Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi should take a breather from his yatra in Uttar Pradesh to study how its chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, has forged an image for himself that’s remarkably different from that of his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Akhilesh Yadav has managed this even though his recent assertions against his family elders have been quelled.

As Gandhi seeks to create a distinct identity for himself, he needs to study Yadav because of the similarities they share. Both are dynasts, still in their forties, educated, and represent, to varying degrees, modern impulses in Indian democracy. Both also encounter challenges, albeit of a different nature.

For Yadav, the challenge is to ensure his standing in the Samajwadi Party, and in Uttar Pradesh, is independent of his father and uncles, all of whom are still active in politics. For Gandhi, the challenge is existential – the revival of the Congress.

The different challenges they face require them to define who they are and whether people can identify with them. Ultimately, it comes down to their public image. On this count, Yadav is ahead of Gandhi, largely because the former’s persona has greater authenticity than the latter’s.

Ordinary beginnings

Akhilesh Yadav is what he is today because of the patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav’s inherent conservatism, understandable in a man who was a wrestler and rooted in the caste-village-Hindi matrix. This was perhaps why he didn’t pack off his son to an elite public school, as was the norm in the seventies and early eighties.

Akhilesh Yadav studied in a Sainik school, went to an engineering college in Mysuru, lived with three mates in a rented quarter, picked up Kannada, and had a student life that was typically middle class. Some of his college mates – not friends though – were quoted in the media saying they didn’t know he belonged to a powerful political family until he entered politics. Yadav went abroad for higher studies, but the core of his personality had already been constituted by then.

Since his privileges did not impede him from cultivating diverse social relationships, he would have had a glimpse of the dreams and concerns of young India. This was reflected in his 2012 Assembly election campaign.

In a lengthy interview to before he became chief minister, Yadav said, “I see and understand things from the perspective of the new generation… There are mobile phones now, computers are being used. These days we use technology. In my father’s day, these things were not there.”

Through this one answer – repeated several times subsequently – he signalled that he wasn’t to be Mulayam Singh Yadav’s replica.

In the same interview, he promised there “will be no misuse of law and order. Even if it is our partymen, we will deal with them sternly. We will not let them break the law”.

Ostensibly, he is now trying to be true to the promises he made, evident from his decision to nix the merger of the Quami Ekta Dal – a political outfit of Varanasi don Mukhtar Ansari – with the Samajwadi Party and his acts of dropping ministers accused of corruption and defying his father to take on his uncle Shivpal Yadav. True, his rebellion was electorally motivated, aimed at telling UP that he could be his own man.

It may have been disappointing for many that Yadav has retreated against Mulayam Singh Yadav’s pushback. Yet, his assertion has sent a frisson through UP largely because of its social-cultural milieu. In it, a son can defy his father to the point where their relationship isn’t severed. The Yadav caste – which is the SP’s core support base – would appreciate him for not kowtowing to the family patriarch after having made a point.

His aborted defiance has salience also because of the tendency to stereotype the Yadav community as belligerent, having little respect for the law. A Yadav chief minister is expected to condone the illegal conduct of his caste brethren. That Akhilesh Yadav should have dared to shatter this stereotype endears him to non-Yadav caste groups, but without alienating Yadav voters.

As such, the Yadavs too want to master the syntax and grammar of modernity. It is a matter of pride for them that their very own – Akhilesh Yadav – talks the language of modernity, manifest in his drive for technology, development and according primacy to law and order. Thus, his retreat against the onslaught of elders holds out the promise that should he win another term in office, the balance of power in the family will swing his way, allowing him to sideline his uncle and his coterie.

From this perspective, Yadav is the bridge between modernity and tradition. Neither his caste nor regional (Hindi heartland) identity has been effaced by his cosmopolitanism. All three simultaneously constitute his personality. This is what makes him appear authentic.

One of the elite

Rahul Gandhi’s family, unlike Akhilesh Yadav’s, is a small, closely knit unit, more or less sharing the same social-cultural traits. You might think it precludes the need for him to carve out an image different from that of his family.

