The Samajwadi Party (SP) lay dormant after getting knocked out by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in three serial elections in Uttar Pradesh, its principal turf: the 2017 assembly polls, and the 2014 and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It was hardly seen or heard except during an odd bypoll and made no impact in the legislative assembly or the legislative council.
The BJP’s overwhelming numbers in the legislature and the take-no-prisoners approach of Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister, militated against the emergence of an effective Opposition. In the 403-member assembly, the BJP has 305 MLAs, its ally, the Apna Dal (Sonelal) 9, the SP 49, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 18, the Congress 7, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) 4, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (NISHAD) 1 each and Independents 3. The larger parties are dipping into the cauldron of alphabet soup conjured by the acronyms for the “smaller” parties, which are wedded to identity politics and have their spheres of influence conditioned by geography and castes.
Although a poor second to the BJP, the recent panchayat elections ostensibly revived the SP because it beat the BJP to the first position. The parties have contested the estimates because the polls were largely not fought on symbols. The parties supported candidates. For example, the SP claimed to have backed 1500 of the contestants to 3050 seats to elect zilla panchayat ward members. The BJP came up with a list of candidates for all the 3050 seats. Ballpark figures gave the BJP 900 seats (a loss of 2150 seats) and the SP a little more than 1000 seats. More to the point, the BJP forfeited its strongholds such as Ayodhya, Varanasi, Lucknow and Gorakhpur to the SP.
However, the figures also demonstrate that despite the odds stacked up against the BJP—the government’s pandemic management came under scrutiny following claims that over a thousand poll supervisors have lost their lives—it was not wiped out. The SP sources conceded that while they had reasons to be sanguine over the outcome, it was a long haul before the party and its leader, Akhilesh Yadav, play hardball with the BJP. The SP coined “Dobara Akhilesh” (Akhilesh again) as its tagline but what does he need to do to make it happen?
1. Come out of the virtual stratosphere he has inhabited since 2017 into the real space of guts, grit and grind. Recently, Akhilesh stepped into the UP countryside to campaign for the local rural bodies polls and was reportedly well-received. While the pandemic surge is a deterrent, what stops the SP’s local leaders and workers from seeking out the helpless and providing the bare necessities such as medicines, tests, O2 supply and food? Akhilesh’s political interventions largely manifest through tweets, arguably a useful communications tool in troubled times. But the SP was birthed through hard-core activism, protests and courting arrests, of which nothing was seen even in the pre-COVID period.
2. Rev up the organisation that once thrived on street fights. Akhilesh is too dependent on a cabal of men who came out of bare-knuckled student politics but since lapsed into the comfort offered by power politics. Student elections in UP are few and far between, conducted in an ad-hoc manner, as a result a vital avenue for seeking talent has largely remained shut for political parties. This was one reason why the SP was invested in the panchayat polls because insiders believe the panchayats will be a nursery to tap fresh young talent. A new second and third rung leadership is just what Akhilesh needs to create and there’s no time to lose.
3. Sort out the ruinous family feud. Akhilesh’s estranged uncle, Shivpal Singh Yadav, proved his damage potential in the last Lok Sabha polls that cost the SP seats in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s turf in the Agra-Etawah region. Shivpal floated his own party, the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia), after his fallout with Akhilesh and fought the SP to the bitter finish, some say with the BJP’s backing. If Akhilesh doesn’t make up with Shivpal, it can adversely impact the SP’s prospects again on home ground. Unlike Akhilesh’s other uncle and Rajya Sabha MP, Ramgopal Yadav, who spent the better part of his political career in Delhi, Shivpal rose through the ranks and created a niche for himself. To that extent, he’s more of an asset for the SP than Ramgopal.
4. Enlarge the SP’s base beyond the traditional Muslim-Yadav constituency. Mulayam realised the limitations of the M-Y axis and, therefore, in his time, built leaders from the other backward castes to nourish the SP’s politics. Akhilesh is seeking out the smaller parties wedded to caste-specific identity politics. As of now, he has cemented alliances with the Rashtriya Lok Dal in west UP and the Mahan Dal, which primarily represents the backward castes Maurya, Shakhya, Saini and Kushwaha that are largely with the BJP since 2014.
The emergence of the Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha, an alliance of eight parties, each of whom speaks for unrepresented and undocumented backward castes, lends another dimension to UP politics. It is helmed by Om Prakash Rajbhar, the leader of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), who had tied up with the BJP in 2017 and became a cabinet minister in the Adityanath government. He came out of it during the last Lok Sabha polls and has since constructed an umbrella of parties such as the Rashtra Uday Party (of the Gadariya or shepherds), Rashtriya Apekshit Samaj Party (of the Kumhar or potters) and Bharat Mata Party (of the Bind or fisher folk). The SP sources claimed Akhilesh is “closely watching” the Morcha for the political potential it holds.
5. The Hindutva bugbear. The SP has had to fight the BJP’s allegation of being a “pro-Muslim” party that often cost Akhilesh even the Yadav votes. Party sources admitted they will have to tread upon the Hindutva terrain with “care”, and avoid “uncalled for” debates on issues that could upset communal sentiments.