Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s hesitation to announce the Chief Ministerial candidate ahead of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections is perhaps the first indicator that he was not confident of retaining power in the country’s most populous state. His response to a question at Friday’s press conference that the elected legislators and the Parliamentary Board would take a call on who should be the next Chief Minister is also being seen as an attempt to shield his son Akhilesh if the electorate rejects his party.

Political pundits in Lucknow view the latest development as an admission by a battle scarred Mulayam Singh Yadav that factionalism within his own party and a strong anti incumbency factor could probably mar the SP’s chances in the elections. He is apparently conscious that his son Akhilesh continues to be the best face in both his organisation as well as in the family for being projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate. However, if Akhilesh becomes the party mascot in the polls, he would also have to bear the brunt of the impending defeat. Therefore, to prevent him from being made the fall guy in the post election scenario, it would be more prudent to keep the question of Chief Ministership open.

The astute Mulayam Singh has evidently reviewed the party’s earlier position of presenting Akhilesh as the star campaigner and the CM nominee. The declaration regarding the Chief Ministership being decided by the legislators and the Parliamentary Board was the consequence of some rethinking by him. In his calculation, the announcement would make Akhilesh’s detractors like Mulayam’s brother Shivpal Singh Yadav empowered. Simultaneously, it would give a political lease of life to Akhilesh, who would not be singed by the possible defeat and thus would have sufficient time to resurrect himself prior to the 2022 UP elections.

Mulayam’s announcement has largely been erroneously interpreted as a signal regarding the isolation of Akhilesh in the family feud, where Shivpal is being viewed as the man in charge of the show largely because he is the one who is taking all the decisions and so obviously plays a major role in distribution of tickets. The faulty inference is that since the majority of the elected legislators would have been selected and handed tickets by Shivpal, they would automatically back him for the Chief Ministership once the polls get over. The assumption would hold good only if the SP were to win the majority of seats, which does not seem to be the case. Therefore, the flak for the possible defeat would be at Shivpal’s doorstep, with Akhilesh being saved from being blamed due to what the media is terming as his “grand isolation”. What many fail to realise is that Mulayam is an old fox who has seen many electoral battles and would certainly not let one of them take its toll with his eldest son—who he hand-picked for the coveted post in 2012—as the main casualty. 

The family squabbles over the control of the Samajwadi Party continue to haunt its leadership. The feud between Akhilesh and Shivpal was sparked off last month because of both camps’ desire to wrest control of the organisation ahead of the elections. There is little doubt that Mulayam Singh, or “Netaji” as he is referred to, is the undisputed leader of the party. There is no argument so far as he is concerned, but the real battle is for succession, as an ageing Mulayam Singh Yadav is working overtime to keep his family as well as his supporters together.

Soon after Shivpal rebelled and trained his guns on Akhilesh, Mulayam used all his resources to sort out things between the two closest members of his family. By seemingly allowing Shivpal to have the upper hand, Mulayam forced his younger brother to take back his resignations from the various posts and commit publicly that he would support Akhilesh. Having done so, Mulayam is seeking to ensure that his son’s detractors including Shivpal shower lavish praise on his government and his leadership, so that they are in no position to criticise him once the elections are declared and the family feud again rages over the distribution of tickets.

Akhilesh is Mulayam’s eldest son and thereby enjoys his father’s complete confidence. Had it not been so, he would never have been appointed the CM. As a matter of fact, Mulayam could foresee his 61-year-old brother Shivpal’s ambitions and therefore anointed his son as his political heir during his own lifetime, settling the issue once and for all. However, politics within the clan and the overriding ambition of Shivpal, prodded by his close friend Amar Singh, to be the Chief Minister apparently triggered the crisis. It is an open secret that the family is divided in factions and while Akhilesh has the backing of his other uncle and Mulayam’s cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, Shivpal is supported by Akhilesh’s half brother Prateek and Amar Singh.

Shivpal has worked as a nuts and bolts man in the organisation and Mulayam is keen that he should not move away from the party fold, especially when there is every possibility that the anti incumbency factor would have the likelihood of becoming overwhelming during the polls. He wants to ensure that in the event of a defeat, the Samajwadi Party’s best chance of survival for the next five years would be both unity in the family as well as in the organisation. Akhilesh’s associates have started giving the impression that the 43-year-old Chief Minister was disallowed to perform due to his overbearing uncle Shivpal Yadav and his supporters. It is being propagated that all that was well in UP was courtesy Akhilesh and whatever has gone wrong like the law and order gone askew was due to the patronage some vested interests have been receiving from Shivpal.

The Samajwadi Party is banking on its traditional vote bank of Yadavs and Muslims to carry it through the polls, but archrival Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seem to be emerging as strong challengers for wresting control of the government in 2017. The BJP, which had secured 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, also hopes to do well, but its prospects are negatively impacted by its inability to put forward a credible face for the Chief Ministership.

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