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That guy on the cycle, and some heavy metal
I know this will get your attention: Akhilesh Yadav's most favourite musicians include Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams - and Metallica. Yes you heard me right. Metallica. Or maybe this doesn't surprise you anymore? Because at some point this winter, far away from the mustard-draped countryside of Uttar Pradesh, something pretty unusual happened in the Rahul Gandhi-smitten English media newsrooms of India.
Akhilesh Yadav became cool.
The 38-year-old Samajwadi Party leader was suddenly being feted by the press, sought by editors and had become the media's new blue-eyed boy, in an election which earlier seemed to have had just one permanent blue-eyed boy, Rahul Gandhi. Akhilesh was suddenly getting more gushing press through the two months of January and February this year than 11 years of his career as a parliamentarian put together.
It was a moment that still hadn't arrived when the son of party chief and three-time chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav started his campaign journeys - like the gruelling 180-kilometre cycle yatra from Noida to Agra on November 22, barely getting any press.
But by January, he had become the main challenger in UP elections as he traversed the state, having covered 8, 000 km-plus by the "rath" (an improvised bus with a lift and a loo) and 250 km on bicycle. He had surged in the perception war, and not just journalists, but even fund managers hundreds of kilometres away in Mumbai are betting on him. His public meetings drew thousands of people who made the welcome look like that for a movie star, as admirers packed playgrounds and town squares, perched on trees and rooftops, laughed at his punches and jostled for another glimpse. The response was unprecedented. The media were forced to take note.
That wasn't the life that the football-crazy, Amitabh Bachchan-admirer, Chinese food-loving, doting father of three and easygoing movie-andmusic lover had hoped for so soon. But it was a decision taken in the thick of his understated rage during a quiet car ride home on November 10, 2009.
That was the day his wife Dimple was defeated by a huge margin by Congress candidate Raj Babbar in the glass-artisans' hub of Ferozabad. "That changed him completely, " says a close aide who was in the car that day, and declined to be named. "He said, 'It can't get worse than this - I am not looking back'. "
Yes, Akhilesh Yadav is evidently not looking back. Inheriting a party that had often earned notoriety since its formation in 1992, he is executing the seemingly impossible - a break with the past in which the party was accused of being an oasis for the state's leading criminals.
"People allege that when an SP government comes, crime rises and our people go out of control, " Akhilesh tells TOI-Crest as we sit in his campaign "rath", heading deep into small-town India. "This time we have decided that whoever does anything wrong will not be spared - even if he is a member of the SP. "
He refused to give a party nomination to dreaded alleged gangster D P Yadav. He also chose unusual candidates like an IIM professor who quit his management career to join public service, a former Ranji cricketer, and a dalit girl who had cycled from her home to Lucknow to try and complain to Mayawati about governance - and was jailed.
"He is very clear and very determined, never loses his cool, always hears you out totally but never gets influenced by a coterie - and he handles tricky political situations very smartly, " said Akhilesh's aide. "If he gets a recommendation from someone to back a bad guy, he asks for it in writing, which is when the person backs off. "
This hardcore political career is not what Akhilesh was headed for during his schooling days at the Military School in Dholpur (Rajasthan) and while studying civil environment engineering at Mysore and later in Sydney, Australia.
He was just cruising along, enjoying the company of friends, music and the love of his life - football.
It was a tricky romance - playing right-out, he got a broken nose. "I was playing at the Mysore college and got hit directly on my face. The bone is still broken, " he says, laughing that I brought up the reference. "I went to the doctor who treats Netaji (his father). He checked me, then asked: 'Are you married?' I said yes . . . he said 'Fine, then there is no need to fix it'. "
But he still loves and plays football, along with cricket (played in the college team), hockey, cycling (organises and takes part in a rural cycle marathon). He can't sing (his wife Dimple does), but he loves to listen to music.
With his closest friends Harvinder Grewal, (who now lives in the US), Rohan Kulkarni and Naveen, Akhilesh scoured pretty much everything there was to hear in his engineering college days. Breaking a media myth of being opposed to English (and leaving me gasping), he begins to tell me a list of his favourite artistes from those days, whose CDs he still treasures.
"There was no music we didn't hear. You name it, I'd have heard it ... Queen - 'I want to break free', Rod Stewart ... 'Some guys have all the luck' ? ... Chris de Burgh, George Michael, Duran Duran, Guns N' Roses, Metallica ... I still remember we used to hear 'Hysteria' in a loop ... Pet Shop Boys, Michael Learns To Rock, Milli Vanilli, Bon Jovi . . 'Always' came later, I remember ... and 'Bad medicine' ... Bryan Adams, Richard Marx - you remember the slow number 'Wherever you go' ? Then there were New Kids On The Block ... I remember that song 'Baby I believe in you' ..."
"I ended up telling you - but I never talk about these things, " Akhilesh says. He is lost in nostalgia. A gentle smile plays on his face. Then, switch-off, switch on another persona. The "rath" is slowing down, and he springs up from his sofa in the bus and waves to supporters crushing each other to wave to him and take his picture on their mobile phones.
It's the sort of adulation we often see Rahul Gandhi - the man he is often compared to - getting on TV. But this is different. Akhilesh has the spirit of old school, traditional politicians who opposed each other without personal bitterness.
"Rahul is good, he is a young leader. He is working to impress the youth, " Akhilesh says. "But he will have to work very hard, he will have to win back a lot of trust. Because all the problems are in some ways a heritage of his own party. " That's not all. At nearly every stop in the Azamgarh district where we are, he knows the names of local party workers. He stops to greet elders and even pops into a streetside shop because he remembers that its sweets are very famous.
But the rising star of Indian politics remains grounded, and unlike Rahul, extremely accessible. "When he is in Delhi, he wakes up at 6 am, does his exercise at 7, then opens the door himself, and whoever is there, he meets them, " said Akhilesh's aide. "But he is now also starting to take a firm stand on things. "
He does that without raising his voice at rallies, a campaign strategy that straddles the values of old school politics and the energy and immediacy of contemporary India. Another speech over, Akhilesh is back on the bus. A tea break is due, and he brags of a skill he showcases on the "rath" bouncing on rural roads. "No one else but me has managed to have tea in the rath ... it's a balancing act. You have to be smart enough and it can really burn you the moment you sip it. "
For now, he is doing the balancing act flawlessly.
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