Beyond the power struggle, succession battle, cloak-and-dagger palace intrigue that marks the relationship between members of Uttar Pradesh's first family, two broad brush strokes are visible in the tussle between beta Akhilesh and baap Mulayam Singh Yadav. A son, trying desperately to emerge from the shadow of his father and establish his primacy over Samajwadi Party's multiple power centres, and an ageing patriarch determined to keep his flock together.
It may appear that the recent steps — quite astonishing and in full public view — taken by the SP chief are an attempt to prove to Akhilesh that he might be the UP chief minister seeking a re-election but Mulayam remains in every sense of the word, his baap. And that could be misleading. The former CM is too seasoned a player in the game of thrones and too conversant with the caste and community equation in India's largest state to let ego interfere with his sense of better judgement.
On the contrary, Mulayam's each decision — from repeatedly and publicly criticising son Akhilesh and asking him to 'mend his ways' to sacking him as the state president on Tuesday — has been carefully calibrated and is totally consistent with the larger need to prevent splintering of the Yadav clan, no less than a dozen of whom are in active politics. The SP patriarch has so far been able to maintain a miraculous balance of power between members of the family by deft distribution of government, party or local body posts.
A January 2016 report in The Economic Times gives details about the three latest entrants into politics from Mulayam Singh Yadav family. One was his nephew Abhishek Yadav, elected as the chairman of Etawah Zila Panchayat body. Niece Sandhya Yadav was another, elected as chairman of Mainpuri Zila Panchayat. Vandana Yadav, another relative, was the third. She was elected as chairman of Hamirpur Zila Panchayat. This, according to the report, follows the entry of two more relatives. One is Mridula Yadav, the mother of Mulayam's nephew and Mainpuri MP Tej Pratap Yadav and Ajant Singh Yadav, brother-in-law of Mulayam. They were inducted as members of Block Development Council from Saifai and Chaubiya, respectively.
This fragile equilibrium is easily upset when one power centre tries to impose its primacy over another. The "sacking of Akhilesh" as the party's state president, therefore, is more of an eyewash engineered by Mulayam to ensure that brother Shivpal Yadav stays within the fold. This also is in conformity with his firm belief that the SP will be in a much better shape to tackle a complex election battle in 2017 by remaining united, stressing on core organisational strengths and stitching strategic tie-ups.
Aware of the challenges posed by a resurgent BSP which may profit substantially from a Dalit uprising and a BJP that won't give up without a fight, the last thing Mulayam would want is a rebellion from Shivpal. That such a possibility may arise became clear during recent Independence Day celebrations.
Mulayam dropped a bombshell by saying that his brother Shivpal, known for organisational skills, is apparently facing a conspiracy and should he leave, the party would be doomed. This, in itself, was extraordinary. In party headed by him and a government headed by his son, who had the temerity to hatch a conspiracy against Shivpal whose writ sometimes eclipses that of Akhilesh?
The day earlier, Shivpal had threatened to resign alleging "rampant corruption in the UP government", according to a report in NDTV. No prizes for guessing whom the barb was pointed at. Mulayam moved in swiftly. In full presence of media, he appeared to side with his brother. "Shivpal is working very hard. A few people are against him. If he quits, then the sitiation for the party will become bad. Half of the people will go with him," NDTV quoted him, as saying.
Shivpal's statement wasn't a sudden one. And few believe he was genuinely worried about "rampant" corruption in a government of which he was a key part. What lay behind that veiled threat was the apparent humiliation he suffered at the postponement — at Akhilesh's insistence — of a merger between SP and mafia-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari’s Quami Ekta Dal (QED).
As Ratan Mani Lal argues in this Firstpost piece: "Differences of opinion between Akhilesh and Shivpal have come up on several occasions. Notable among these is the choice of official to be appointed as the state’s chief secretary after Alok Ranjan’s term ended, and the postponement of QED's merger with the SP… Apparently, Shivpal has been sulking ever since the QED fiasco as it involved a lot of efforts on his part to bring the outfit to the SP’s fold, and the cancellation of the merger had led to huge embarrassment – if not humiliation – for Shivpal."
That Akhilesh has been able to stall the merger with a party headed by a history-sheeter mafia don who reportedly has over 70 murder charges against him shows that he wants to carve his own identity as a chief minister with a "clean image". His open defiance of uncle Shivpal by sacking a chief secretary considered close to him and firing of two ministers against whom there have been corruption charges are attempts to stamp his authority over a government where his own position at times has been relegated to that of a quasi-chief minister. But Akhilesh's problem is that on his own, he remains incapable of winning an election.
And herein lies the crux of the story. Mulayam knows that SP's political capital largely lies with him and to a certain extent with brother Shivpal who remains an influential figure. His attempts to side with younger brother at the cost of antagonising his son is done with a belief that the brother may need assuaging. The son will come around.
But will Akhilesh have the guts to be his own man? Or is this defiance little more than a sideshow? That remains the million-dollar question.