Akhilesh Yadav: The Son Supremacy

akhilesh1In 2012, shortly after he was named the chief ministerial candidate of the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav reacted rather naively to comparisons with Rahul Gandhi whose popularity then had not fallen to the levels it has now. “If he is the prince of his family, I am that of my family,” he snapped, dismissing talk of him being an inferior scion in the world of dynasty politics. Paradoxically, four years on, while Congress President Sonia Gandhi would willingly hand over the party’s reins to her son, who, however, doesn’t seem prepared enough for the role, Akhilesh, now toughened in the crucible of internecine wars symptomatic of north Indian politics, wants to be king by upstaging an older generation of party leaders, including his battle- scarred father and SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is unprepared to cede any turf.

Yadav Junior, the Chief Minister of UP whom his father has often publicly reprimanded over governance issues and treated like a rank subordinate, began to assert himself after the 2014 General Election that saw his party receive a drubbing, attributed partly to people’s disenchantment with the widespread policy paralysis and non-performance of the ruling dispensation stymied by an old guard known for its hidebound goon culture. The next few months saw relations between Akhilesh, the youngest ever Chief Minister of the country’s most populous state, and his paternal uncle Shivpal Yadav, then a heavyweight in the UP cabinet, sour over a raft of contentious decisions.

These included key appointments, the Rajya Sabha nomination of Amar Singh—who the party had sacked some years ago—this May, the SP’s merger with Mukhtar Ansari’s Quami Ekta Dal (QED) in June, and others. The Chief Minister, who was then state party chief as well, got a high-level parliamentary panel to invalidate the pact with QED, knowing very well that most of Shivpal’s commands were his father’s wishes. Akhilesh’s effort to diminish Amar Singh’s glory was glossed over because it got nowhere. Mulayam, who has famously stated that he has never let even blood relations come in the way of his political pursuits, decided to strike back at his son over his defiance.

In September, Mulayam stripped Akhilesh of the post of the party’s UP unit president, but the unbending son was not ready to take the insult lying down. He hit right back with a vengeance, taking Shivpal off crucial cabinet portfolios. This resulted in an open confrontation between supporters of the uncle and the nephew. Mulayam threw his weight behind Shivpal, goading Akhilesh to yield and reinstate Shivpal not just with all his plum ministerial portfolios but also with additional charge as the state unit president of the party. Amar Singh, too, was promoted as the SP’s national general secretary.Sensing that fighting his father so brazenly was unwise, Akhilesh went into a sulk, but let the intra-party wranglings simmer and, in the process, precipitate into a near split of the party.

On October 23rd, things took a turn for the worse. Mulayam’s cousin and Akhilesh-backer Ram Gopal Yadav released a hand-written letter from Mumbai urging MLAs to ‘stand with’ the UP Chief Minister. ‘Victory is where Akhilesh is,’ he wrote. That day, legislators began gathering at the Chief Minister’s residence on 5 Kalidas Marg in Lucknow.

By 10.30 am, the meeting hall was overcrowded. Akhilesh made an emotionally charged speech to 183 of the 224 SP legislators who’d turned up. A resolution was then passed with signatures of all MLAs present, authorising Akhilesh to take any decision for ‘the betterment of the party and the government’.

Leaders like Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiya who couldn’t attend the meeting met the Chief Minister later to express solidarity. Shortly, Akhilesh made a grand announcement sacking Shivpal—and three other ministers close to him—from his cabinet. Caught unawares, Mulayam retaliated by dismissing Ram Gopal from the primary membership of the party. The aftermath was ugly, with supporters of Akhilesh and Shivpal exchanging blows at the 19 Vikramaditya Marg office of the SP. Paroxysms of anger and games of intrigue marked the next two days, which also saw a series of meetings among Mulayam, Akhilesh and Shivpal.

Mulayam wanted Akhilesh to re-induct brother Shivpal and his men. Akhilesh said he would do so only if Ram Gopal was reinstated in the party. Mulayam and Shivpal were open to taking some of Akhilesh’s loyalists who’d been sacked back to the party fold, but not Ram Gopal.Finally, there was truce—or so it appeared—on October 27th: Akhilesh would run the government and Shivpal the party. Shortly, Shivpal shifted out of his 7 Kalidas Marg ministerial residence for private accommodation.

But several party insiders that Open spoke to suggest the truce will be short-lived. “Akhilesh respects the supremacy of his father, but he thinks that most of the decisions are meant to belittle him personally and politically. He thinks since he was anointed the natural successor of Netaji (as Mulayam is popularly known) in 2012, he should have the freedom to act on his own without interference from uncles and other senior leaders,” says one of them.

