LUCKNOW, India – He rides in a bright red Mercedes bus with a hydraulic lift that raises him to address tens of thousands of adoring Indian 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 India's poorest and most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
As he vows to take his lavish campaign aboard the $730,000 bus across the northern state, wild cheers erupt from the crowds gathered along the roads of Lucknow to watch him pass by. "We will educate everyone about the work we have done in the last four and a half years," Yadav hollers through a loudspeaker, and his supporters chant "Long live Akhilesh."
Such is regional politics in India, where gifts and pageantry dominate rural campaigning. While few overseas are even aware of regional leaders' names, 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 political party.
Key members of his Samajwadi Party are demanding 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 low-caste Dalits, or "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 ballot in 2019.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has set its sights on wresting power in Uttar Pradesh, where it dominated parliamentary elections in 2014.