Recent weeks have witnessed an acrimonious power struggle within the Samajwadi Party between the older and younger generation. It is a dynastic party experiencing generational change. While Mulayam Singh Yadav established the party, there is now a tussle for control between father and son with uncle, Shivpal Yadav, and “outsider”, Amar Singh, supporting Mulayam. This has prevented Akhilesh Yadav, a young, educated and forward-looking leader, from creating a modern, development-oriented party free from the casteist and corrupt politics of the old guard. While it was hoped that Mulayam Singh would settle affairs quickly, he has given greater control over the party to his brother and Amar Singh, leaving his son acutely embarrassed.
The entire episode is surprising as the state assembly election is due in early 2017, and the main contest, many argue, is between the ruling SP and BJP. While the media has focused largely on the dramatic events, two significant concerns require consideration. More immediately, will the tussle between the two groups within the party affect the SP’s fortunes in the forthcoming assembly elections? More fundamentally, what does this unseemly wrangling for power tell us about the SP, the decline of parties and party politics in UP and its impact on the functioning of our democracy.
The real problem for the SP today is that despite winning elections and forming the government in UP three times, its ideology and social base is in deep trouble. The party has three major sources of political sustenance: The socialist politics of Ram Manohar Lohia, the agrarian politics of the Green Revolution under Charan Singh and the backward caste movement in the state since the mid-1960s. However, social and political change has been very rapid in UP and the party has not been able to consolidate any of these foundational strands. Mulayam Singh named his party “Samajwadi” and has always stressed on its socialist character, but this strand was swiftly replaced by identity politics in the 1980s. The SP itself was part of this shift, moving to being a largely caste-based party. Agrarian politics lost importance after the death of Charan Singh in 1987, but also because of the agricultural decline resulting in the rich peasantry losing its pre-eminent position in state politics.
Consequently, under Mulayam Singh, the SP has largely been a party representing the interests of the backward castes. Reservations under Mandal, it was felt, could unite this large, heterogeneous grouping, providing the SP a strong social base. However, Mulayam’s efforts throughout the 1990s to weld them into a cohesive, political community, met with little success. Class-based changes due to education, urbanisation, satellite TV, exacerbated existing divisions such as sub-caste rivalries, rural/urban and poor/affluent. While the better-off sections drifted towards the BJP, the most backward castes moved towards the BSP contributing to its victory in 2007. Today, the SP is a party of mainly the Yadavs, who are perceived by the other backwards as being the prime beneficiaries whenever the SP has been in power.
Two other developments have weakened the SP and fuelled the conflict. The support given by the SP to the Muslim community during the Babri Masjid dispute and after, led to it being viewed as a secular party and “Maulana” Mulayam as the protector of the community. Their support enabled the SP to win elections, particularly to obtain a majority in 2012. However, there is much anguish within the Muslim community following the Muzaffarnagar riots that the SP failed to prevent the riots or help rehabilitate the riot-affected. Statements by the old guard regarding the amount and nature of compensation and on the relief camps were particularly controversial. Second, Akhilesh’s attempts to break the nexus the SP has developed with criminals and improve the party’s image have been resisted by the older leadership. Prior to the 2012 elections, he firmly stopped the entry of mafia don D.P. Yadav into the party. More recently, he opposed the attempt by Shivpal Yadav to merge the Qaumi Ekta Dal of mafia don Mukhtar Ansari with the SP as he felt it would give the party a bad name at a time when the state was heading for elections.
The intense power struggle within the SP is not over, especially due to the impending elections. The fight is between the government and organisation, and it is still not clear who will control the distribution of tickets, something the SP MLAs are closely watching. Moreover, the divide has clearly gone down into the rank and file with the youth brigades supporting Akhilesh and the older leaders siding with Mulayam. Consequently, a united electoral campaign under a unified leadership might be difficult.
In fact, unlike the BSP and even the Congress, the SP has yet to begin its campaign. The major beneficiaries of the internal conflict could be the BSP and the BJP. The former is making tremendous efforts to mobilise Muslims by giving them tickets and promising protection of life and property; also, the BSP has a much better record of maintaining law and order, which would be welcome to all sections of the electorate. The BJP is attempting to create an inclusive Hindu identity by mobilising the backwards and Dalits, and its success in attracting the former would hurt the SP. The revolt by Akhilesh has come perhaps too late. The SP may not be able to recover from the jolt it has received prior to the election.
In sum, the current state of the SP is reflective of its decay and low level of institutionalisation which is true of most parties in UP. Identified with caste leaders, parties have become reduced to private fiefdoms with little inner democracy and authoritarian structures. With few mechanisms of conflict resolution, leaders depend on intrigue rather than persuasion and consensual functioning. Having polarised the electorate along caste/community lines they are now unable to overcome their narrow sectarian bases and put forward any ideology or programme of development. Whichever party wins in UP, political parties in the state exhibit traits that are not conducive to the functioning of a healthy democratic system.