As the party turns 25 years old on November 5th, tensions run deep. Anticipating stiff resistance from within, Akhilesh has begun making stealth moves. According to people close to the matter, he is in touch with powerful industrialist friends of the SP to gauge whose side they’re on: the father’s or his. Says a Mumbai-based corporate honcho: “He has age on his side. He is also the Chief Minister. Yet industrialists owe his father a lot for allowing projects in the state and also because the old man cannot still be written off. And senior Yadav is not known to forget and forgive whoever has hurt his political ambitions. But I can tell you, things are changing very fast.”

The son seems determined to pitch his credentials as a leader with a difference, a breakaway from the SP mould. A week ago, his government released a three-minute video portraying the 43-year-old Chief Minister as someone who handles multiple roles—as a politician, administrator, father and husband—with ease. Signalling a big departure, the video, which puts the spotlight on Akhilesh’s views on the state’s development, also features wife Dimple, son Arjun, daughters Aditi and Tina. Interestingly, Akhilesh has also retained Pawan Pandey as a minister though Shivpal has thrown him out of the party.

Says AK Verma, a political analyst and director of the Kanpur-based Centre for the Study of Society and Politics (CSSP), “One major reason for the escalation of the fight is that [this time around] Akhilesh is not giving in. Earlier, every time there was a problem, Mulayam would interfere and Akhilesh would abide by his father’s words. But over time, Yadav junior has attracted his own followers in the party and the state, and is the most acceptable face of the party. The moment he realised that, he turned rebel.”

The Chief Minister has also made it known that he would continue to steer his government with the help of politicians and bureaucrats he has handpicked to push ahead with new initiatives in the infrastructure, power and tourism sectors that appeal to the youth, irrespective of what party veterans think. His team of bureaucrats includes Navneet Sehgal, the principal secretary for tourism who was once Mayawati’s most trusted lieutenant and blue-eyed boy; Alok Ranjan, the former chief secretary who is now the Chief Minister’s special adviser overseeing major development projects in the state. Sehgal, once touted as UP’s second- most powerful man, is also CEO of Uttar Pradesh Expressway Industrial Development Authority.

Wife Dimple is playing a vital role in the image makeover of Akhilesh from a pliant scion to a modernizer in the making. Recently, it was Akhilesh, Sehgal and Dimple who met a team of consultants asked to survey the government’s performance. When the Chief Minister told the pollsters not to include questions on the negative image of the state dispensation, it was Dimple who suggested their inclusion in the questionnaire on the logic that such information was worth having. Akhilesh is planning a visit to London in the second week of November to attend an international travel festival with the aim of hardselling UP as a global tourist hotspot. He has already organised a travel writers’ meet in Lucknow and a bird festival in Chambal to showcase the state as an attractive destination not merely for backpackers but also high-end tourists.

With state elections due in early 2017, Akhilesh expects his loyalists to fire on all cylinders. Though his close allies were once disappointed with his wilting under pressure from his dad on issues of governance, the latest standoff has offered him a chance to emerge as his own man. “He has an eye for leadership and is always willing to offer opportunities to young people,” says Rajendra Choudhary, cabinet minister. Among examples, there is Uday Vir Singh, who was recently expelled from the party after writing a letter blaming Mulayam’s second wife for denigrating Akhilesh, and Sunil Yadav Sajan, now an MLC. Sanjay Lathar, Arvind Yadav, Anand Bhadauria and Abhishek Mishra are others in his team.

Shivpal Yadav has suspended all except Mishra from the party. “But these are leaders with decent influence in various spheres. They will continue working for Akhilesh, if not for the party,” says an SP leader based in Delhi. Meanwhile, Ram Gopal Yadav says that Shivpal is extremely vindictive towards Akhilesh. “Actually Shivpal was trying to be the second choice if Mulayam refused [the Chief Minister’s post] in 2012. But with Akhilesh in the lead, Shivpal bears the grudge even now of not becoming Chief Minister,” says Ram Gopal Yadav.

AKHILESH HAS OFTEN privately complained about not getting elbow room to forge ahead with his plans as Chief Minister, thanks to his father and his comrades breathing down his neck to micromanage affairs of the government. But then, Mulayam, who wrestled his way up in the grime and dust of UP politics, is not someone to give up his power easily, especially in a party he has built almost entirely by himself.

Long ago, Yadav Senior, now 76, had told a friend that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who give up politics for friendships and those who give up friendships for politics. “I belong to the latter,” he had said after sacking his one-time close associate Rajendra Singh from the Bharatiya Lok Dal, which he was part of until 1977 when it merged with the Jana Sangh to form the Janata Party.

