AS A WRESTLER in his youth, Mulayam Singh Yadav was known for his charkha daav manoeuvre, by which once he got his hands around his opponent’s waist, he would be assured of victory no matter how strong his rival was. He owes his political debut to one such wrestling bout in 1962, when he was noticed by a Socialist Party leader, Nathu Singh, and asked to join politics. And for five decades since then, the Samajwadi Party patriarch has fought dozens of electoral fights, exploiting his opponents’ weak points to his advantage. But he perhaps never dreamt that it would be his son, Akhilesh Yadav, who would topple him and his party in the autumn of his career.
It was Mulayam who had appointed Akhilesh the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh after the Samajwadi Party won the 2012 Assembly elections, little knowing that the scion would usurp the father’s authority just before the 2017 polls and try to forge his own political path with his own advisors—alienating figures like his uncle Shivpal Yadav—only to end up bringing the Yadav clan of Saifai to grief. By the evening of March 11th, the day the results came out, it was clear that the 25-year-old party was staring at its lowest ever tally of MLAs: crushed by the BJP, the SP won just 47 seats in a 403-member Assembly. Like the Yadavs of the ancient Dwarka myth, it looked like a case of collective suicide.
Suitably chastened, would the prodigal son return to his father’s side? The father and son did meet on March 12th at the office of the Janeshwar Mishra Trust near the SP headquarters in Lucknow. It was a chance meeting. Mulayam had turned up to console party workers over the rout, and he found Akhilesh there. According to sources, the party patriarch asked his son not to worry, saying that losses are part of the political game and that people are in Modi’s favour for now. Taking a cue, Shivpal, who’d been smarting for being sidelined, struck a conciliatory note as well. “Everyone is responsible for the loss,” he said in Etawah the next day, “We have come down from where we started. We will fight and come back.”
The defeat appears to have momentarily united the warring factions of the SP, which has suffered the twin blows of anti-incumbency and divided internal loyalties. Akhilesh’s alliance with the Congress failed to rescue it from the impact of those, and at the end, the Modi wave was too strong for the party to withstand anyway. But Akhilesh’s rebellion and other failed gambles in trying to win re-election are bound to raise questions over his political judgment, and with the SP’s erstwhile winning formula of Muslim-Yadav votes proving a non-starter this time, the family that dominated UP politics for a quarter of a century might be staring at oblivion.
The Yadav generational shift has not worked. Consider the family differences. For one, Mulayam did not want a seat-sharing deal with the Congress; he was also sceptical of his son’s ‘youth’ pitch. “This is an alliance of two youth of Uttar Pradesh,” Akhilesh said over and over along the campaign trail, referring to himself and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. The two had a joint slogan, ‘UP Ko Yeh Saath Pasand Hai’, coined by election strategist Prashant Kishor. As it turns out, it did not click.“Youth these days don’t relate to those who have got everything on a platter,” says Vinod Chandra, a youth sociologist and associate professor at Lucknow University. “They prefer an elderly Modi who had to struggle for basic things in life and relate with him.”
While Mulayam nurtured the OBC vote, Akhilesh's approach was different. In an interview with Open last August, he said, “Not caste but development will bring us back to power”
Apart from the dynast disadvantage, there were other reasons for young voters to reject the SP-Congress combine. Quality education and job opportunities are high-priority concerns for them. “Education has been the biggest casualty of the last ten years rule of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav,” observes Professor Chandra. “With no good institutes, job opportunities have also not come in the state. As a result, the middle-class youth are looking for a new hope.” Akhilesh, he adds, failed to attract even the underprivileged youth—mostly of lower castes—who usually drop out after school and need vocational training to get jobs. “But the state of diploma and ITI institutions in UP is pathetic and don’t inspire them to join,” says Professor Chandra. Unskilled labour is all they have to offer. “The mere distribution of laptops doesn’t serve any purpose if they don’t have proper education and training facilities,” says the professor. Another youth group is that of politically active students, he adds, who Mulayam understood the value of. The SP has eight youth organisations, the Lohia Wahini, Yuvjan Sabha and Mulayam Singh Youth Brigade among them. In their earlier days, these generated wide support for the party, but over the last seven years, the state government has thwarted campus elections in UP universities, and while these SP- affiliated entities still exist, they are filled with Akhilesh loyalists and no longer effective.
The far bigger setback for the SP has been the desertion of its core voters. “Akhilesh did take the baton from Mulayam, but the legacy was not transferred,” says Ramesh Dikshit, a former professor of Political Science at Lucknow University. “Not only Yadavs, but a section of Kurmis and Lodhs formed the bulk of the SP’s vote bank. While Kurmis and Lodhs have completely left the SP for the BJP, a good number of Yadavs too have migrated towards the BJP.”
