The Samajwadi Party’s identity crisis

Amar Singh was a perfect fit for Mulayam Singh and vice versa. The SP chief was shy, inarticulate and uncomfortable dealing with the larger world. By contrast, Amar Singh loved the glare of the camera, went out to court controversy and revelled in brinkmanship politics. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt  

Like Amar Singh himself, his official Website, thakuramarsingh.com, is frank, bitingly sarcastic and, needless to say, vastly entertaining. The introduction describes him: “Amar Singh is a growing enigma, his force is unstoppable, his will untethered.”

Many of the recent blog entries are devoted to his thunderbolt resignation from crucial posts in the Samajwadi Party. And expectedly, the former SP general secretary socks it to his critics in the party, rebutting their now openly aired charge that he has turned a socialist party into a capitalist party. “Yes I have wealth, and I have wealthy friends,” he tells his former associates, going on to reveal embarrassing details of how in the past the same wealth helped many of them out of their personal crises.

With so much dirt exchanged in public, it was a given that SP chief Mulayam Singh would sooner rather than later accept Mr. Amar Singh's resignation. The old guard in the party had long cavilled at Mr. Amar Singh's clout with the supremo. They were at a loss to understand the logic of the Mulayam-Amar association. One was “dhartiputra (son of the soil) Mulayam,” wedded to the austere, socialist ideology of Ram Manohar Lohia. The other was a self-confessed player of high-stakes politics, flamboyant, colourful and utterly unselfconscious about his Bollywood-big corporate connection.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Mr. Amar Singh became the face of the party, and then the party itself. Journalists visiting him grew accustomed to hearing the party being spoken of in the first person singular: “I saved the Manmohan Singh government;” “I will not have seat adjustments with the Congress,” and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, once the Mulayam-Amar equations unravelled, Mr. Amar Singh found himself cast in the role of “villain.” SP insiders blamed him for the party's plunging fortunes, attacking him especially for the erosion of Muslim support. Pundits decried his baneful influence on Mr. Mulayam Singh, a Muslim-OBC (Other Backward Classes) icon seen to have surpassed such previous underclass symbols as Charan Singh and Karpoori Thakur. In the common perception, Mr. Mulayam Singh's SP was a subaltern phenomenon umbilically connected to the ground, while Mr. Amar Singh's SP was all glamour and public relations.

It is a fact that the SP's old guard felt slighted and sidelined in the Amar Singh dispensation. Nor can anyone dispute the overdose of glamour that tended to dilute the SP's core identity. Yet to juxtapose Mr. Mulayam Singh and Mr. Amar Singh in such black and white terms is to oversimplify their relationship. Indeed, the question arises: Why would anyone suffer a friendship for 15 years if that only brought misery and ruin? In truth, Mr. Amar Singh was a perfect fit for Mr. Mulayam Singh and vice versa. The SP chief commanded a loyal base but was hamstrung by the “homespun” tag. He was shy, inarticulate and uncomfortable dealing with the larger world.

By contrast, Mr. Amar Singh loved the glare of the camera, went out to court controversy and revelled in brinkmanship politics. He raised the SP's profile, liberated it from its provincial, anti-English upbringing, deployed massive doses of funds, and used his phenomenal network to strike backroom deals. But Thakur Amar Singh, as he calls himself in his blog, was also a keen political animal. He divined that for the SP to beat competition and expand its reach, it would need to end its antagonist relationship with the forward castes. The BJP's growth showed the way. The saffron party was the first in Uttar Pradesh to use “social engineering” to add OBC castes to its essentially 'upper' caste constituency.

In time, the SP's famous MY(Muslim-Yadav) base expanded to take in sections of Thakurs - and with visible results. The payoff for Mr. Amar Singh was unbridled power without having to contest elections. In the 2007 Assembly election, Mayawati would appropriate the caste-building formula to runaway success.