Mulayam was pitchforked into local politics by Natthu Singh, a Praja Socialist Party legislator from UP’s Jaswantnagar Assembly constituency, who was impressed by how this short-but-strong wrestler had trounced a bigger opponent in the wrestling ring with the use of little more than technique and grit. Around the Mulayam family home of Safai, there are a few memorials in the name of Singh, who was so fond of young Mulayam that he vacated his seat in 1967 for him.

The young wrestler, who had by then acquired a name as a local strongman in the Etawah belt, contested the next polls under the Samyukta Socialist Party banner and won. Over the years, he came under the spell of leaders such as Raj Narain and Charan Singh and won polls as a Bharatiya Lok Dal candidate. Mulayam soon became a counterweight to Congress baddie Balram Singh Yadav. All through, he showed exceptional talent and street smartness in keeping trouble at bay and ascending the ranks of public life, outmanoevring rivals as he went along.

For instance, once when shots were fired at his motorcade, he asked his men to shout and wail, ‘Netaji marr gaye’ (Netaji has died). The perplexed assailants fled, assuming that they had accomplished their task. He also had mentors who were ready to risk their own reputations and lives to protect him in exchange for his services as a local strongman. When VP Singh, as Chief Minister in the early 1980s, launched an anti-dacoit campaign to flush out miscreants in the face of a flurry of attacks on upper-caste Thakurs, police forces ended up targeting several backward-caste leaders as well.

An apocryphal story has it that Mulayam escaped by the skin of his teeth and was ferried to Delhi in an Ambassador car from Etawah by politician Satya Prakash Malaviya, who later became an SP minister. Malaviya, it is said, took Mulayam to Congress leader Zail Singh who ensured that he would not be a target of VP Singh’s campaign.

Mulayam kept rising in UP politics. Since the late 1980s, he has been the state’s Chief Minister thrice and Union Defence Minister once. Along the way he cultivated mentors and friends and later distanced himself from them so as to outgrow them. The list of his political godfathers is long: besides Charan Singh and Narain, it includes HN Bahuguna (who famously introduced him to Dhirubhai Ambani), Devi Lal, Chandra Shekhar and others. Hardworking and clear-thinking, Mulayam, in his prime, has networked widely and travelled tirelessly across the state’s interior.

“He also made sure that he filled key positions in the party with his kin. This was not because he loved his family more, but to make sure that there was no scope for dissent and that he was king. That is that way Netaji always worked and that is how he will work,” says a senior SP leader, emphasising that he has never let down his loyalists unless they revolted or kept him in the dark about party affairs.

Says an SP leader close to Akhilesh: “Netaji is very fond of Akhileshji. But his problem is that he doesn’t want the SP to get away from its roots as a party where you have toughies calling the shots across the state. The Chief Minister, on the other hand, wants to purge the party of its old, thuggish image. Therein lies the basic problem. It is not like the usual father-son struggle for power like the one between Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.”

True, history is replete with stories of power struggles between emperors and their sons, between kings and princes, and of other blood feuds within dynasties. From Greek mythology to Indian epics, we have instances of sons killing fathers and cousins and stepmothers conspiring against their kin. Uranus was castrated by his son Cronos; Oedipus eliminated his father; Lord Rama was exiled to wilderness thanks to the machinations of his stepmother Kaikeyi.

Recent times have also had numerous cases of relatives baying for each others’ blood for the sake of power. In India, as sociologist Ashis Nandy points out, most political parties have dynasties within, modelled on the first family of the Congress party. From DMK in the south to the National Conference and PDP in the north, parties have allowed top leaders to nominate scions as successors. According to Virginia University Professor John Echeverri-Gent, the Congress party’s family, the perfect case study of family rule in a democracy, retains its power thanks to their direct access to funds.

Professor Sumantra Bose of London School of Economics notes that the family’s capture of the Congress happened during the Indira Gandhi era. He says, “The main factor that facilitated this was that Indira emerged, from the end-1960s onward, as the party’s essential vote-getter, its connect with the masses. With the populist, pseudo-socialist ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan, she was able to arrest and indeed reverse the alarming decline in the Congress’ popularity that had been evident in the 1967 national and state elections.

Her charismatic aura was fortified by the knockout victory she achieved in the 1971 Bangladesh crisis. She was also, of course, a political animal par excellence—the Congress ‘syndicate’ fatally under-estimated her skills in this regard in the late 1960s. And she had great determination when the chips were down—the way she picked herself up and bounced back after 1977 showed a steely character.”

