Uttar Pradesh

Advent of Akhilesh

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav begins the Samajwadi Party's Vikas Rath Yatra in Lucknow on November 3. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Akhilesh with his father and S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav (centre) at the launch of the yatra. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A crowd of supporters of Akhilesh at the launch of the rath yatra. Photo: PTI

Amar Singh, S.P. general secretary. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The emergence of the “Akhilesh factor” in the political space in Uttar Pradesh and the surge in the 43-year-old Chief Minister’s stock within the Samajwadi Party have forced other major political players to reorient their electoral strategies.

CAN internal strife in a political organisation develop in such a manner that the gains made by one faction in the tussle can acquire the dimensions of a game changer in the larger politics of a State? This is unlikely by the standards of conventional political wisdom. But the internal strife in the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh seems to be throwing up such a possibility. After about two months of power struggle with his uncle and senior party leader Shivpal Yadav, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has not only emerged as the clear gainer in the party and its support base but has also become the central point in the pre-election discourse in the country’s most populous State.

Among the palpable signals of Akhilesh’s ascendancy were the events that took place on November 3, when the Chief Minister re-launched the Vikas Rath Yatra, marking the formal beginning of his campaign for the elections to the State Assembly, which are expected to take place in early 2017. Thousands of his supporters had gathered at the launch of the yatra, and the crowd along the more than 75 kilometre route of the yatra between Lucknow and the neighbouring district of Unnao, cheered Akhilesh loudly, indicating that he had emerged taller than any other leader in the perception of the party rank and file. There were some skirmishes between supporters of Shivpal and Akhilesh before the launch of the yatra but that was overshadowed by the overwhelming support for Akhilesh that followed. Both Shivpal and Mulayam Singh Yadav, national president of the S.P. and Akhilesh’s father, attended the function to launch the yatra. Frontline met scores of S.P. supporters on the route Akhilesh covered on the first day of the yatra and every one of them was clear that they preferred the Chief Minister over other party leaders.

Even supporters of the S.P.’s political adversaries, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), admit the emergence of the “Akhilesh factor” in the larger political space. Ramakishan Singh of Sauramau village in Unnao district told Frontline that although he was a BJP supporter he had no hesitation in admitting that the personality of Akhilesh had become an important factor in the run-up to the election and his style of governance and his recent political assertions had won him admirers across political affiliations and castes and communities. Many others shared this view. A couple of days before the launch of the yatra, the BJP’s State-level leader I.P. Singh praised the Chief Minister for the “bold” positions he had taken during his tussle with Shivpal and Amar Singh, party general secretary who is considered close to Mulayam Singh. The BJP leader did this through a Facebook post, but later, in the face of opposition from his own party, he characterised his remarks as a “sarcastic comment”. Yet another senior BJP leader based in Lucknow admitted, on condition of anonymity, that the “Akhilesh factor” was something that the BJP would have to take into account seriously if it wanted to race ahead in the election. Although the BSP leaders did not make such comments on Akhilesh, it was evident that the Dalit party had to nuance its strategies keeping the “Akhilesh factor” in perspective. Within the S.P., Akhilesh’s steadfast refusal to leave it and float his own outfit is viewed positively, especially by the older leaders. These leaders respect Mulayam but are driven by the realisation that the younger leadership is essential to sustain and strengthen the organisation.

Generational shift

An important reason behind Akhilesh’s rise is the perception among a sizable segment of the electorate as also political and governance observers that the Chief Minister has been trying to chart a development path that banks upon core areas such as electricity, roads, social welfare and information technology empowerment. The Akhilesh government’s track record on the law and order front is perceived as below par, but the impression among large segments of the population is that the law and order problems are the creation of the old guard of the S.P. represented by leaders like Shivpal. They also believe that in the past four years the Chief Minister was not allowed to have his way, with his uncle and father behaving like “super Chief Ministers”. The internal strife was seen as a result of Akhilesh’s efforts to overcome their dominance. The cumulative effect of these perceptions has led to the theory of a generational shift in terms of political approach and practice in the S.P., and in Uttar Pradesh politics as a whole. The shift is believed to have created a new “youth constituency” for Akhilesh. Signals from the receptions accorded to the yatra in its early phases impart credence to this view.

Public spat

However, S.P. insiders point out that while the events of the first week of November mark an important stage in the power struggle in which the balance of power is tilting towards the young Chief Minister, some more milestones may have to be crossed before things take a definite shape. Many factors, including the ones that emerged clearly during the period of intense power struggle in September and October, have contributed to this perception.

The most important among them is that Mulayam’s efforts to intervene and work out a compromise between the uncle and nephew had often taken a partisan tilt in favour of Shivpal and Amar Singh. This was most conspicuous on October 24 when there was an ugly showdown between Akhilesh and Shivpal at a meeting of party leaders from across the State. The spat, in front of a large number of senior leaders of the party, was so indecorous that Shivpal called for the removal of Akhilesh as Chief Minister and went on to swear on “the sacred Ganga and his only son” that Akhilesh had told him about plans to split the S.P. He also publicly accused the Chief Minister of lying when Akhilesh lashed out at Amar Singh for planting stories that likened him to Mughal king Aurangzeb who had conspired against and toppled his father Shah Jahan. In doing so, Akhilesh sought to present the testimony of Ashu Malik, party leader and Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) in support of his claim, and at that moment Shivpal snatched the mike from Akhilesh and announced that the Chief Minister was lying.

