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A rising tide of criticism in the wake of the Badaun gangrape seems to have the Samajwadi Party cornered. As it lashes out at detractors, the SP government’s responses range from the brazen to the bizarre. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav exhorted people to run a “google search”, which he suggested would reveal that such incidents take place everywhere, while SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav advised people to “stay in Delhi” if they were worried about rape and asked the media to “do its work” while he presumably did his. Senior SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav was of the opinion that “relationships between boys and girls” are often “termed as rape”. The image of two murdered teenagers, gangraped and hung from a tree, has triggered shockwaves of horror and despair across the country, but the SP has proved singularly inadequate to responding to the moment. It has come out sounding callous and defensive.
To be sure, the brutality at Badaun cannot be blamed directly or wholly on the state government — complicities of caste and class, and local failures of administration were at play. But it is also true that over the last two years, the SP has presided over a lawlessness of worrying proportions. Uttar Pradesh saw 247 incidents of communal violence in 2013, 118 in 2012. Incidents of sexual violence and murder have also seen a steep rise. Apart from its abject failure to bring the law and order situation under control, the SP has done little to craft a politically sensitive response to the problem, to assuage people’s insecurities. In the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots last year, the government swung between egregious extremes. While Akhilesh donned a skull cap to address the public at the peak of the violence, Mulayam later alleged that the inhabitants of the relief camps were not riot victims at all but part of a dark conspiracy that involved both the Congress and the BJP. On sexual violence, the government has seemed to encourage a culture of complaisance, with Mulayam’s infamous “boys will be boys” remark.
The SP won an impressive mandate in the 2012 assembly elections, coming to power on the promise of good governance. But in its failure to sustain a robust political discourse, in its ad hoc responses to moments of crisis, it has set the conversation back by years, evoking the old UP of the “goonda raj” and the communal polarisation. It paid for this dearly in the recent Lok Sabha polls, where it was routed by the BJP. Now more than ever, the SP needs to reclaim it political legitimacy and to prove itself a responsible party of government. It could begin by sounding like one.