It’s election season in Uttar Pradesh and the ruling Samajwadi Party appears to be split wide open once more.

On Sunday, Shivpal Yadav, who is in charge of the Samajwadi Party in the state and brother of party supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav, criticised his own government. He alleged that senior party leaders were involved in land-grabbing and illicit liquor rackets, and threatened to resign in protest. On Monday, Mulayam Singh Yadav warned the Samajwadi Party would split if Shivpal Yadav quit, that the party veteran’s protests should be heeded. On Tuesday, Samajwadi Party leaders were anxious to assert that there was no serious rift: Mulayam Singh Yadav’s timely criticism was just the “antibiotic” that the party needed to function better in election season. Netaji’s strictures were directed at an obvious target: his son and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.

It appears to be an old party trick. Ever since Akhilesh Yadav took over as chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav has slipped into the role of chief critic and naysayer. Over the past four years, he has resisted Akhilesh Yadav’s push to introduce foreign direct investment in retail, picked flaws in his handling of bureaucrats and party workers, dressed him down for not bringing the law and order situation under control. Most recently, he chided the new crop of party workers for not knowing the foundations of socialism, or samajwad.

It was seen as a way of mopping up the opposition, containing dissidence within the party, preempting political rivals by being the first to criticise one’s own government. But has the Samajwadi Party gone overboard with the friendly fire this time?

Old guard versus new

The overt hostility between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav has often been projected as an ideological difference between the old guard and the new. Netaji spoke the old language of Hindi chauvinism, caste and communal vote bank politics, honest-to-goodness Ludditism.

Akhilesh Yadav tried to rebrand the Samajwadi Party as hip and fresh, in tune with the new aspirational politics that seems to have found its moment in the last few years, far removed from the party that presided over the lawless “goonda raj” of the early 2000s. Launching cycle yatras across the state in the run up to the 2012 elections, he spoke of economic development, employment and education. Breaking with the party’s suspicion of technology, he distributed laptops to the youth.

In the assembly elections of 2012, the party tailored its pitch according to the constituency. The caste equations and the consolidation of a Muslim vote bank worked to the SP’s advantage, ensuring it a robust majority in the assembly. But the party’s electoral win was also seen as the victory for the new politics of Akhilesh Yadav.

Power struggles

The apparent ideological divide, however, masks bitter power struggles within the ranks, as a chief minister increasingly perceived to be cut off from party workers and voters at the grassroots level is pitted against veteran leaders still in control of the party machinery and more in touch with the old formulas that win elections.

Akhilesh Yadav was seen as an outsider to UP politics, starting his career in Parliament rather than at the state level. In more recent years, he has been projected as a chief minister hedged in by bureaucrats and losing control over ministerial appointments, leader of the Samajwadi Party in the state but unable to direct the course of the electoral campaign.

Shivpal Yadav, in contrast, is considered the old UP hand with an ear to the ground, more accessible to the party rank and file. He has been called the most powerful Samajwadi Party leader in the state after Mulayam Singh Yadav, controlling the nitty gritty of party management, from choosing MLA candidates to watching over panchayat elections.

Yet the old party faithful’s chief ministerial ambitions have consistently been dashed by his much younger nephew – in 2012, when Akhilesh Yadav was brought in as the new face of the SP, and this year, when Netaji suddenly declared his son the “best CM” in the country and asserted that the 2017 polls would be fought under his leadership.

Now, nephew and uncle fight for control over the party’s electoral strategy. The most recent source of conflict is the imminent merger with the Qaumi Ekta Dal, headed by gangster turned politician Mukhtar Ansari. The proposed merger was advocated by Shivpal Yadav, in what seemed to be a hard-nosed political move to tap into the spheres of influence and muscle power commanded by Ansari. It was later called off by the chief minister, anxious to dispel perceptions that his government had failed to act against the breakdown of law and order in the state. After this week’s spat, Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that the merger was back on track.

Shivpal Yadav is also said to have personal rivalries with other powerful party members. This week’s admonition to party leaders involved in land grabbing scams has been read by some as a pot shot aimed at rivals, the airing of a private grievance rather than a more principled stand against crime.

House in disorder

With the current fracas, the Samajwadi Party appears to be a party that is unable to put its house in order, more absorbed in family squabbles than in chalking out a coherent road map for a tough electoral battle where it will fight anti-incumbency. With this round of infighting, rival political parties have smelt blood. Already, the Bharatiya Janata Party has targeted the Samajwadi Party, daring Mulayam Singh Yadav to act against party members involved in crime rackets.

The strategy of speaking in many voices to appeal to different constituencies and contain the opposition within the party seems to have run up against its limits. For now, the Samajwadi Party looks like a party at war with itself.