Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi out-campaigned all-comers in the 2014 general election but, as he faces his biggest mid-term test, he is up against a rival determined to beat him at his own game.
In Uttar Pradesh his opponent, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, has been repackaged as a youthful and media-savvy go-getter who seeks to steal a unique selling point of Modi’s – development reports Reuters.
“I am taking it a bit beyond Modi: I work,” Yadav told Reuters in an interview in Lucknow, capital of the state of 220 million that is holding the biggest democratic election anywhere in the world this year.
“My work speaks for itself. Modi’s empty promises do not,” said the 43-year-old leader of the Samajwadi, or Socialist, Party.
Yadav entered the vast election, being held over the course of a month, as a narrow favorite: He had just emerged from a power struggle with his domineering father and struck a pre-poll alliance with the Indian National Congress.
While Modi excels as a stump speaker who can deliver an hour-long address without notes, Akhilesh has sought to connect with the youth vote via new media, taking personal control over his social media accounts and doing a Facebook Live with one of India’s best-known TV journalists.
He has even climbed on a bicycle – his party’s symbol – for another prime-time interview that gave him a chance to showcase the newly landscaped riverfront in the state capital.
Yadav’s campaign has been backed by his wife Dimple, a federal lawmaker, who has courted women voters and helped create an image as a political ‘power couple’.
Throughout, Yadav has stayed firmly on message. Asked about endemic crime, he says he has set up a new police hotline that is ensuring quicker response times.
On developing his poor state where incomes average less than $750 a year, he highlights his achievements in building an expressway to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, and a new city metro in Lucknow.
Yadav became the youngest-ever chief minister of Uttar Pradesh with a slim mandate, winning just 29 percent in the 2012 state poll.
But in the general election two years later he was swept away by a Modi ‘wave’ as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 42 percent of the vote in the battleground state.
Yadav, who received a university education in Australia yet became typecast as the ineffectual scion of a political patriarch, decided he needed a makeover.
“It was at this point Yadav took a cue from Modi’s image as a technology-loving modern man,” said R.K. Mishra, an independent political analyst in Lucknow.
Yadav commissioned the construction of a mansion behind his old party headquarters to operate as his campaign “war room”.
He met two dozen Indian and international political scientists, and roped in Harvard graduates and marketing gurus from Mumbai. They set up a big data operation – cloning the backroom setup used by Modi in his own rise to national power.