LUCKNOW, India (AP) — He rode away from his campaign launch Thursday in a bright red bus outfitted with a hydraulic lift to raise him up to address tens of thousands of adoring supporters.
He isn't a Bollywood star or World Cup cricket king. He is Akhilesh Yadav, a regional politician launching his bid to retain power in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest and most populous states.
Wild cheers erupted from crowds gathered along the roads of Lucknow as the $730,000 Mercedes bus pulled away from a rally held to kick off the campaign. "We will educate everyone about the work we have done in the last four and a half years!" Yadav hollered through a loudspeaker while his supporters chanted "Long live Akhilesh!" The bus and a convoy of other vehicles then set off on a dayslong journey across the sprawling state.
But after traveling less than a kilometer (half a mile) everything suddenly came to a halt as mechanical problems stopped the bus. When it couldn't be fixed quickly, Yadav jumped into an SUV and the convoy again drove away.
Such is regional politics in India, where gifts and pageantry dominate rural campaigning. While the leaders are barely known overseas, in India they wield almost complete control in their states and are key to forming alliances in the nation's 545-seat Parliament. Uttar Pradesh is particularly important, given its population of nearly 210 million, about the same as Brazil.
Despite the state's influence on national politics, its economy has fared poorly as organized crime and corruption flourish and communal violence erupts periodically between castes or between Hindus and Muslims.
Yadav, 43, has endeared himself with the population in part by handing out free bicycles and laptop computers to students. Still, he faces an uphill re-election battle largely due to friction within his own family-run party.
Key members of his Samajwadi Party are demanding that Yadav share more power, including with his uncle, the newly appointed party president, and his father, the party founder. Five other Yadav family members are state legislators, and 18 others are elected village representatives.
The family feud has left Yadav vulnerable to election challenges by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's national governing party, as well as another regional party of Dalits, the low-caste community once known as "untouchables."
Given the campaign's importance, Yadav was joined on his campaign bus Thursday by his father and uncle, despite the friction.
"It is a picture perfect for the party. We are a united face now. No one can stop us from coming to power," said Juhie Singh, a young party leader.
The Uttar Pradesh elections, which will be held some time before May, are expected to set the tone for the next national election in 2019.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has set its sights on wresting power in Uttar Pradesh, where it dominated parliamentary elections in 2014.
Yadav is expected to reconnect with his bus in the next few days.