The future of a wounded party

The ugly battle for power within the SP has provided fodder and advantage to its two closest rivals, the BJP and the BSP

October 26, 2016 01:16 am | Updated November 17, 2021 06:25 am IST

The Samajwadi Party (SP) meeting on October 24 called by patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav was intended to bring about a reconciliation between his son Akhilesh Yadav and brother Shivpal Yadav and send out a message ahead of next year’s Assembly elections that the party is united. Instead, the tears, recriminations, washing of dirty linen, snatching of microphones, and general chaos in the meeting sent out a very different signal: that this was going to be a battle to the finish. Equally significantly, the meeting demonstrated that Netaji, as Mulayam Singh is known to his party colleagues and admirers, no longer holds absolute sway over the party that he assiduously built over a quarter of a century — or even his family.

In 2012, Mulayam Singh anointed Akhilesh Yadav Chief Minister. Today, it is evident that the son has won hearts and minds in the party and beyond, and is no longer as politically dependent on his father as he was earlier. His father does not quite know what to do, torn as he is between his son and his brother, second wife and younger son, with party general secretary Amar Singh (known as Shakuni in party circles) a looming figure in the picture too.

At the SP’s drama-filled meeting, presided over by Mulayam Singh, Shivpal Yadav was jeered when he attacked his nephew. In sharp contrast, when an emotional Akhilesh Yadav said he wanted to protect his father and party from the machinations of Amar Singh (who his father said saved him from going to jail), the audience cheered their young leader on. This was an audience that had, incidentally, been selected and summoned by the father, not the son. The meeting ended inconclusively.

The Chief Minister’s image

A day later, a messy patch-up had been effected: Akhilesh Yadav continues as Chief Minister even though his uncle had demanded that he be replaced by Mulayam Singh himself. The young Chief Minister who had sacked his uncle has also been asked to take him back into his council of ministers. This, even as more accusatory letters written by the dramatis personae are finding their way into the public domain.

The sense that this is not the last of the war remains because it is, as a party sympathiser phrased it, a “question of the survival of the fittest”. The rift in now too wide for any real, long-lasting reconciliation. There is also a strong feeling that the split in the party has been put off for another day, and that while Akhilesh Yadav will not leave the party as long as his father is alive, there will be nothing to hold him back after that.

The family feud apart, the SP today also no longer has leaders from Mulayam Singh’s generation who can act as honest brokers. The last of them, Janeshwar Mishra and Mohan Singh, died in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Three party seniors, all in their seventies — Reoti Raman Singh, Beni Prasad Verma, and Kiranmay Nanda — simply don’t have the stature to carry as much weight with Mulayam Singh.

What has this second round of public hostilities done to Akhilesh Yadav’s image, a man who most people describe as the SP’s “only political asset”? Opinion is divided even among his admirers. One group believes that he has emerged as a “heroic personality” who has held his own under very difficult circumstances, taken his father’s public taunts with grace, and come through as someone who believes that the State and party are more important than the individual. After all, he did offer publicly to step down as Chief Minister if his father wanted him to. His uncle, they say, only talked of his own contribution to the party and demanded the sacking of his nephew.

The other group, while conceding that all this is true, is concerned that Akhilesh Yadav’s credibility will take a hit if he keeps reinstating ministers he has sacked. One month back, too, he was forced to take back Gayatri Prajapati into the Cabinet as Transport Minister.

Battleground 2017

How will this simmering feud affect the SP’s prospects in the coming elections? Much will depend on the selection of candidates and Mr. Akhilesh Yadav’s say in that process. Shivpal Yadav is still the State unit president. It will also hinge on how cohesive the election campaign is and whether Akhilesh Yadav is really placed at its centre. Things will be clearer when his Samajwadi Vikas Rath Yatra, commencing on November 3, progresses across the State.

But the ugly battle for power within the SP has provided fodder and advantage to its two closest rivals, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BSP stands to gain if the SP weakens as that would encourage Muslims, who constitute almost 20 per cent of the population in the State, to move substantially, if not wholly, to their side in a bid to keep the BJP out of power.

Similarly, for the BJP, which is banking on not just the Hindutva card but also on the support of the upper castes and non-Yadav backward castes to help it win power, the fallout of this could be a bonus. The educated middle class among the Yadavs were happy with Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership and his focus on modernising the State. But if the Chief Minister begins to look weak, they may also head to the BJP.

For the SP to be in the contest in these elections, Akhilesh Yadav must look strong, credible and in control. Will the family come to the rescue or will its members keep chipping away?

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