The message is change

Akhilesh, young and educated, reflects OBC aspirations in rural heartland

A television channel has anointed Akhilesh Yadav as the new Nawab of Lucknow. I'm not sure he sees himself as one. At 38, he perhaps sees himself as representative of the 65 per cent of India's population below the age of 35. Despite being the son of his father, he presents a clear break from the latter's world view.

In allowing Akhilesh to become the chief minister of UP, Mulayam Singh Yadav has been sagacious, perhaps realising that thereby the SP may stand more of a chance to consolidate its position before the 2014 elections. Or, he may have decided that it is the best rebuff to the Congress and the Gandhi family, Mayawati and even the media. For, the Delhi-obsessed English-language media had been so focused on Rahul Gandhi that it completely missed the Akhilesh phenomenon. While the media now decides to lionise Akhilesh, he has refused to be patronised by it, as was evident from his consistent use of Hindi to answer questions in English on a TV channel. It is not that Akhilesh is uncomfortable with English, rather it seems he does not wish to be co-opted into the Congress's circle of young friends from other parties, as Omar Abdullah and others sharing the elite background of the Gandhi family have been.

Mulayam, despite his anti-computer and anti-English former avatar, made sure that his son got an engineering degree from the south and a master's from a foreign university. Akhilesh's success may ironically represent an opportunity for current generation of OBC parents to fulfil their own greatest wish — to access a good education for their children, both girls and boys.

To understand why the younger Yadav has emerged victor, one has to understand the peculiar history of OBCs. The OBCs in the south achieved progress in the last century due to anti-Brahmin movements that focused on empowerment of the masses and opened up educational opportunities for most castes. The north saw fractured caste movements, either attempting upward mobility through Sanskritisation or seeking a distinct religious identity outside caste, as with the Dalit castes. Post-independence, the large mass of the northern OBCs remained tied to their land- and animal husbandry-based livelihoods remaining economically content and resistant to social change. Education was not considered very important as future generations were socialised into caste and family occupations. Both girls and boys were married early (another inhibitor to education). Slowly, democracy advantaged them politically due to their numbers and they came to exercise a fair amount of clout in rural society. While they looked up to the upper castes, their local-level conflicts were more often with Dalits who occupied a position below them in the rural social structure. Hence, they were often perceived as oppressors of and by Dalits. The Congress's patronage of Dalits kept the vast middle — the collection of castes called OBCs — untended to. Before the Congress knew it, the logic of numbers had worked against them and regional parties headed by OBCs began to hold power in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

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