The third of October, all blue skies and blazing sun, was the best day of his life, said 19-year-old Radhe Yadav. That morning, the teenager, who lives on the outskirts of Etawah town, had been granted 30 seconds of virtual facetime with the man he claims he would give his life for: Samajwadi Party national president and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

The rendezvous, arranged by a family friend who is part of the former chief minister’s security detail, was brief, but Radhe Yadav made sure to take several screen grabs of it. They were all going to be posted on his Facebook page, otherwise replete with his selfies.

Radhe Yadav identifies as a Samajwadi Party worker, but it is Akhilesh Yadav whom he swears by. “I am a big fan of Akhilesh bhaiyya,” he said, using the reverential Hindi word for elder brother. “Kuch bhi kar sakte hai unke liye. I can do anything for him.”

Such unbridled enthusiasm among young workers ordinarily makes the seniors in a political party happy. But 59-year-old Wasim Chaudhury, who heads the Etawah city unit of the Samajwadi Party, could not stop complaining about the party’s youth cadres “expending all their energy on Facebook and Twitter”.

“They are all hawa-hawa [up in the air],” said Chaudhury, a founding member of the party. “All they do is bhaiyya ji ki jai jai (hail the elder brother), and the leader thinks everything is good and everyone will vote for us.”

Wasim Chaudhury heads the Etawah city unit of the Samajwadi Party. On his stole are images of both Akhilesh Yadav and his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, who founded the party.

More than just a generational divide

Friction between the old and new guard plagues almost every Indian political party. The discord in the Samajwadi Party, however, reflects more than just a generational divide. There is a fundamental disharmony in how two sections see themselves and aspire to be a political party.

While one section, largely young and urban, owes allegiance to 48-year-old Akhilesh Yadav, most seniors in the party and several rural workers continue to miss his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a wrestler who founded the party in 1992, and came to be known as Netaji.

“Under Netaji , the image was that this is not a party of the padha-likha [educated], it is a party where no one knows how to use computers and technology,” said Yogesh Pratap Singh, a former minister in the Akhilesh Yadav-led government that was in power in the state from 2012-’17. “But Akhilesh ji changed that.”

The Samajwadi Party held an outreach programme in Etawah on October 3. The divide within the party isn't just generational, but represents a deeper cultural churn.

But more than the discomfort over embracing technology, what seems to have caused the most unease among the seniors was Akhilesh Yadav’s opposition to musclemen politicians in the party. The Samajwadi Party, founded by his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, till then was often thought of as a natural refuge for individuals who drifted between crime and politics.

In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav famously went against his powerful uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav by refusing to induct DP Yadav, a strongman politician with a chequered criminal history, in the party.

Ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections, as the chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav held on to his anti-criminal-politician stance even more firmly. He refused to engage with influential leaders with criminal histories, despite many of them having strong ties with the party’s old guard.

“He wanted to change that perception that it was a party of criminals,” said Sudhir Panwar, a Zoology professor who was part of the state’s planning commission during Akhilesh Yadav’s regime and who contested the 2012 elections from Shamli on a Samajwadi Party ticket. Many saw his nomination as indicative of the cultural change that Yadav wanted to introduce in the party.

While the former chief minister may have been to a large extent successful in affecting an image makeover for the Samajwadi Party, critics often ask what has come of it.

Akhilesh Yadav’s electoral record is abysmal. The two major elections that the Samajwadi Party fought under him – the 2017 Assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls – have ended in embarrassing defeats.

So what next? As the party prepares for the 2022 Assembly elections, does this dichotomy still plague it or has Akhilesh Yadav found a way to address it?

To gauge the sentiment among the Samajwadi Party cadre, travelled to Etawah and Mainpuri, districts that are part of the Yadav heartland in Uttar Pradesh and widely seen as bastions of the party.

‘Not a zameeni neta’

A common charge against Akhilesh Yadav is that he spends more time on social media than on the ground, that his quest for gentrification has come at the cost of winnability.

While his supporters may dismiss these allegations as “manufactured” by the media that is aligned to the Bharatiya Janata Party, many party workers share these views.

“He is just not a zameeni neta (grassroots leader) like Netaji,” said a long-time Samajwadi Party worker in Etawah. “You have to be on the ground, meeting workers because that is how they get the zunoon (enthusiasm) to fight hard. Elections are fought on the ground, not on Twitter.”

In Mainpuri’s Pondla village, farmer Anil Yadav spoke about the “distance to Lucknow” increasing after Akhilesh Yadav took over the reins of the party. “We have only known one party since we were born, but Netaji was so much more accessible. Akhilesh never comes, visits us or attends any dawat (functions),” he said. “He doesn’t have his ear to the ground at all.”

Anil Yadav (left) and other Samajwadi Party workers in Pondla village.

Many Samajwadi Party workers across the state voice similar concerns, albeit in a muted fashion: Akhilesh Yadav is an able administrator, they say, but not the warhorse that the party needs to wrest power back from the BJP. His track-record of having carried out substantial developmental work as the chief minister is not enough – to win against the BJP, they argue, you need to get your hands dirty.

His conduct during the recent panchayat elections in which the BJP is accused of using the state machinery to get its candidates elected, many rural party workers said, was particularly “demoralising”. “If Netaji was there, the BJP couldn’t have pulled off the nanga-naach (naked display of power) that it indulged in,” said a party leader who had been elected as a legislator several times. “He would have been out there on the street, but Akhilesh doesn’t have that instinct.”

A close aide of Akhilesh Yadav, however, said it was a calculated move to not hit the streets during the panchayat election. “If he would have been out, there would have been clashes and the BJP would have just got another chance to brand us a party of goons. It is a conscious attempt to move away from that image.”

Yet, many leaders close to Akhilesh Yadav claim that the brazen use of “muscle power” by the BJP may be finally prompting the former chief minister to reassess his ways. “The fact that the prime minister tweeted in appreciation of what happened means that it is now clear that the Assembly elections are going to be fought on muscle power,” said a senior leader of the party. “I have seen Akhilesh’s psychology change since.”

The leader said that the former chief minister now seemed to be more willing to accommodate people whose politics he is personally uncomfortable with. “He will do what it takes to form the government,” he said. “Everyone who approaches will be taken in.”

A more flexible approach?

Some change is already visible. In August, the party saw the return of two old-time members: gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari’s elder brother Sibghatullah Ansari and Mulayam Singh Yadav loyalist Ambika Chaudhary.

Both of them had essentially been forced out of the party in 2017 by Akhilesh Yadav because he saw them as representing a school of politics he wanted to distance the Samajwadi Party from.

During their re-induction ceremony, the former chief minister said, perhaps quite tellingly: “It will be my effort now to bring back all those who are associated with Netaji.”

Yet, leaders close to the Samajwadi Party chief insist that these developments should not be seen as compromising on his core values. “At the time when he expelled these people, he was still trying to take control of the party from his father and uncle,” said an aide. “But now he is the only power centre in the party – he has full authority. So he can be confident that the party’s character need not define the government’s character.”

Regardless, it is fairly clear that Akhilesh Yadav is more flexible than ever before. As a former minister in his government said, “When you are in power, you can’t distinguish between who is a well-wisher and who is a liability. Once you are out of power, you fall back to the ground and that is what’s happening now.”