Uttar Pradesh

Shunned by his clan, deserted by loyalists, besieged by BJP: Can Akhilesh Yadav bounce back?

The Samajwadi Party chief has lost four senior MLCs to the BJP and more may jump ship soon.

An evocative Hindi term has become shorthand for explaining the ever-shifting political loyalties in Uttar Pradesh – “rajnitik bhrashtachar”. Roughly translating to “political corruption”, it describes the frantic party-hopping by opposition leaders.

Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav is particularly fond of the term, employing it to target the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Four of his party’s members of Legislative Council, the legislature’s upper chamber, resigned in a period of just 12 days beginning July 29. Yashwant Singh, Bukkal Nawab, Sarojini Agarwal have since joined the ruling BJP, while Ashok Bajpaye is on the way. The former chief minister has now learnt, his aides said, that more MLCs are about to jump ship.

The Bahujan Samaj Party too has lost two MLCs, one of whom had joined from the Samajwadi Party just before the Assembly election early this year.

Why are opposition MLCs queuing up for the BJP and, more importantly, why now?

The BJP must get Chief Minister Adityanath, his deputies Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya, and the ministers Mohsin Raza and Swatantra Deo Singh elected to the state legislature by September 19. The law requires every minister to become a member of the legislature within six months of taking oath. Uttar Pradesh has a bicameral legislature, with the lower house elected by popular vote and the upper house elected by MLAs and MLCs. The BJP was short of five votes to get the chief minister and his four ministers elected to the council. Not anymore after the defections from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

That is why Akhilesh Yadav is accusing the BJP of “rajnitik bhrashtachar”. It especially stings him, his confidantes said, that the BJP has taken away leaders he considered to be his loyalists.

Bukkal Nawab, for one, had been with Akhilesh Yadav from before he entered electoral politics in 2000. It is said that Eid celebrations at Nawab’s house would not be complete until his leader turned up. Indeed, it was with an apparent sense of hurt that Akhilesh Yadav reacted to his former confidant’s defection, “I will not stop him but will ask him why he left.”

Similarly, Sarojini Agarwal’s medical college is named after Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav’s father who founded the Samajwadi Party. Yashwant Singh was fielded in the last election at the expense of Ram Naresh Yadav, a loyal aide of Mulayam Singh Yadav. Ashok Bajpaye was made MLC despite opposition within the party.

Smarting from the humiliating defeat in the Assembly election, Akhilesh Yadav is now watching his party being worn down by attrition. He has tried to put up a valiant face: “Those who want to leave may proceed, but don’t make excuses.” But it is a tough road ahead, not least because the BJP is relentlessly going after its rivals. The Samajwadi Party realises as much. “The BJP is adopting fear tactics and our leaders are being targeted,” said the party’s chief spokesperson Rajendra Choudhary. “This practice of decimating opposition is not good for democracy.”

The foremost challenge for Akhilesh Yadav is to stay relevant until the next election in a polity utterly dominated by the BJP. Then, he needs to present his party as a credible alternative to the BJP. Vinod Yadav, a senior journalist in Lucknow, believes that the Samajwadi Party is ideally placed to do so. “The youth workers do not shy away from hitting the road and even facing lathis of the police,” he said. “It was evident during protests by students against Adityanath’s visit to the Lucknow University. Now, Akhilesh has to handle them, channelising the energy of the youth workers judiciously.”

A family divided

At the same time, he needs to resolve the long-running family feud. “There may not be too much support within the party’s rank and file for Shivpal but the reports emerging from Saifai are enough to dishearten party cadre,” said Asif Raza Jafri, a political analyst in Lucknow who has watched the Samajwadi Party since it was formed in 1992. Shivpal Yadav is Akhilesh Yadav’s uncle and his main rival in the Mulayam Singh Yadav clan, which is originally from Saifai in Etawah district. Jafri is referring to reports about constant infighting within the clan, which is now so divided that – in a break with tradition – it did not get together even for the festival of Rakshabandhan.

Politically, the acrimony is such that Shivpal Yadav openly voted for the BJP’s Ram Nath Kovind for President.

More worryingly for Akhilesh Yadav, until the family feud is resolved, his chances of uniting his fractured party are bleak. Broadly, most of the Samajwadi Party’s senior leaders are loyal to Mulayam Singh Yadav while the younger lot are with Akhilesh. They could as well be two distinct entities. On August 9, Akhilesh undertook a public tour from Lucknow to Faizabad. He was felicitated by his party’s workers at over 50 places. No sooner had he returned than 26 Muslim leaders from Faizabad resigned, apparently for being cold shouldered by the leaders during the road show. Now, even if the divisions are healed, it would be a tough ask to balance the interests of the senior leaders with the aspirations of the younger rung.

With the BJP ensconced in power with nearly 40% of the vote, it is imperative for the Samajwadi Party to consolidate as much of the anti-BJP vote as possible. In this year’s election, the BJP took 39.67% of the vote and the Bahujan Samaj Party 22.23%. The Samajwadi Party was third with 21.82%.

“Akhilesh has to project himself as the alternative to the BJP so that the opposition votes shift towards him,” said Shafi Azmi, a former member of the State Minorities Commission who is campaigning to make the Muslims politically more aware.

In search of allies

This would invariably mean making alliances. “Nationally, Akhilesh has to take decisions for a larger front comprising non-BJP parties,” said Shiv Saran Singh, a political analyst in Lucknow. “This will enhance his brand and utility. In Bihar, he has to adjust with the RJD while in Bengal he has to be in touch with TMC. Mind you, even the Bahujan Samaj Party will be doing this, so Akhilesh has to rush ahead.” He is referring to the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Trinamool Congress, respectively.

That is what Akhilesh Yadav has started doing. “We are touring other states,” said the Samajwadi Party MLC Sunil Singh Yadav. “Akhileshji will be attending the RJD’s rally in Patna. Teams have been sent to Chhattisgarh also. We are confident that SP will be the binding force for all opposition parties.”

Striking alliances will not be easy, though. Akhilesh Yadav partnered with the Congress for the last election even though the grand old party barely has any presence in Uttar Pradesh now. The partnership came a cropper. Now, a section of the party wants to shed the “Congress baggage”. “Once you have an alliance with some group, its liabilities in the form of its misdeeds are transferred,” a senior Samajwadi Party functionary said, asking not to be identified. “We cannot afford to allow the Congress to ride on our back any more. We are being targeted for their non-performance.”

If the Congress is unpalatable as an ally, there are many smaller parties that can bring benefit. The Nishad Party and the Rashtriya Swabhiman Party, for example, have significant following among Nishad (Other Backward Classes) and Pasi (Scheduled Caste) communities, respectively. In the last election, small parties such as the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party and Apna Dal stood the BJP in good stead.

His advisers want Akhilesh Yadav to also court leaders of other parties. “We cannot say because of opposition unity, so it will be unethical,” argued Sunil Singh Yadav. “Our MLCs and MLAs were given a grand entry into the Bahujan Samaj Party during the Assembly election. The same cannot be denied to us.”

The party must also attend to workers on the ground. Its hold on many panchayats is under threat as dozens of leaders have quit their posts – at least 29 block pramukhs in 18 districts and 11 Zila Panchayat chairmen. Akhilesh Yadav sounded almost helpless about the increasing defections when he said, “Police is being used to harass our leaders who hold panchayat posts. We never did any such thing.”

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