According to the LSE professor, Indira Gandhi’s attempt to impose an authoritarian regime on India through the mid- 70s’ Emergency backfired, but she achieved the more limited objective of converting the Congress into a top-down, family- controlled organisation, with leadership succession based on hereditary inheritance, as with all personal property. But then, Professor Bose warns, a democratic country is not the same as the Assads’ Syria or the Gaddafis’ Libya, which can be and were ruled through force and terror. He is of the view that even Mrs Gandhi had to struggle—and innovate—continuously to retain the political advantage.

But there are multiple challenges in maintaining a dynasty in the Indian scheme of things. Professor Bose explains, “If a politician of Mrs Gandhi’s abilities had a tough time maintaining supremacy, it’s not surprising that her far less talented successors have experienced much greater difficulties in a polity transformed by the proliferation of regional parties and the rise of Hindu nationalism since the 1990s. It’s a sobering thought that the one enduring legacy of the Nehru-Gandhis to Indian politics may be this phenomenon of family control of political parties. What they normalised for the grand old party became the standard to emulate for many of the regional parties. Operating political parties as tightly-controlled family businesses, however, runs into problems in two scenarios: a) the dynastic heir is worse than hopeless (like Rahul Gandhi) or b) there is a conflict over the dynastic mantle (like the Mulayam clan).”

AN SP LAWMAKER argues that Akhilesh is not “disrespectful” to his father, but does not want his uncles or stepbrothers to vie for his position. “It is a ‘like father like son’ situation. Let’s not forget that Netaji himself had ‘transcended’ several father-figures and their scions to reach his position. Besides, the succession plan in the party has already been endorsed by Netaji himself,” he avers.

Notably, the Yadav clan in Indian politics has always seen awful levels of infighting. Last year, when Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar’s JD-U cobbled up an alliance of former socialist parties and the Congress to fight the BJP in Bihar under the banner of a ‘mahagathbandhan’, the SP refused to align with them over seat allocations offered it in a state where its presence is dismal. Even earlier, Lalu and Mulayam had shared strained ties. In 1996, this Yadav rivalry cost Mulayam even the prime ministerial post—after the CPM Central Committee forbid Jyoti Basu from taking charge as Prime Minister of the United Front coalition and the slot fell vacant for another non-Congress, non-BJP leader.

If infighting had been the curse of Yadav politicians, it was no different in the Mahabharata, which tells of how the Yadav clan came to an end: through internecine wars. According to the epic narrative, the Yadava clan of the time was destined to doom by a curse cast by Gandhari, mother of the 100 Kauravas who perished in the Kurukshetra war. A grief-stricken Gandhari, who had earlier held that Dharma alone would prevail, became emotional on hearing that all of her 100 sons had been killed by the Pandavas, their cousins. She cried out for Lord Krishna, who was born to a Yadava family, and said that she was going to place a curse upon his kinship group—that within 36 years, all its members would die fighting one another.

This Diwali brought to fore the perfect picture of a feuding Yadav family. In their ancestral place of Safai—which houses myriad government buildings, paramedical colleges, a school named after Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, among others, and an airstrip not far from the SP chief’s palatial home— most leaders in the Mulayam household arrived separately for the festive occasion. In the past, all of them would dine and celebrate the festival of lights together.

This time, Akhilesh reached on October 29th and left the very next day. He met his ally and uncle Ram Gopal Yadav, who had dropped in for the festivities. Shivpal reached on the evening of October 30th and left after meeting Mulayam, who arrived a day later. “That picture of the father vacating his seat [representing Kannauj in the Lok Sabha] to accommodate son Akhilesh in 1999 looks distant at times,” says a senior SP leader.

The grapevine has it that Sadhana Gupta, Mulayam’s second wife, was the one who drove a wedge between the father and son; by this story, the latter had extracted a promise from his father that Prateek, his stepbrother, would not be allowed into politics by the party. However, Prateek’s wife Aparna has secured a nod from the SP chief to contest the next Assembly polls from Lucknow Cantt, making her the 20th member of the clan to enter politics.

Akhilesh wants to leave nothing to chance. Which is why he kicked off his Samajwadi Vikas Rath yatra on November 3rd from La Martiniere ground, the same place from where he had launched a similar road rally on bicycle across UP five years ago in the run-up to the state polls then. This time, he will be travelling on a red custom-made hi-tech ‘rath’, a bus which bears a huge picture of Akhilesh riding a bicycle. The tour was flagged off by Mulayam. Last time, while on his ‘cycle yatra’, he had made numerous promises of new projects, many of which are yet to take off.

