July 05, 2020
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Father, Son And Holy Bike

The SP emerges in one piece from the ‘family feud’, with some deft manoeuvring by Mulayam

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Father, Son And Holy Bike
Photograph by Nirala Tripathi
Father, Son And Holy Bike

The drama is over and the ­curtain has fallen. The speculated split in the Samajwadi Party (SP) did not happen and the party retained its electoral symbol—the bicycle. ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav has put ‘Tipu’ ahead of his brothers and put his stamp of approval on son Akhilesh Yadav as the undisputed leader of the party. Staying flexible without losing the scripted plot, Mulayam all­owed ­Akhilesh to come up on his own with the support of his legislators—in ­effect, patronising his son without ­appearing to be backing him. He did not submit individual affidavits by legislators to the Election Commission (EC) to counter his son’s claim even though he had a galaxy of eminent lawyers to argue his case. The indications were clear. He allowed son-CM-and-now-party-­president Akhilesh to have a walkover.

Rajya Sabha MP and SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav has now submitted a caveat in the Supreme Court on the symbol issue, preempting Mulayam’s younger brother and trusted counsel Shivpal Yadav and others from moving court. To Akhilesh, both “wheeler-dealer” and “uncle” Amar Singh and “chacha” Shivpal are irritants.

Sources say Akhilesh seemed confident on the symbol issue. He invited some sel­ected journalists to his official residence on January 17, a day after the EC verdict, but they were not allowed to bring in cameras or mobile phones. They were told that when Akhilesh went to meet Mulayam at night, after the EC verdict, “Netaji was happy” and “we cannot be separated”. Father and son managed to hog the limelight, eclipsing developments in the other political parties in the fray.

Amar Singh and Shivpal have been sidelined completely. Akhilesh wanted a free hand in party affairs before elections, and definitely minus Amar Singh and Shivpal. As a result, Shivpal’s name didn’t appear on Mulayam’s shortlist of candidates and, just one day before the EC verdict, Amar Singh also packed himself off to London for medical treatment. That very day, Naresh Uttam, who would replace Shivpal as state party president, apparently called on Mulayam. No one knows what they discussed, but Naresh came out of the house only after nearly two hours. When he was asked about the visit, Naresh ­reportedly told some people that he had gone to seek “Netaji’s blessings”.

In the afternoon of January 16, while the commissioners in the EC in Delhi were busy drafting the pronouncement, Mulayam reached the party office in Lucknow. But he didn’t enter the office and went instead to first call on Naresh. While addressing party workers, he made Naresh sit to his left and an old man on his right. Shivpal sat behind Mulayam. He told party workers that Akhilesh neither responds to his calls nor hears his point of view and Muslims have become annoyed with the party. Mulayam’s statement is seen by many as an attempt to balance many factors—consolidate the upper-caste and Yadav votes for Akhilesh while also gaining the sympathy of Muslim voters. It is also seen as a diversionary tactics to make Akhilesh appear as a neutral leader “without the Muslim baggage”.

Interestingly, after Mulayam left the party office and before the EC verdict came, Naresh and his supporters apparently fixed Akhilesh’s nameplate as party president—golden-framed with a black background—below Mulayam’s golden-framed red-and-green name plate. The letters on Akhilesh’s nameplate were in bigger size.

“Mulayam seems to have surrendered unconditionally,” says Bidyut Chakra­barty, who teaches political science at Delhi University. “There seems to have been some kind of father-son understanding, with Mulayam allowing Akhilesh to come up on his own.”

After the EC verdict, many in the BJP are happy that it would now be a triangular contest (BJP, SP, BSP). Had the SP split, it would have been BJP versus BSP in UP.

Many in the Akhilesh camp, however, do not agree. Mulayam didn’t want to surrender power in the party and wanted equal share for everyone in the family to maintain harmony, they claim, suggesting it was Akhilesh who didn’t want to share power with anyone except his father.

There were other dynamics in the family. Those close to Mulayam (Shivpal, Mulayam’s second wife Sadhna, son Prateek and others), sources say, felt they could “bargain” only through him. “There is no evidence that Mulayam was trying to build Akhilesh,” says an official who has worked closely with the young CM. In fact, things did come to such a pass that only Akhilesh and Ram Gopal Yadav were together, while Mulayam and the rest of the family were ranged against them. The high-voltage family feud was reflected even in the annual party function. The more-than-a-week-long cultural extravaganza, Saifai Mahotsav, held towards the end of every year at Mulayam’s native Saifai village in Etawah district, was not held this time despite SP being in power. This is one annual event that the who’s who in the extended SP family attend, but Akhilesh seemed to be least interested in it. This time, such was the family feud that Akhilesh was not ready to bend.

When Akhilesh won the symbol, some observers equated it in significance with Rajnath Singh announcing Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in Goa, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, while sidelining all the senior leaders. “It went down well with the party workers, who were ­euphoric and almost felt as if Modi had already bec­ome the PM,” says an observer. “There is similar winnability factor ­attached to Akhilesh following the EC verdict.”

It is believed Akhilesh was all set with posters, banners and films documenting his achievements in development projects, women’s welfare and other schemes, as well as depicting him as a family man. The party, of course, had to put the distribution on hold until the EC verdict was announced because every campaign ­material sported the bicycle symbol, but it also shows Akhilesh was confident about ­retaining the election symbol.

But the confidence clearly does not ­extend to winning the election on its own. In an address to workers in party office last October, Mulayam had said that Muslims were getting disillusioned with the SP, making Akhilesh almost snatch the mike from him. Mulayam has been repeatedly showing the red flag to his CM son on this matter. According to a source, the only reason Akhilesh feels compelled to go with the Congress is the need to consolidate the SP’s Muslim votebank. “Akhilesh understands politics,” says a source. “He won’t be sentimental, but practical and realistic on seat-sharing with the Congress.”

Indeed, Akhilesh will need some of that pragmatism, considering that the prolonged family feud in the SP had left several SP men confused, with a few even shifting their loyalty elsewhere. For INS­tance, Mulayam’s main leader in Agra district, MLA and former minister Raja Mahendra Aridaman Singh, returned to the BJP recently after four years in the SP.

The BJP, meanwhile, is faced with the disillusionment of the Jats, who have traditionally supported the party, but seem to have turned against it since the reservation agitations. After the EC verdict, many in the BJP are happy it would now be a triangular contest (BJP, SP and BSP). Had the SP split, the fight would have narrowed down to one between the BSP and the BJP, whose leaders expected Mayawati’s party to gain from the situation.  

Others in the BJP, though, are rather worried about the SP-­Congress alliance, even though a state leader, Shalabh Mani Tripathi, tells Outlook, “We will fight on the development issue and are not bothered about the alliance between SP and the Congress. Our development work at the Centre will bring us votes in the state.” And yet, while the BJP campaigns with the slogan of Abki Baar 300 Paar, the BSP is slowly and steadily trying to consolidating its support base across India’s most populous state.

“So was this a family drama or party drama?” asks Shiv Visvanathan, social scientist and political commentator, on what transpired in the SP. “A family quarrel is a clash of personalities, but a party quarrel is a struggle over ideology and plans for the future. In the SP, there seems to be a complete merging of the two, with every character, except Amar Singh, belonging to the family. The son is young and plans better, so he is deserving; the father is murky, so one doesn’t want him around; and uncles, anyway, always look like Shakuni in Indian drama. That’s the stereotype. I haven’t heard any politician saying the state is critical not only to the electoral drama, but also to the future of Indian democracy. It is the last bridge against the BJP. But everyone is interested only in a game of musical chairs.”

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