Before this spat, Akhilesh had made a speech repudiating Shivpal’s allegations that he was plotting to form a new party. Akhilesh pledged total allegiance to Mulayam in words brimming with emotion and announced that he would step down as Chief Minister the moment the party president directed him to do so. Responding to the speeches of Shivpal and Akhilesh, Mulayam made it clear that he would not forsake Amar Singh just because Akhilesh had levelled allegations against him. In fact, Mulayam’s defence of Amar Singh was so strong that he said he would have ended up in jail had it not been for the help rendered by the businessman-turned-politician. He also praised, as he had done repeatedly over the past two months, Shivpal for the great work he had done for the party over many decades. Evidently, Mulayam was not ready to let Akhilesh have his way in the factional fight.

The October 24 spat was the culmination of blatant and oblique real-politic manoeuvres by both Akhilesh and Shivpal. On September 12, Akhilesh removed Mining Minister Gayatri Prajapati and Panchayati Raj Minister Rajkishore Singh. Both of them were facing corruption charges and were considered close to Shivpal. The next day, the Chief Minister removed Chief Secretary Deepak Singhal, who is also considered close to Shivpal. Shivpal complained to Mulayam about Akhilesh’s actions and this led to Shivpal being made the president of the State unit of the S.P., replacing Akhilesh. This was followed by Akhilesh divesting Shivpal of all his portfolios, including the important Public Works. Two days later, on the evening of September 15, Shivpal resigned as State party president and as Minister.

Through all these developments, Akhilesh’s refrain was that “outsiders” were creating problems in the party and the government. It was clear that the “outsiders” he had in mind was Amar Singh. Mulayam was seen as reacting against this when he appointed Amar Singh as party general secretary. In the wake of all this, Mulayam held a series of meetings and prevailed upon Shivpal and Akhilesh and effected a truce, which led to the reinstatement of Shivpal and Prajapati as Minister. However, Shivpal was not given back the prestigious Public Works Ministry.

Amidst all this, there were clear indications that the crisis was far from over and that the Shivpal and Akhilesh factions were continuing with their own manoeuvres both within and outside the party. These covert operations once again came into the open on October 23, when Akhilesh removed Shivpal and three others—Shadab Fatima, Narad Rai, and Om Prakash Singh—from the Ministry.

Significantly, this move came after a meeting of party legislators that Akhilesh convened at his residence. An overwhelming majority of the legislators reportedly attended that meeting. The Chief Minister also announced the relaunch of the Vikas Rath Yatra at the meeting. The yatra, originally scheduled to start on October 3, was postponed on account of the September strife. The removal of Shivpal from the Ministry was followed by the expulsion of senior party leader Ramgopal Yadav, who is a close associate of Akhilesh, from the party. These developments seemed to be heralding an imminent split in the party and it was in this context that the October 24 meeting of S.P. leaders was called.

In the run-up to the meeting, members of the Shivpal faction maintained, albeit in private, that Akhilesh would boycott the meeting. This, they said, would lead to his removal as Chief Minister, paving the way for Mulayam to take over the reins. However, Akhilesh was one of the first persons to arrive at the meeting. His supporters held that Akhilesh’s decision to attend the meeting and take clear positions on issues was an organisational masterstroke.

While Akhilesh had the confidence of party legislators right through the tussle, this move accorded him greater support in the party’s organisational structure.

Shivpal, however, continued to expel several of Akhilesh supporters, including Minister Pawan Pandey, from the party in the days following the meeting. Notwithstanding this, it was becoming increasingly evident that an overwhelming majority of party leaders, both among legislators and party workers and office-bearers, were resolutely siding with Akhilesh. It probably dawned on Shivpal and Mulayam that the writing was on the wall. Their presence at the launch of the yatra is viewed by the S.P. leadership and rank and file as an acceptance of Akhilesh’s strength.

Move for secular unity

Mulayam and Shivpal have launched an exercise of reaching out to the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United), issuing a call for unity of secular parties in the forthcoming election to counter the communal menace represented by the BJP.

Shivpal has made repeated trips to Delhi and has even invited leaders of the RLD, the RJD and the JD(U) for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the S.P. being held in Lucknow. Mulayam and Amar Singh held a meeting with Prashant Kishor, the Congress’ election strategist for Uttar Pradesh. These efforts have not resulted in any concrete political outcome. The Congress is on record that Kishor’s meeting with the S.P. leaders was not one authorised by the party. RJD and RLD leaders are attending the S.P’s celebrations although they have not taken an affirmative position on an electoral alliance.

Meanwhile, the rath yatra is progressing well, throwing a challenge to Akhilesh’s political adversaries. It is too early to say whether this surge in the political stock of the 43-year-old Chief Minister will once again result in the S.P. emerging tops in the election, especially since the BJP’s Hindutva-oriented consolidation on the ground.

The BJP is focussing on the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Most Backward Castes (MBCs), and sections of Dalits, and employing multiple stratagems, which include low-intensity communal flare-ups in different parts of the State. It is not yet clear whether the confusion created by the S.P.’s internal tussle among Muslims about the party’s capacity to fight the BJP effectively has been offset by the surge in the political stock of Akhilesh.

Ultimately, the S.P.’s performance in the election will depend on how the leadership addresses these issues, notwithstanding the conspicuous rise of youth support for Akhilesh. Equally important is the organisational question as to what kind of influence the Chief Minister will have in selecting candidates for the Assembly election.

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