One of these back then was to turn each district into a robust economy. For instance, Moradabad was to become a hub for the brass industry, and Agra for finished leather products. Such district-specific plans have not yielded much. However, Akhilesh and his team are undeterred by broken promises because their primary goal is to use this yatra as a mass mobilisation bid to demonstrate his popularity and thus wrest greater control of the party, says a leader close to him.

The current bout of the battle between the two factions within the SP can perhaps be traced back to the day in February that Aditya Pratap Singh Yadav, son of Shivpal, got engaged to Raj Laxmi, daughter of an Azamgarh-based contractor called Sanjay Singh. It is said that Amar Singh was the one who found the match for Shivpal’s son. The marriage was in March and a party was thrown for them in Delhi on April 2nd jointly by Amar Singh and a well- known businessman.

“The patch-up between Mulayam and Amar Singh was arranged by a businessman with interests in a major road project in the state. This rapprochement also happened around the time Rajya Sabha seats from UP had fallen vacant. There is a lot to that kind of camaraderie and it triggered enough and more speculation within the party,” says the Delhi-based SP leader, adding that Akhilesh was not “mightily pleased” with the goings-on and the “fact that he wasn’t exactly kept in the loop”. Open couldn’t independently verify this version of events.

Amar Singh came into the political limelight after Mulayam became Defence Minister in 1996. It was around this time that the UP strongman, he of the rustic ways, needed a Man Friday familiar with the ways of Delhi. Singh suited the role. Thus began a long association between him and Mulayam. The Thakur leader proved to be an asset for the SP chief in the years when he needed to network with the Left as well as the Right. Amar Singh also played a prominent role in connecting the UP heavyweight with industry chiefs and Bollywood bigwigs.

While he parleyed on equal terms with the likes of the late Marxist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet, he later played a pivotal role in helping the Congress manage the political crisis that arose following the Left bloc’s withdrawal of support to the UPA-1 Government in 2008 over the India-US civil nuclear deal. Amar Singh was expelled from the SP in 2010.

Now, back in the Mulayam faction of the SP, he has incurred the wrath of Akhilesh, who called him a ‘dalaal’ (a broker). Responding to allegations that he was the one who triggered factional fights within the SP for his ulterior motives, Amar Singh said in an interview to a daily newspaper, “I present myself to be slaughtered. If that would resolve the crisis, I am ready to be slaughtered. Sacrifice me. I am ready, if my sacrifice can solve the problem.”

He also charged that Ram Gopal Yadav would not hesitate to use guns to settle scores with political opponents. He added that he was saddened by the UP Chief Minister’s remarks about him. Meanwhile, Amar Singh was with Mulayam when poll strategist Prashant Kishor met SP leaders on behalf of the Congress in an apparent attempt to forge an alliance against the BJP for next year’s polls.

The Congress, it appears, is ready to give up its go-it-alone policy in UP, where it has fielded Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate. Instead, the party now wants to forge a Bihar- style grand alliance in this state as well, people close to the matter reveal. The party is looking at aligning with the SP, JD-U and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal in the state. According to reports, the Congress favours a tie-up if Akhilesh is fielded as the alliance’s chief ministerial candidate. Though they have exchanged fiery words in the state elections of 2012, lately Rahul and Akhilesh have had good things to say of each other.

A Lucknow-based Congress leader says, “The animosities of that time are a thing of the past. Both parties now need each other, and having a young face as the chief ministerial candidate only strengthens the campaign against the BJP, which is hoping to come to power in the state by all means. There is nothing wrong in Rahul and Akhilesh congratulating each other.”

In early October, Akhilesh had backed the Congress vice-president when he accused the Modi Government of resorting to ‘khoon ki dalaali’ (trading in blood) in reference to statements made on India’s surgical strikes on Pakistani terror camps. BJP President Amit Shah had described Rahul’s comments as an “insult to the Indian Army”.

Such chants of brotherhood might result in an alliance at best, but what awaits Akhilesh, having gained a momentary edge over his opponents within, is a tougher challenge. For a start, he needs to secure tickets for his men in the upcoming polls, but his authority is not yet established. As party chief in UP, he had vetoed the merger with QED in June, citing the latter’s criminal links, but Shivpal has recently announced that the deal was still on. And Mulayam, the ‘Little Napoleon of UP’, is likely to exercise the final say in ticket allocation.

Notwithstanding these aberrations, Akhilesh is a leader who has emerged from his father’s looming shadow. And his party’s future largely depends on whether or not he can hold his place in the sun.

First published in Open magazine.

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