Yet, it is vital for a leader to have a persona that not only has a dash of uniqueness but also conveys that he or she would script the country and party’s future a little differently from their past. For instance, Rajiv Gandhi, his father, became the harbinger of new India through his advocacy of computers and technology.

Rahul Gandhi struggles to invent such a persona for himself because the peer group in his formative years was not socially heterogeneous. He studied in Doon School before it was decided that he would be instructed at home because of security threats. This was precisely why after a year in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, he was sent to the United States and the United Kingdom.

In pre-liberalisation India, Doon School had a relatively more exclusive, upper-class social milieu than it has today. Since his college education was abroad, life denied Gandhi the possibility of mingling with people of diverse social backgrounds and exposing him to world views different from what he had been socialised in. Akhilesh Yadav didn't have this impediment – and it shows.

From this perspective, Gandhi needed to undergo indigenisation, not sartorially, nor through such methods as having lunch at a Dalit household. It required him to interact, as normally as possible for a person surrounded by a security cordon, with those not of his social class. Certainly, Gandhi wasted the 10 years his party was in power when reviving the party wasn’t his responsibility alone.

The other way out for him is to symbolise new political morality. He missed one glorious chance during the Times Now interview in 2014. He claimed the Congress didn’t foment the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and that it even tried to stop it. The audience was horrified. Through his unequivocal condemnation of the 1984 riots, he could have certainly forged a new identity for himself.

He publicly tore the United Progressive Alliance government’s ordinance that allowed convicted politicians to contest elections. But he had to contend with the question: Why didn’t he oppose the ordinance before it was promulgated? Worse, he was perceived to have insulted the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, nearly 40 years his senior. Respect for the elderly is an ingrained Indian value. By contrast, Akhilesh Yadav justified his decision to retreat, saying he didn’t want to score a “self-goal”.

Or Gandhi could have invented a style of functioning different from that of his family. Despite promising to democratise the party, he failed to implement it – the party remains hobbled by the high-command culture that his grandmother, Indira, spawned.

Rural disconnect

In his ongoing UP campaign, Gandhi has focused on farmers. He has spoken of the need to provide them debt relief, as the government has for industrialists, reworking the age-old binary of rural-urban India into the industrialists-versus-farmers divide. This is politically shrewd and also testifies to his sensitivity.

Yet, it is debatable whether farmers will count him as one of them. Gandhi’s identification with them lacks authenticity. He doesn’t have a rural background, he is urbane, one of the elite. Even Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh couldn’t inherit the legacy of his father, Charan Singh, whose following among farmers was legion.

True, a lot of the many politicians articulating rural India’s concerns suffer from this drawback. They seek to overcome it through a popular movement or their previous stints in power inspire confidence in farmers that promises made to them would be fulfilled.

Indeed, Gandhi should have served in the UPA government. It could have provided people a basis to judge whether he indeed addresses the concerns he espouses. More importantly, he could also have harnessed power to craft an image for himself, as Akhilesh Yadav has in UP – the Lucknow Metro and the expressway connecting Agra to Lucknow, both to be completed this year, are emblematic of his agenda.

Gandhi’s UP campaign has projected him as a Brahmin. There is a certain fit between this image and Rahul Gandhi. Apart from his family’s caste, Gandhi is elite, as Brahmins too are traditionally regarded. Both suffer from insecurities – Brahmins because of their smaller number and reservation politics, and Gandhi because, well, he hasn’t been able to stop his party from shrinking.

But playing Brahmin will demand he demonstrates his religiosity and awareness of Brahminical traditions. Gandhi has consciously taken to visiting temples. For a Brahmin from the Congress, this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. It provides him a vantage position to critique Hindutva, to argue that the Sangh’s conception of Hinduism is flawed.

But this presumes scholarship and rootedness. We don’t have a clue to Gandhi’s familiarity with Brahminical traditions and texts, let alone the mastery many Congress leaders of yore boasted.

The aura of authenticity must inform a leader’s image. This is true of Akhilesh Yadav, not Rahul Gandhi.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)