Over the last one year, Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has been up against several odds. He took the helm after unseating his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, in a palace coup. But soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inflicted a crushing defeat in the Uttar Pradesh assembly poll. In an interview with Mint, Yadav talks about this experience, the learnings he has imbibed and the game plan for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Edited excerpts:
2017 has been an eventful year for you. How do you look back at the year’s developments?
Now that the year has ended, the time for losing is over. Now is the time to gain and only gain. Whatever we have lost, we can only get it back through elections and the next big election is in 2019. We cannot go below the five Lok Sabha seats that we currently hold or below the 47 MLAs (members of legislative assembly) in the state legislature. So now our tally will only increase from here. 2018 onward is the time for Samajwadis to achieve.
What has been your biggest takeaway from the Uttar Pradesh assembly election?
Our campaign for the election ‘Kaam Bolta Hai’ was to ask the public to vote us back to power on the basis of the work we did in five years. But the BJP communalized the election and development became a non-issue. The BJP has spoilt the atmosphere of the entire country by dividing people on the basis of caste and religion. The biggest example is the Uttar Pradesh election where they brought together different castes to increase their tally. The party preaches ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ but you cannot get everyone’s support till you make the benefits of development available to everyone. The BJP had good social engineering and management. They played caste politics but blamed us for doing so.
What, according to you, has contributed to the BJP’s growing popularity?
BJP has the power to distract people from issues to non-issues. It is this power that the opposition must assess if it wants to defeat the BJP. Take the Gujarat election for example. While the plight of the groundnut and cotton farmers should have been issues, somehow the word neech became BJP’s poll pitch. Then the issue became who does Pakistan want as the chief minister and how seaplanes will work in the state. The BJP had distracted the people of UP in a similar way.
What will be your focus in 2018 in the run-up to 2019? How will you contain the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government which got 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP?
The government in UP is a double engine government as the same party is in power at the centre and the state. The Prime Minister is from UP (Varanasi is his Lok Sabha constituency), they have 325 MLAs in the state legislature, 73 MPs (members of Parliament) and 14 mayors—they are in power everywhere, controlling all institutions, still no work has been done. If they can’t develop the state now then when? Everyone wants the country to progress but we cannot move forward without fixing our rural economy and agriculture. This is what the BJP had also said in its manifesto in 2014. We will remind people of the promise BJP made of giving farmers 50% over cost and doubling farmer incomes. BJP also promised to provide jobs to the youth of the country but people still haven’t got jobs. We were the ones who gave the centre land to build an AIIMS in Gorakhpur, the PM inaugurated it but no work has started. The GT Road that was to be built in UP still doesn’t have four lanes.
This country’s farmers, youth, traders and the poor—all are against the BJP and will vote against them now. They will have to give an account of the 73 seats they won. UP is the state that has to save the country. UP gave BJP a chance, if they lose UP, no way can they make up. People will not have expectations from us as we are not in power anywhere, the only expectation from us will be to remove BJP from power and we are ready for it. All the promises they made to win the election, which they couldn’t keep, will now become the biggest trouble for them.
SP allied with the Congress for the UP polls. There is a view that an anti-BJP coalition is the need of the hour for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. What are your views on the alliance?
Congress is the largest opposition party and should come forward and work, which they are doing, but I think it is the regional parties that will stop the BJP. In West Bengal it is Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress; in Bihar it is Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD); while in Uttar Pradesh the BJP will have to fight SP, even Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). We Samajwadis have decided to stop the BJP in UP. I don’t know what shape an alliance will take but we will work on the strengths of our party.
How do you see the nine months of the Yogi Adityanath-led government in UP?
If this government sees a temple it will go there, if it sees a cow it will go there. The basic requirement of any state to do well is that it should have good infrastructure, then everything else follows. But the BJP government is focusing more on the issues of cow and religion which they had won the election with. Electricity rates have been increased in UP, law and order remains a big issue with thefts happening even in temples. Our government had put a very good system of Dial 100 in place for the state, it was based on the way the New York Police functions. The current government doesn’t want to improve on the systems we put in place, which they should ideally do, because they feel that Samajwadis have made it. If they do that our law and order situation will improve.
When will the bullet train come to UP? After Ahmedabad, now the bullet train should move from Lucknow to Varanasi to Patna to Kolkata, as this is the poorest belt of the country and people here need employment.
Do you think the alleged differences in your family before the elections led to your defeat?
If that didn’t happen, something else would have happened. You see the number of seats we won, so something else did go wrong. However, whatever happened within the party must have damaged our electoral prospects in some way and this is exactly what the BJP wanted. They divide a party vertically for their advantage. Look at Gujarat where BJP brought senior Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela to their side. In Bihar, both RJD and Janata Dal (United) formed the government together but the BJP vertically divided them too. They have done the same to our society.
How do you look at the recently concluded municipal elections where BJP won 14 of the 16 mayoral seats?
Yes, the BJP performed well as the urban vote has always gone to the BJP, However, if you look at the nagar palikas and town areas, SP, BSP and independents have performed really well. BJP has the power of communication and distraction, they did not show the result where they had lost. In Ayodhya, they won the mayor’s seat but they could not win seats in the nagar palikas or town areas where SP performed really well. The same thing happened in Lucknow as well. BSP won the Meerut and Aligarh seats but that never became news.
Congress didn’t include Muslims in its election strategy in Gujarat. How do you view this?
If there is no election, I will go visit a temple and I will visit a mosque as well. I still go and attend Muslim weddings and functions. But during an election I will focus on farmer issues, youth issues, infrastructure, healthcare etc. I will try to ensure that religion doesn’t become an issue during elections.
The NDA government has brought a bill to end the practice of instant triple talaq. What is your party’s position on this?
We all respect the Supreme Court’s decision and there should be a discussion on this in Parliament. However, there should be no hurry in such issues. We should listen to everyone, what their personal law says, what the people of the community feel. That is why Parliament has been put in place and we will also make our stand public in Parliament.