Politically, it was smooth sailing for Akhilesh Yadav from March 2012, when he was sworn in as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, till May 2014, when the Lok Sabha election results were declared. The general elections saw the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP)'s Lok Sabha seats crash to five from 24 in the 2009 general elections, when the party was not even in power.
Akhilesh Yadav was credited with scripting the party's success in the 2012 UP Assembly polls. But he had to taste defeat in the 2014 general elections at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had for many years been dormant in Uttar Pradesh, but came on top riding the so called (Narendra) Modi wave.
Amid voices seeking his scalp over the loss, UP's youngest chief minister was able to save his chair thanks to the unflinching support of his father and the party's president, Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The Lok Sabha debacle forced the chief minister to shift gear from populist measures, which had helped SP come to power in UP, to a development-oriented agenda. He stopped giving free laptops and unemployment doles, while stepping on the gas for development projects such as the Lucknow Metro Rail, Agra-Lucknow Expressway, Lucknow IT City, and linking district headquarters with four-lane roads, among others.
In the previous government of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), under Mayawati (2007-12), the average gross state domestic product (GSDP) growth rate was seven-eight per cent. Under Akhilesh Yadav, annual GSDP growth stood under six per cent. In 2013-14, GSDP growth fell to 4.95 per cent, while the growth of other developing states - notably Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Uttarakhand and West Bengal - were much higher, with some showing sustained progress, especially MP and Uttarakhand.
All this while, the CM continued to be the subject of ridicule by his opponents for allegedly not being in full control of his government and functioning under the shadow of senior family members and party leaders.
There were snide remarks, too, such as "four-and-a-half chief ministers in UP", referring to the four power centres of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Shivpal Singh Yadav, Ram Gopal Yadav and Azam Khan, and the half referring to Akhilesh Yadav. This perception stays.
Akhilesh Yadav was also pulled up on public forums for non-performing ministers and a loose grip on the bureaucracy. However, the ruling party has gained some ground since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and won successive Assembly bypolls. With the tide turning in his favour, Akhilesh Yadav is slowly trying to stamp his authority. The recent dismissal of eight ministers and stripping nine others of their portfolios was a message to ministers who are not performing.
Akhilesh Yadav is preparing for a direct political fight with Narendra Modi in the Assembly polls due in early 2017. Taking into account the professional management of elections by the BJP, the state government has hired image building firms; it has also been liberally publicising policies, works and projects. Besides, Akhilesh Yadav has been pitching his own projects against the Modi government's initiatives - Clean UP, Green UP; Make in UP. Most of the flagship projects have been mandated to be completed or made functional before the 2017 polls.
However, investor conclaves organised by the state government have not brought results. UP has not been able to inspire confidence among investors on the law and order situation, though the state is spending huge funds to improve policing.
The ruling party is betting on the clean image of the chief minister to take on the BJP in the 2017 polls. This would also be a make-or-break election for Akhilesh Yadav.