Uttar Pradesh & Bihar

Divided family

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Samajwadi Party State president Shivpal Yadav at a function in Lucknow on August 20. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav with Amar Singh, who has been made the party's national general secretary. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad watching a play in Patna on August 19. Photo: PTI

The fight for supremacy between Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and the struggle for predominance between the two major political constituents of the ruling coalition in Bihar have the potential to damage the unity in the Janata Parivar.

THE wheels within wheels in the erstwhile constituents of the Janata Parivar are once again churning intensely, throwing two big north Indian States, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, into political turbulence. As has been their wont right from the time the Janata Party was formed in 1977, the constituents of the Janata Parivar are indulging in a tussle that is essentially personality oriented. At the core of the developments in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State which is bound for the Assembly elections in late 2016 or early 2017, is the aggravation of the long-standing tussle for supremacy in the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) between Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav, who is also a senior Minister in the State Cabinet. In Bihar, the two major political constituents of the ruling coalition, the Janata Dal (United) led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad, are engaged in a fight for predominance.

Proxy war

The tussle in Bihar had all the characteristics of a classic proxy war since the leadership of the two parties did not clash over any policy or administrative issue directly relating to the coalition government or its political direction but over the grant of bail to and release from jail of former RJD Lok Sabha member Shahabuddin. Shahabuddin is facing charges in approximately 40 serious criminal cases and is convicted in two and sentenced to life in one of them. A large section of the RJD, including some of its top leaders, celebrated the release of Shahabuddin on the orders of the Patna High Court.

JD(U) leaders vehemently criticised the grant of bail. Shahabuddin came up with some snide remarks against the Chief Minister and some RJD leaders, such as former Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, endorsed them. These typical Janata Parivar tussles in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have once again raised, as has happened numerous times in the last three and a half decades, serious questions about the political sagacity and endurance potential of these parties that form a crucial component of the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), non-Congress political formations in the country. In turn, this also raises a number of qualitative challenges in relation to the advancement of secular politics in India.

Although there are several similarities between the strife between the Janata Parivar constituents in the two States, there are also subtle differences in the state of political play. In Bihar, after the eruption of hostilities in the second and third week of September, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad intervened to restrain their respective party leaders from aggravating the situation. This has had an effect in the immediate term and things have cooled down between the two parties, although activists of both the parties as well as political observers of the State maintain that the September tussle could have a detrimental effect on the prospects of the coalition in the medium and long term. In short, the perception is that the developments in September may have sowed the seeds of disintegration of the Grand Alliance (Mahagatbandhan) which came up during the Assembly elections in October-November 2015 and scored a massive electoral victory over the BJP and its allies, but that will not materialise in the near future.

However, that is not the state of play in Uttar Pradesh. All the major parties in the State, including the S.P., the principal opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the BJP and the Congress, are gearing up for the forthcoming Assembly elections, and the emergence of the internal strife into the public sphere has done anything but good to the S.P.

Blatant aggression

For most part of the four and a half years of S.P. rule, a cold war of sorts was on between Akhilesh and Shivpal. It came into the open in the second and third weeks of September as blatant aggression between the leaders and their camps in the party. At one stage, S.P. president and Akhilesh’s father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, intervened directly with the professed objective of fostering a truce between the uncle and nephew. This initiative of the party chief was initially perceived to be even-handed and aimed at maintaining the balance of power between the two factions. However, after the initial attempts, Mulayam Singh’s actions came to be seen as increasingly favouring Shivpal. In this situation, the quiet that exists in the S.P. is palpably uneasy.

The more open eruption of the Akhilesh-Shivpal battle was on September 12 and 13, as a series of developments unfolded in Lucknow over the two days. 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 developments that took place the next day, September 13, were even more dramatic. In the morning, the Chief Minister removed Chief Secretary Deepak Singhal, again considered close to Shivpal, and appointed Rahul Prasad Bhatnagar in his position. These successive removals were evidently perceived by Shivpal and his associates as openly hostile actions. Shivpal met his brother Mulayam, obviously to complain about Akhilesh’s actions. This resulted in Shivpal being made the president of the Uttar Pradesh unit of the S.P., replacing Akhilesh.

