The 2019 parliamentary elections saw several Opposition parties bite the dust. Each of them must now introspect and rebuild, not only in self-interest but also in the interest of something larger, the country’s democratic project. This is going to be tough given the scale of the rebuke the electorate has delivered them, and internal conflicts that are likely to emerge as they chart the way forward.
One suspects that the Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav is going to find this more challenging than most others.
Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.
For starters, unlike other players like Chandrababu Naidu, Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati who pretty much call the shots in their respective parties (at least till now), Akhilesh’s grip on the Samajwadi Party (SP) has been tenuous for the better part of his stint at the party’s top.
Akhilesh Yadav Has No Past Laurels To Rest On, Nor The Confidence Of ‘Old Guard’
Sections of the SP old guard haven’t really warmed up to Akhilesh’s leadership, complaining often about the party’s loss of its earthy, socialist moorings under him. This includes uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav who floated his own outfit months before the parliamentary election, and father and SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has more than once wagged a finger at Akhilesh in public. Whether this reflects genuine concern or stems from fears of being put to pasture, is uncertain. What is certain though is that it has sent avoidable signals to the party rank and file, and the electorate at large.
Secondly, Akhilesh’s record at the hustings has been disappointing. Other regional players have past laurels to rest on, with even Mayawati (who has had unflattering results in recent times) having a face-saver of sorts in the vote share figures.
Akhilesh, on the other hand, has the baggage of three consecutive routs – in the parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019, and the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections of 2017. Tejaswi Yadav, another young leader who may see some internal heat soon, probably has more rope, given that 2019 was his first serious outing.
The SP’s reversals raise questions about Akhilesh’s political nous and the party’s future under him, given the unproductive alliances he has pushed despite reservations within: in 2017 with the Congress, and in 2019 the gathbandhan with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
SP Has To Revisit Its Ideological Position & Re-Strategise
At one level, these alliances have reflected a mis-reading of the popular mood, including the appetite for alliances among the party’s core voters. At another level, the results speak of a grim future for the SP given that it has fared poorly when contesting alone and no better despite experimenting with two different partners. Sure, these mis-readings and gloomy prognostications do not apply to the SP alone. However, they may be more pressing for the party given that it has been unable to swing a satisfactory result with and without alliances – and has been nervous for a while as to where Akhilesh may be leading it.
Going forward, it is obvious that the SP has important issues of ideological positioning and strategy to deal with.
Akhilesh, for all his political failures, may just be the right person to anchor the introspection. This is partly on account of his relative youth, which essentially means he has a long-term stake the old guard doesn’t, and partly, his acceptability among party workers notwithstanding, the impact of the old guard’s discomfiting notes.
More than age and acceptability however Akhilesh has demonstrated qualities of man-management that could stand him in good stead in the choppy journey that lies ahead.
Despite Everything, Akhilesh Can Shed His Ego & Extend An Olive Branch
For all the fire his leadership has been under, Akhilesh has twice managed to convince his party to join hands with sworn enemies. His skills in handling Mayawati, a temperamental individual with genuine personal grievances against Mulayam and the SP, have also been admirable. From ceding Mayawati one more seat to playing second fiddle to her in the public forum, to following her to cue over attempts to divide the gathbandhan’s vote, Akhilesh left no opportunity to show his respect towards the BSP supremo during the course of the 2019 election. This was the recognition of the legitimate wounds his alliance partner was carrying, and how much the optics of the relationship mattered to her and her constituency.
These exertions and gestures may not have yielded electoral dividends but point to an ability to persuade and shed the ego.
Not to mention, the boldness to give the most unpalatable of proposals a shot, if convinced of their merit. Of course, this is no substitute for the hard yards Akhilesh and his partymen need to put in going forward. But then these are useful tools to have in the bag when the climb ahead is arduous and the steps of many, many co-travelers have to fall together every inch of the ascent.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)