Taking a longer view of developments in the Samajwadi Party, it can safely be said that it is immaterial who wins the "cycle race", that is, which faction is allotted the bicycle symbol. In fact, so convoluted is the scenario that it is not even certain that there are two clear factions, and it is equally uncertain if the party will split at all. Matters took a comic turn last Monday when the contending groups led by father and son respectively approached the Election Commission with reams of documents to prove their majority within the party and thereby claim their right to the symbol. But by late evening, it was clear that the patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was keen to pull back from the brink and even the so far belligerent son, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, was not averse to yet another formula to broker peace. "The Samajwadi Party stands united" muttered Mulayam Singh while declaring that Akhilesh Yadav would remain the party's electoral face and Chief Ministerial candidate. So many U-turns have been made in the last one month that nothing can be concluded with finality.
But one thing is certain: the SP has already split within, even if it pretends to stay united for public consumption for the time being. It is often assumed that the SP parivaar
is basically a drama within the extended Mulayam Singh family, that rival contenders are trying to push one another out in order to take full control over the organization on the eve of the Assembly elections scheduled to be held within the next couple of months. The informal split which has already happened is discernibly one between two generations, with patriarch Mulayam Singh leading the elder and more established leaders (mostly his own relatives), while Akhilesh heads the younger group comprising mostly non-family leaders.
For observers of Indian politics, this is a fascinating scenario. What is playing out is a dramatic generational transition in India's biggest once-Mandalite party. Although Mulayam Singh, along with Lalu Prasad in Bihar, was among the biggest beneficiaries of Mandalism in Indian politics and also an architect of the electorally invincible M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) formula, time has taken a toll on their grasp of Hindi heartland politics. The M-Y alliance helped to thwart the challenge of BJP's mobilization in the name of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Despite the euphoria which brought Kalyan Singh to power in 1991, he could not repeat that performance for the BJP post demolition of the Babri Masjid, and Mulayam was back in the saddle.
Since the 1990s, UP's politics has remained clearly delineated. Over time, the Congress steadily eroded as a mass party, while Mayawati's fledging BSP with its core Dalit support base emerged as a serious contender for power, initially in alliance with the BJP, but eventually on its own steam. Through this, Mulayam Singh's M-Y base was largely undiminished. However the ageing patriarch failed to read the aspirational urges of his own Yadav and remaining OBC communities. Maybe finally recognising the need to make a generational switch, he fielded his son Akhilesh as the party's Chief Ministerial face in 2012 and the energetic new generation leader surprised pundits by leading the SP to a spectacular victory, winning 229 seats in the 405-member UP Assembly in that election.
Akhliesh Yadav dramatically altered his father's style of politics, focusing almost entirely on UP's economic development aimed at consolidating a youth support base that largely cut across caste and community lines. After five years, people in UP recall world-class highways (such as the 393-km-long Agra-Lucknow Expressway built in a record time of 22 months), the recently launched Lucknow-Ballia Expressway, and the Lucknow metro as the dominant symbols of Akhilesh's rule. There is hardly anything by way of infrastructure built by his predecessors that can compare with the breakneck speed with which Akhilesh went about modernizing UP. This was accompanied by a plethora of social sector schemes targeting women and farmers. While such social schemes often flounder on delivery and lead to corruption too, so far the UP Government has managed to implement them with a fair measure of success. The noticeable aspect of Akhilesh's record in office is that no appeal has been made on caste and community lines: He has played primarily on the aspirational urges of the youth, particularly the newly empowered Yadav and OBC youth.
This approach has brought him into conflict with the older generation Yadav leadership in his own party, particularly his uncle Shivpal, who is alleged to operate through a network of local strongmen. Akhilesh may have thus failed to get on top of UP's law and order situation, but few doubt his sincerity to eventually combat such elements.
Thus the division within the Samajwdi Party is not just generational, it is also aspirational. In this the young Samajwadi leader is fighting not only against his own family, most of which is tied to traditional clan-based politics, but is also contesting against the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose policies attract the youth across caste and class.
In many senses, therefore, Akhilesh Yadav is the first mature post-Mandal leader in contemporary politics. Clearly the politics of pure Mandalism has run its course - for the empowerment of the OBCs is now an irreversible reality. Akhilesh is working to construct a post-Mandal base for himself and his party and may well become the example for other similar outfits in North India.
With or without the bicycle symbol and irrespective of whether he leads a united SP to the hustings, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as UP's pre-eminent next generation politician. Even if he fails to repeat his winning feat of 2012 in the forthcoming Assembly poll, the constituency he is carving out for himself is there to stay. Mayawati's Dalit-dominated party is unlikely to ever gain cross-caste acceptability, although a section of Muslims may vote for her as a tactical ploy to defeat the BJP. In fact, it can be said with some certainty that a paradigm shift has come over UP politics and development has pushed identity politics to the back-burner, even if it takes decades to extinguish it altogether.
And that paradigm shift heralded by Akhilesh Yadav is spelling the doom for backroom cloak-and-dagger politics at which Mulayam Singh's associates excel. Politicians are a canny lot at the worst of times, and so the overwhelming support garnered by Akhilesh within his own party, to the chagrin of leaders like Shivpal Singh, clearly shows which way the wind is blowing. Split or no split, the Samajwadi Party is Akhilesh's for the taking.(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.