By late evening, Akhilesh struck again by divesting Shivpal of all his portfolios, including the important Public Works. Shivpal flew to Delhi to once again appeal before Mulayam. The S.P. chief called a meeting in Delhi, which Akhilesh did not attend. At the same time, he stated in Lucknow that while he consulted Mulayam on most issues he took his own decisions, too, from time to time. He went on to add that the problem that the State was confronting was not a problem of the family but of governance. He indicated that some “outsiders” were causing problems. This was widely perceived to be a reference to Amar Singh, who had recently returned to the S.P., mainly through the efforts of Shivpal. These statements of Akhilesh were seen as a clear indication that he had decided to assert his authority.

Two days later, on the evening of September 15, Shivpal resigned from all positions, including as State unit president and as Minister. This was followed by discussions, over the next two days, involving senior leaders of the S.P. and led by Mulayam Singh himself. The discussions led to the reinstatement of Shivpal to all the positions that he had given up, including that of the party State unit president and Minister.

However, Shivpal’s Public Works portfolio was not given back to him. In the days that followed, Shivpal, too, struck in his own ways, removing seven close associates of Akhilesh, including three Members of the Legislative Council (MLC). Over 50 Akhilesh supporters responded by sending in their resignations from the positions that they were holding in the party and its front organisations. Some of them wrote their resignation letters in blood to display their loyalty to Akhilesh. The Chief Minister was impelled to make an appeal to put an immediate end to such emotional displays. A day after this, Mulayam appointed Amar Singh national general secretary of the S.P., which was read as a clear message to Akhilesh that it was the father’s writ that ran in the party.

Indications from S.P. insiders is that in the early stages of the Akhilesh-Shivpal tussle, Mulayam had sought to make it appear as though he was striking a balance between the strengths of Akhilesh and Shivpal.

The arguments that held sway in the party at that time were that Shivpal was a tested and trusted organisation coordinator, who was involved in building up the organisational machinery right from the early days of the S.P., and that Akhilesh had built up much popular support through the welfare and infrastructure schemes advanced by his government in the past four and a half years. Thus, the original effort of Mulayam was reportedly to keep both his son and his brother in good humour. However, this balance was lost in the course of the events as they unfolded in the third week of September. Several reasons are being cited for this change. These range from the special relations Mulayam has with Amar Singh and some other close relatives, who are not active in politics. They, reportedly, created the impression in the party chief's mind that Akhilesh was trying to present himself as a bigger leader than Mulayam. Ardent supporters of the Chief Minister point out that if Akhilesh manages to win the next Assembly elections or steer the S.P. to emerge as the single largest party, he will become the unquestionable top leader of the party. Apparently, nobody, including Shivpal and Amar Singh, wants such a situation to emerge.

Another argument is that Mulayam was upset because Akhilesh was obviously trying to chart out a new style of politics that was modern and independent of the conventional tactics generally associated with the S.P. Over and above all this is the conspiracy theory that suggests that the BJP’s central leadership and sections of the Union government had used arm-twisting tactics, citing the several cases against Mulayam, including the long-pending disproportionate assets case. The presence of a television baron who is closely associated with the BJP leadership as well as Amar Singh at crucial meetings as the controversial developments unfolded, is cited to buttress this argument.

As advocates of this theory asserted: “There was the real threat of the veteran leader being put in jail. Similar threats were brought up against him before the Bihar elections last year, ultimately forcing the S.P.’s withdrawal from the alliance.”

Evidently, this strife and the debate surrounding it that has developed at multiple levels are bound to be counterproductive for the S.P. The damage potential these have must be particularly distressing for a large number of S.P. workers, leaders and even MLAs as the common perception across the State is that the quotient of anti-incumbency faced by Akhilesh is much less in comparison with what the previous governments had faced. Pre-election surveys have shown that he is still the most preferred choice for chief ministership, and that too by a big margin. BSP chief Mayawati and BJP leader Yogi Adityanath have emerged as the strongest contenders for the post in their parties, but in almost every survey they are lagging behind Akhilesh by close to 10 percentage points. In this context, a conviction was developing in a sizable section of the S.P. as also the general population that Akhilesh had a fighting chance to return to power.

However, the internal strife has shaken these hopes in a big way. The turn of events has apparently generated intense doubts among the minority Muslim community, which is a significant constituent of the support base of S.P., along with the Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav community. There is a growing perception that the minority community will now opt for the BSP despite Akhilesh’s popularity at the ground level.

On his part, Akhilesh is planning to start his pre-election campaign in October. The slogan that has been coined for the campaign, “Na ahankaar na dvesh, ek baar phir Akhilesh” (With no vanity or ill-will, Akhilesh, once again), refers to his governance track record but could also be suggestive of the pressures and challenges thrown up by the tussle.

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