That was a vote bank nurtured by Mulayam in the post- Mandal era of the 1990s. However, with Yadavs gaining socio- economic ascendancy, other OBCs that felt left out of the Mandal revolution began drifting towards the BJP. To forestall any such danger, Mulayam in his time had empowered leaders like Beni Prasad Verma, a Kurmi, and Gayatri Prajapati, an MBC. In contrast, Akhilesh’s approach has been to bank on his development agenda rather than go by caste considerations. In an interview with Open last August, he had said, “Not caste but development will bring us back to power.”
Quality education and employment opportunities are high-priority concerns for young voters which the SP-Congress failed to address
Yet, a close scrutiny of government appointments reflect a Yadav bias in the OBC category. The results of the Provincial Civil Services examination over three years from 2011 to 2013 show that of 86 newly appointed sub-divisional magistrates, 56 were Yadavs. Protests had erupted and the Allahabad High Court had to intervene in the recruitment process. “This was a government run by a Yadav for Yadavs,” alleges Awanish Pandey of Pratiyogi Chhatra Sanghash Samiti (PCSS), a student body based in Allahabad that fights job discrimination. The other OBCs alienated by the Yadav dominance have actively been wooed by the BJP.
The aggression of the BJP campaign has hurt the SP in other ways as well. Sudhir Panwar, a political scientist based in Lucknow who contested the polls on an SP ticket, pins the party’s electoral humiliation on religious polarisation. “We now have the results in our hand and can say one thing for sure,” he says, “Muslims are not influenced by Modi and similarly Hindus are not influenced by Akhilesh. Even a staunch SP supporter Hindu would not vote for a Muslim candidate of the party.”
Panwar agrees that Akhilesh has not been able to emerge as a tough administrator like Modi, or even his father or Mayawati. In 1991, Mulayam consolidated his reputation as a firm leader when he ordered the police to fire at kar sevaks in Ayodhya in defence of the Babri Masjid, which was demolished later after he lost power. By doing so, he won the loyalty of Muslim voters. Likewise, Mayawati was hailed for being tough on criminals such as Raja Bhaiya and others during her terms as CM. She arrested a number of notified criminals and put them behind bars. With demonetisation, Modi has earned this image of being tough on corruption. But the young SP leader has nothing of the sort to his credit. “Akhilesh did get a few opportunities [to maintain law-and-order] like the Muzaffarnagar riots or the recent Jawahar Bagh violence of Mathura by a fraction of the Jai Gurudev Sect, but he is more of a take-everyone-along kind of administrator,” says Panwar. “That’s why people say he is a good person but not a hardcore politician. Today’s politics requires much more than a ‘good person’.”
The question that looms large today is whether the Yadav Kul can regain its lost glory. “The gains of 25 years have been lost in one election,” says Shivpal Yadav. “We have a clean slate to start afresh and will get the people’s confidence back.” The BJP’s success in crafting a bankable new social combination and Modi’s image as a development man look formidable, and it is clear that the SP will have to rethink its approach to politics after this defeat. “We have to refocus our political strategy and make it more issue-based rather than caste and religion based,” says Panwar. “For some time, secular politics should be left to Hindus rather than forcing Muslim candidates [to contest polls].” The fact that the BJP did not give a single ticket to a Muslim and still won 64 out of the 73 seats inUP where Muslims are more than 30 per cent of the electorate, many believe, holds a lesson for other parties.
The SP rout also speaks of the party’s lost links with ground reality and shifting sentiments in stratas of society that it took for granted as its own. Unlike Mulayam and Shivpal, it now appears that Akhilesh didn’t have a clear understanding of the politics in various regions of the state, relying as he was on his own image as an energetic doer. The leaders close to him were perhaps badly out of touch with popular perceptions. “The biggest challenge for Akhilesh Yadav is to establish a connect with the voter, especially the young voter,” says Professor Chandra.
As of now, the aspirational youth identify more with the BJP. “We will give the new government ample time and keep a watch on their functioning. We respect the people’s mandate and right now there is no justification for a dharna or agitation against the new government,” says the former Chief Minister, speaking to Open on the day of the results.
Before a revival strategy can be made, the Yadav family would have to resolve its inner squabble. On current indications, Mulayam and Shivpal look set to retake control of the party— at least for the time being. There is little doubt, though, that Akhilesh represents the party’s future and it is for him to ensure that the SP has one. As Diskhit says, “His challenge would be to become an efficient and able opposition leader like his father, something he has not done in the past.” Out of power now, there is much for the young dynast to think about.