Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

A fresh trial by fire for Mulayam

So far, Mulayam Singh Yadav has used his stature to keep his clan together, but with time, even his difficulties are rising

Remember the fairy tales that you heard during childhood? The ups and downs of the stories, the changing circumstances and the dilemmas of the characters filled you with excitement. This is what is happening in the extended clan of Mulayam Singh, the political first family of Uttar Pradesh.

I am reminded of the night of 31 December 2011. A friend had invited me to attend a New Year’s Eve party in Agra. I met a Mr. Yadav at the party. He said he hailed from Etawah and ‘Netaji’ was his childhood friend. During the chat, Mr. Yadav made two very confident prophecies. First, Samajwadi Party will form the government with full majority in the next assembly election. Secondly, Akhilesh will be the chief minister.

At that party, opinion was divided on whether the Samajwadi Party would indeed form the government. But nobody was ready to believe that Akhilesh will be the next chief minister. The question was raised that if Mulayam appointed his son the chief minister, what would he himself do? Was he in the race to be the prime minister? What will be the fate of Shivpal and Ram Gopal Yadav in such an eventuality? Will Mulayam’s brothers not be worried about their own career as well as the career of their children?

The person saying that Akhilesh will be the chief minister staunchly defended his prediction. If you look at history, you will realize that every king has bequeathed his kingdom either to his son, daughter or son-in-law.

Two-and-a-half months later, the Samajwadi Party romped home with a clear majority. By that time, I had forgotten the name of the gentleman who made the Nostradamus-like prediction at the New Year’s Eve party. But I remembered his second prediction: that Akhilesh will be the chief minister. Would that really be the case? I clearly remember that afternoon when Prof. Ram Gopal Yadav told a television reporter: “I will be happy if Akhilesh becomes the chief minister." Within a few hours, Shivpal retorted to this: “Party MLAs will decide who becomes chief minister." Clearly, the die had been cast.

Everybody knows how the rest of the story unfolded. Akhilesh became the chief minister, and in addition got the responsibility of heading the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

Shivpal Yadav took charge of irrigation, public works department and other important portfolios.

How long would this arrangement work? Political circles were abuzz with this question.

The arrangement dragged on for four years.

In the public realm, Mulayam Singh was known as the supremo and Ram Gopal and Shivpal as his generals. When opposition parties made fun of Akhilesh as a ‘child’ and ‘half-chief minister’, the chief minister decided to ignore them and carry out his responsibilities with sincerity.

As a result, he has a distinct image in Uttar Pradesh today. The first of the three factors behind the creation of Brand Akhilesh is his clean and fair image. The second is his perception as the boy-next-door. He goes on holidays with his family like any other working professional and shares their photos on social media. This has struck a chord with middle-class youth.

Thirdly, taking a break from party tradition, he has built his image as a leader who is against criminals and their proliferation in politics. This is the apparent reason for the conflict that began in June. But it will be a folly to consider this the actual reason.

Actually, the Samajwadi Party is going through a difficult phase of generational change.

Five members of the family are in the Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha. Many other relatives, family members and their favourites are occupying key seats in the government and the party. That’s why they want to raise their stakes in power.

All these people have played a part in forming and developing the Samajwadi Party on a number of occasions. That is why they want their share in the government. This rising ambition creates an apparent clash, but even power has its limitations.

So far, Mulayam has used his stature to keep his clan together, but with time, even his difficulties are rising.

Comparing the Thackeray clan of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu’s Karunanidhi family with the clan from Saifai, Uttar Pradesh, can help us understand the issue. When he was alive, Balasaheb Thackeray had indicated that Uddhav Thackeray was his heir. He was fond of his nephew Raj, but he bequeathed his legacy to his son. When it came to transfer of power, even Karunanidhi chose his son Stalin from among other family members.

The clarity in succession planning created a few initial difficulties, but it resolved many other problems that could subsequently crop up.

Mulayam is trying to deviate from his contemporaries and create a unique legacy of his own. After assuming power in 2012, he clearly defined and divided the responsibilities of governance between Akhilesh, Ram Gopal and Shivpal Yadav. This included the appointment of bureaucrats, party organization and other day-to-day responsibilities. But clearly, ambition does not worry about boundaries.

For now, Mulayam Singh has used his veto to douse flamed passions. But how stable can these arrangements be? Shivpal has got some of his portfolios back and he will remain the Samajwadi state chief. In return, Akhilesh wants a complete say in ticket distribution. The implications are clear. The chacha-bhatija (uncle and nephew) have their eyes on the election due in a few months.

Having completed his full term, Akhilesh has a natural right to become the leader of the legislative party, while Shivpal is seeing this as an opportunity. If this wasn’t the case, he would not have declared last Thursday that his goal is helping the Samajwadi Party win a majority in 2017 and that party MLAs will decide who becomes chief minister.

If you remember, this is exactly what he was saying in 2012.

On Saturday afternoon, supporters of both nephew Akhilesh and uncle Shivpal were again confronting each other in Lucknow. Clearly, at this phase in life, Mulayam again has to pass through a trial by fire.

As in fairy tales, it isn’t necessary that every real-life story should have a happy ending.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.