That the Mulayam-Amar match was mutually beneficial is borne out by two facts. For 15 years, office-bearers put up with Mr. Amar Singh, protesting only after Mr. Mulayam Singh's son, Akhilesh Singh, took the lead in the revolt against the general secretary. It is doubtful whether Mr. Mulayam Singh would have allowed his long-time associate to go had filial relations not intervened. In the end, Mr. Amar Singh fell by the same process by which he rose to the top in the SP. He sidelined and superseded seniors. Today, the son has sidelined and superseded him.

Secondly, contrary to popular impression, the Amar Singh years were actually productive for the SP. The party was founded in October 1992, and Mr. Amar Singh became general secretary in 1995. The SP strength in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha went up from 110 of 424 seats in 1996 to 143 of 403 seats in 2002. In 2007, the Bahujan Samaj Party overtook the SP, which, however, remained a major force and indeed marginally increased its vote share to 25.43 per cent (+ 0.6 per cent). The SP's graph was on an upward trajectory in the Lok Sabha, too. Between 1996 and 1999, its seat share went up from 16 to 26 of 85 . In 2004, the party defied the odds to emerge on top with 35 of 80 seats, and though its share of seats and votes declined in 2009, it finished ahead of the favourite, BSP, winning 23 seats to the latter's 20.

The BSP's rapid slide in only two years ought to have pumped adrenalin into the SP. Yet this was a time of crisis for the party. The pragmatic politics of Mr. Amar Singh brought Hindutva hero Kalyan Singh into the SP fold. The assumption was that the OBC vote would consolidate in the SP's favour and it would romp home on a match-winning Muslim-OBC-Thakur alliance.

In the event, the Kalyan factor led to a piquant situation. On the one hand, it brought about a measure of backward caste consolidation, which gave the SP a handsome number of seats in the Yadav-Lodh belt of mid-western U.P. On the other, there was a cost to be paid in the form of Muslim disillusionment with “Maulana Mulayam.”

For years, Muslims had worshipped the SP chief, overlooking his previous association with Mr. Kalyan Singh only because of their emotional attachment to him. But they were unwilling to forgive a second dalliance with the man who oversaw the Babri Masjid's liquidation and who continued to spew venom against the community.

What next? There is nothing SP insiders would like more than obliterating the Amar era and going back to where it all started. But that is easier said than done. An entire generation has grown up these 15 years. The State's small towns are bustling affairs, crowded with malls and cybercafés. The SP's strident opposition to English and computers will alienate the urban voter. At the same time, the departure of Mr. Amar Singh and Mr. Kalyan Singh will mean that it will have to do without the “plus votes” which are now part of every political party's electoral calculation.

The SP would also be naïve to bank on a happy reunification with Muslims post-Amar Singh 'purge.' The community has been taken for a ride far too often for it to blindly trust the SP or any other party. Muslims know that the SP chief actively connived in the Kalyan Singh induction. So he can hardly brush away the Ayodhya warrior as an Amar Singh-imposed baggage. Nor should the SP chief assume that he can balance the Kalyan mistake by inviting the return of Muslim hardliners like Azam Khan. The opportunism is unlikely to be lost on Muslims.

Today U.P. is a battlefield where parties are furiously chasing one another's vote banks. The Congress' umbrella Dalit-Muslim-'upper' caste formation served the party well for decades and more. The BJP annexed the 'upper' castes and looked well settled to stay on top. But in less than a decade, the SP was snapping at its heels. Barely did the SP reach the summit when the BSP came along. Ms Mayawati snatched votes from the BJP and the SP and forged what seemed an unassailable 'Dalit plus' combination. But within two years, her carefully built fortress would be breached, with a resurgent Congress voraciously eating into its rivals' vote bases.

The cycle of vote poaching started in U.P. with the Congress as the victim. Today, the Congress is doing unto others what they did to it. . The rush for the “plus vote” is threatening core constituencies, and parties have to protect their own flanks even as they raid the bases of their rivals. Only the very alert can survive the intense competition, and even those who do will spend shorter and shorter time at the top.

Just how the SP reinvents itself in this challenging situation will be interesting to watch.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 11:44:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-Samajwadi-Partyrsquos-identity-crisis/article16839770.ece

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