The hospital deaths in Gorakhpur, the home and political turf of Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, drew muted responses from the state’s Opposition, noticeably the Samajwadi Party (SP) that is the largest Opposition despite being a distant second to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the past when a tragedy struck UP or a scam signed the day’s dispensation, the SP’s emblematic flags and banners would crowd the streets. Its workers, red-and-green bandanas wrapped around their foreheads, were out on the streets, daring the cops to strike at will.
Uncharacteristically, the SP went into a shell last week, confining its reaction to an anodyne call on Gorakhpur by its president and the former chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav. Akhilesh gave away a couple of lakhs to each bereaved family from the SP’s war chest. He asked the SP’s units to hold silent candle marches.
A legislator from central UP admitted that the party was “afraid”. “We were scared to politicise the protests.The BJP got an upper hand. In 24 hours, its strategists skilfully deflected the narrative from the deaths caused by oxygen shortage to Kafeel Ahmed Khan and made it a Hindu-Muslim debate. The BJP identified Khan with Akhilesh,” he said. Khan was a paediatrician in the errant hospital. The initial spot reports said he had tried to save lives by procuring oxygen cylinders with his money. When the doctor was lionised by sections of the media, a slander campaign against him got off, putting him on the defensive.
The impact of the BJP-fed discourse is but one strand in an unfolding saga, bedevilled by clan rivalries over the ownership of the SP as the founder and patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav turns 78 in November and is coping with health issues. Questions were raised over his legatee Akhilesh’s leadership and vote-gathering efficacy even by his aides who conceded he ought to be “as belligerent as his father was in his heydays”. Mulayam’s younger brother Shivpal Singh Yadav, a legislator, is suspected to be a BJP operative. The cadre, surrogate beneficiaries of Akhilesh’s five-year rule, had become “too wimpy” to go for donnybrooks.
“We are not playing the Opposition’s role,” a Mulayam aide and a legislative council member emphasised. To underline the point, he recalled that in the July presidential election, when four MPs and 10 legislators of the SP had cross-voted for the NDA’s candidate, Akhilesh was not around to look into the matter. “He was celebrating his birthday in London and playing football with his son in Manchester,” he alleged. Akhilesh’s “indifference” goaded an SP functionary, Sudhir Singh, to shoot off a missive on August 11, asking while Mulayam had “dedicated his life to the poor”, did Akhilesh seriously expect these poor to have a “good time in London and Manchester”?
Santosh Yadav ‘Sani’, a legislative council member close to Akhilesh, defended him, claiming, “Yes he always celebrates his birthday with the family and encourages us to do likewise.”
In early August, as six SP legislative council members defected to the BJP, coinciding with the party president Amit Shah’s Lucknow visit, Akhilesh reportedly looked the other way, despite himself being a council member. “His response was whoever wants to leave can leave,” an SP source said. Yashwant Singh, a defector, said, “He didn’t try to speak to me once knowing well I was quitting. In contrast, the chief minister called me soon after I resigned.” He denied joining the BJP “yet”, adding the party’s “nationalist” conviction had attracted him, although Akhilesh adherent Sanjay Lathar maintained Yashwant belonged to the T (Thakur)-series of Yogi’s caste loyalists. Unlike Yashwant, Shivpal, blackballed by Akhilesh after he appointed Ram Govind Choudhary as the Opposition leader in the assembly, is seriously exploring the prospect of securing a “position” in the overcrowded UP BJP.
Akhilesh’s “youth brigade”, lauded in 2012 for taking the young man and SP to victory, is today castigated for “leading him astray”. “These are sycophants who have become council members. They don’t understand legislative practices and jump into the well on the least provocation. Some of us wanted to seriously discuss the GST bill before voting but nobody listened,” an old-timer complained.
Young or old, nobody ruled out the chances of the SP splitting, stressing it was a “question of time.” A Rajya Sabha veteran’s take was, “Today Akhilesh is the party president, ‘Netaji’ (Mulayam) is in the party and Shivpal is an SP MLA. We hope it doesn’t break up.” A Mulayam loyalist said, “We should be fighting the BJP but we are fighting each other. Mulayam brought the party from zero to great power. His son is bent on destructing it.” Sunny Yadav insouciantly remarked, “Netaji has bequeathed his legacy to Akhilesh. Shivpal can do nothing.” The question is when will Akhilesh and his boys, who have lost the fire in their bellies, do something to take the SP out of near-stupor?