It is too early to say if the ongoing bickering within the Samajwadi Party marks a turning point or a new phase in the history of the party. What seems certain, however, is that the infighting between the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and his uncles has not altered the Yadav family’s hold over the party. Regardless of the outcome of the feud and the upcoming election, a Yadav will remain in charge of the party.
The quasi-total control that the Yadav family exerts on the Samajwadi Party is a fairly recent phenomenon in a party that has undergone profound changes in its 24-year history. The SP was officially born in October 1992 from the ashes of Charan Singh’s Lok Dal, which disintegrated after his death in 1987. The party split along castes lines to create new parties: The Lok Dal (A) led by Charan Singh’s son, Ajit Singh, the Lok Dal (B) led by H.N. Bahuguna, a former Congress chief minister of UP, and the Janata Dal led by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Mulayam prevailed for three reasons. First, his faction commanded the largest share of the Lok Dal’s political base among the middle status agricultural castes in UP, the Yadavs chief among them. Second, Ajit Singh’s political base — the Jats — was geographically circumscribed to a few districts of Western UP. And third, his superior organisational skills helped Mulayam retain most of the Lok Dal. The Janata Dal won 208 seats with 29.7 per cent of the votes in the 1989 elections to the UP assembly.
In the process, Mulayam transformed Charan Singh and Ram Manohar Lohia’s inheritance into a caste outfit, centred around the Yadavs and the Muslims, who supported the party in the context of the communal violence that characterised UP politics in the early 1990s. The party continued to claim the dual legacy of Lohia, as its ideological founding father, and of Charan Singh, as its political tutelary figure. In reality, however, the party strayed from the socialist ambition of creating an alliance of backward classes by favouring the representation of Yadavs in the assembly and the bureaucracy.
The share of OBC representation — mostly Yadavs — among SP MLAs grew from 27 per cent in 1989 to 49.6 per cent in 1993. It oscillated between 32 per cent and 36 per cent between 1996 and 2007, and decreased to 27.2 per cent in 2012. The share of Muslim MLAs in the SP was initially low. It was 6.2 per cent in 1989 and 11 per cent in 1993. Muslim representation took off from 1996 and remained stable at 20 per cent, thereafter.
UP politics in the 1990s was marked by instability. Parties mobilised their core electorates to the exclusion of others, with the result that no single party could obtain a majority. Besides, acrimonious relations between party leaders and a general context of political violence prevented coalition governments from lasting for much more than a year.
The growing competitiveness of UP politics in the 2000s pushed parties like the SP to recruit their candidates not just on the basis of caste but also on the basis of “winnability”, a euphemism for muscle power and money. During this period, both the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party expanded their social bases by distributing tickets to local bosses drawn from local dominant groups, across caste lines.
This period marked the second mutation of the Samajwadi Party — from a party for the backward classes, dedicated to egalitarian socialist ideals, to a party of the new business, political and criminal elites of the state. In terms of caste, the party became more diverse and inclusive.
But this inclusiveness did not affect the centralisation of power in the hands of Mulayam Singh Yadav and his kin. Nor did it foster greater internal democracy.
This had not always been the case. The process of power concentration took place as the old guard of the party — seasoned socialists and former Lohia companions — withered or passed away. Towards the end of the decade, Mulayam Singh Yadav lost four longtime companions.
Ram Saran Das, a close associate of Lohia and former UP president of the Samajwadi Party, died in 2008. Janeshwar Mishra, co-founder of the Samajwadi Party, passed away in 2010. Mohan Singh, a three-time MP from Deoria and a general secretary of the party, passed away in September 2013. Brij Bhushan Tiwari, a five-time Samajwadi Party MP, passed away in 2012.
These were historic figures of the party, with whom Mulayam shared power within the organisation; they could hold their own vis-à-vis the great leader and his family. The transformation of the SP into an elite goonda party did not go down well with many members of the old guard. A year before his death, Mohan Singh had quit in protest following the nomination of D.P. Yadav — a notorious criminal — as a candidate in the 2012 elections.
This was when the party underwent its third mutation — from a caste party into a family holding. The disappearance of the old guard coincided with the rise of Mulayam’s brothers within the party. The two brothers, Shivpal and Ram Gopal, had entered the picture only in 1996. Both played relatively minor roles in the party until 2009, when Shivpal became state party president and leader of the opposition in the state assembly. Until then, he had been limited to a secondary organisational role in the party. His elder brother, Ram Gopal, pursued his career in the Rajya Sabha as the Delhi face of the party.
The more diversified the party became, the more control the family exerted on its apparatus. The family-holding character of the party was also reinforced by the induction of new members before nearly every election. Sixteen members of the Yadav family are currently active in politics.
It is unclear whether the current infighting between brothers and nephew will take the party to a new phase. While Shivpal and Ram Gopal continue to fight for influence within the party, Akhilesh has emerged as its most popular face, eclipsing even his own father. This fact alone is an indicator of continuity rather than change.