, as reporters peppered him with questions about his agenda and asked why many of his father's cronies still held positions of power.
"Our priority will be unemployment, the farmers and law and order," he said, smiling, as he noted that his party could no longer just act as an indignant opposition.
"From today onward, the responsibility is ours," he said.
Or, more precisely, the responsibility is his.