The Story of the Samajwadi Party's Decline is the Story of Uttar Pradesh Itself

Although political parties often face inter-generational conflicts, the divide in the SP is as much about the younger lot's desire to undo the corrupt, criminal politics of the older guard as to make the party modern and development-oriented.

Looking beyond the SP? File photo of Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: PTI

Looking beyond the SP? File photo of Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: PTI

The unseemly events at the meeting of Samajwadi Party leaders on Monday, at which Mulayam Singh Yadav failed to reconcile the two warring groups – one led by his son and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, the other led by brother Shivpal Yadav – point to an impending breakup of the party.

Once a strong state-level party in UP with a large following, today the SP finds itself without a clearly designated leader at the helm and its cadres confused over their future. The SP has not been able to start its election campaign despite the fact that assembly elections in UP are due in a few months time.

Most commentators have written off the internal conflict in the SP as a power-struggle between an older and younger generation in a dynastic party experiencing generational change, but the SP today seems to be a party without a clear ideology or self-identity as well. The long trajectory that the party has traversed to reach this point is reflective of major changes visible in UP politics since independence: from class to caste and community-based identity politics, and from the politics of secularism and social justice to the criminalisation of politics and the rise of mafia dons. While these features are visible in all parties in the state, the SP epitomises these shifts.

Emergence of SP

The SP draws sustenance from two older traditions in the state: the socialism of leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya Narayan Dev, and the agrarian politics of Charan Singh.

In the first three decades following independence, both the communist and socialist parties had a strong base in UP – the former having its strongest unit in the country – and leading land-grab movements together in the eastern part of the state. For the poor and disadvantaged groups that supported them, these forces represented opposition to oppression by the landowning upper castes. But the Left forces, particularly the communists, did not frontally address the caste question. Besides, although they upheld the rights of the oppressed, they themselves came from the upper castes and no leadership emerged from below. Over time, these parties came to be viewed by the lower castes as a means of perpetuating upper caste hegemony – a perception which underlay their eventual shift towards the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Similarly, the agrarian politics of Charan Singh helped the rich capitalist farmer more than the agricultural labourer, many of whom come from the lower castes. By the late 1980s, both these traditions lost steam and UP was ready for new politics.

The collapse of the Congress party in the late 1980s created room for the shift from class to caste and communal politics in UP.

Although the Janata Dal headed by Mulayam won in UP in 1989, it was a short-lived platform and by the early 1990s, the SP emerged from it as a party representing the backward castes. For a brief period, the SP was viewed as a party that stood for secularism and social justice, which gave it the support of the Muslims and the backward castes. In 1993, the SP and the BSP even joined hands to defeat the BJP. However, by the mid-1990s, the SP, swept by the politics of the Mandal Commission, became a largely caste-based party. With class interests dividing the backwards and Mulayam unable to unite all sections – some of which drifted towards other parties  – the SP has today become a party largely limited to the Yadavs. Further, the role played by the SP in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 in complicity with the BJP has angered the Muslims; it played a similar role earlier, in the 2005 riots in Mau where Yogi Adityanath has been very active.

Decline of the social agenda

The decline of the social justice agenda of the SP led to a shift by the late 1990s – the criminalisation of politics, and its association with and support to mafia dons. This is best seen in eastern UPm where the slow pace of economic development, combined with the shift to caste and communal politics, led to competition, corruption and crime on a large scale.

A mafia class arose in both the Hindu and Muslim communities, with high stakes in railway contracts, timber markets, coal and sand mining, sugar factories and the like. These dons gained support from leaders like Mulayam, who even brought them into his party. An important cause for the clout of the mafia class in the early 2000s was the growing competitiveness within the bipolar party system in UP; competition with the BSP pushed the SP to select its candidates not just on the basis of caste but also on their “winnability” – which actually meant the use of muscle power and money to win elections. This was evident in the attempt to bring D.P. Yadav into the party prior to the 2014 elections and the close association since the 1990s with Mukhtar Ansari and his party, the Quami Ekta Dal. These developments point to the transformation of the SP from an earlier socialist/backward caste party to one of the new business, political and criminal elements of the state.

This downward trajectory of the SP and its decay into a purely caste-cum-family party lies at the heart of the present conflict.

The 1990s were a decade of radical promise which remained unfulfilled, creating frustration and desire for change among the people of UP. While many parties, such as the Congress and the DMK, are facing inter-generational conflicts, the divide in the SP is as much over the corrupt and criminal politics espoused by the older generation as the desire among the younger generation to create a modern, development-oriented party.

It remains to be seen if Akhilesh can carry forward his revolt and undertake the much-needed surgery in the party, or will succumb to the pressures of the old guard. So far, the signs are not very promising. If the party experiences a split, it will give the BJP a chance to win in UP and make it a laboratory for its experiment of rightwing cultural transformation. It could also mean the end of the road for the SP as constituted at present. Meanwhile, it is important for all of us, including TV anchors who have described the drama in the SP as akin to a “soap opera”, to realise that the negative story of the SP is also the story of Uttar Pradesh itself – a state that has been on a downward spiral over the last few decades. Neither its current situation nor its trajectory is desirable for Indian democracy.

Sudha Pai is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Sciences, former rector and professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.