Politics is deeply rooted in history, and recent events in North Indian politics are a reminder that history, even ancient history, is never too far away in this political land of ours. Ergo, let’s begin the narration of this political drama with a short history lesson, about the ‘evil’ Aurangzeb, and how he deposed his father Shah Jahan and committed fratricide with Dara Shikoh. Everybody knows this story, which is why the move to remove his name from a road in Delhi had widespread popular support. Nobody wants to play the devil’s advocate and argue that Aurangzeb was frustrated by his father draining the treasury (the Taj Mahal wasn’t free, right?) and that an ideological rot had crept into the Mughal empire. Aurangzeb rode a wave of popular discontent against the ruling elite (sound familiar?) and actually expanded the empire to its greatest land area. The seeds of its decline were also sown at the same time, when a certain western Indian brigand came to the fore and began chipping away at the empire, which soon collapsed into a rubble heap.
Two paragraph history lesson done with, let us get back to current-day political chess. For four weeks, between December 2016 and January, India’s political capital shifted to Awadh, and the simmering discontent inside the ruling family of Uttar Pradesh spilled out into the open. The battle ostensibly began earlier in 2016, as Akhilesh Yadav (possibly India’s only Chief Minister who is a self-confessed heavy metal fan) and his paternal uncle, Shivpal Yadav, began a feud. We don’t know what triggered it, but some suspect that it was the rehabilitation of Amar Singh. Singh is renowned as one of Delhi’s top political fixers, but while he has never been convicted of any wrongdoing, his reputation has never really surfaced above the ground in a while. Mulayam Singh Yadav ‘Netaji’, Akhilesh’s father and the grandfather of UP politics, decided to bring Amar Singh back from the cold and make him a member of the Rajya Sabha again, last May. There are some theories about why Netaji did this, and one is that he needed Singh to negotiate with the powers that be in Delhi. The other is that he was just asserting himself ahead of the UP elections this March; the latter is what probably happened, and Netaji’s partner in this was his brother, Shivpal — or so Akhilesh believed.
This was the culmination of four-and-a-half years of drama. In 2012, Mulayam Singh Yadav had made way for his son. Akhilesh was a media darling – young and dynamic, he was everything the Samajwadi Party was not. India’s largest and most populous state also has India’s largest population of young people, and Akhilesh managed to inspire young voters in droves, cutting across caste lines — he deposed Mayawati from the seat of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. With every high comes a fall, however, and Akhilesh’s government descended into chaos as his father, uncles and other party ‘elders’ started dictating terms. Youth was the face of the government, and it was what propelled the Samajwadi Party to power, but the old guard, surrounded by their cronies and persistent charges of corruption, ran the show. The running joke in Lucknow became that there were five and a half chief ministers in the state, and Akhilesh was the half. The fall was hard — very hard. Cue May 2014, and the BJP winning 75 out of 80 Uttar Pradesh seats in the parliamentary elections. Mulayam, who had harboured genuine (albeit genuinely misguided) dreams of becoming Prime Minister was shellshocked. The five seats the BJP did not win belonged to three Yadav-clan members and the Mother-Son Gandhi duo of the Congress. The results were devastating, and a huge slap on the face of Akhilesh’s government. To his credit, Akhilesh realised this and borrowed a page from Narendra Modi’s book. Not only were infrastructure projects, such as the signature Agra-Lucknow Expressway and Metro projects in Agra, Lucknow and Varanasi speeded up, but he went on a public relations overdrive. Aided by his right-hand man, bureaucrat Navneet Sehgal, Akhilesh released advertisements across national newspapers and made sure that his projects were spoken about. He also began the process of consolidating his own power-base among younger voters, and started sidelining his uncles, both the real ones and the adopted ones, like Amar Singh.
This was bound to lead to the crisis that erupted in late 2016, which was precipitated by the nomination of Amar Singh. According to those close to Akhilesh, Amar Singh represented the ‘old’ Samajwadi Party and all that was wrong with it. The story goes that Akhilesh did not want to take on his father, but when he saw Amar Singh cosy up to Mulayam, and his father ignoring him, he had little choice but to strike out. However, it was not Amar Singh who became his target but Shivpal Yadav, his father’s younger brother. Now, one popular theory has it that this entire drama (just short of the patricide and parricide that George R.R Martin would inevitably have pencilled in) was staged — all the shifting of houses, snatching of microphones, name-calling and rallies of supporters was nothing but a script. Forget Game of Thrones, though — this was moving faster than an entire season of House of Cards in one day, and like those two great shows, people started to take sides. While Shivpal Yadav became the ‘evil’ uncle, his other uncle Ramgopal Yadav, the Samajwadi Party’s long-time face in New Delhi, quickly swore allegiance to Akhilesh, as did Shivpal’s son Aditya.
Mulayam was livid. This was not a corporate takeover by the next generation — this was a palace coup, where the new King wanted the old King and his coterie out. Mulayam was befuddled at just how quickly Akhilesh had dramatically swung the media and, crucially, the administration to his side. In retaliation, Mulayam did not announce a candidate for Chief Ministership in the coming 2017 elections, he expelled Ramgopal Yadav from the party and lashed out at his son for the loss in 2014 which (in his mind), had scuppered his chances at becoming Prime Minister. Akhilesh in turn expelled his father and uncle’s favourites from the cabinet and other governmental posts.
Then, as the sun set and rose again, peace was restored – expulsions were revoked and people reinstated. But, the very next day, war broke out again. This looked like the battle of the Somme – stalemate, action, stalemate, action. Political observers and journalists in Lucknow and New Delhi were getting increasingly irritated, because between the Samajwadi crisis and the demonetisation crisis, the drinking season had gone for a toss. And as if this was not enough, there was talk of Rahul Gandhi negotiating with Akhilesh for a seat-sharing deal.
Nobody gave Akhilesh enough credit, despite not having his trusted Sehgal next to him, as he had had a horrible car accident on the new Expressway. Mulayam may not have realised it, but the coup was over — he had already lost by the time he made his final move of expelling Akhilesh. Mulayam could have fought on, (his other son Prateek remained at his side), but he realised that any further fighting would completely consign the party to the dustbin of Indian political history. Akhilesh too did not want to completely humiliate his father, just to display that he, the son, was now a leader in his own right. After all, Aurangzeb never did kill his father – he just banished him to a room in Agra Fort. Defeat was a very bitter pill for Mulayam Singh Yadav, but in politics, defeat is a constant. Akhilesh had done the unthinkable, stood up to his family, his father and his uncles and won an unbelievable victory. Every north Indian man has daddy issues (admit it, you do) but Akhilesh resolved his — and that, in more ways than one, invigorated his support base.
Yet, this is not the end of this tale. While Akhilesh has won this battle, his victory in the Uttar Pradesh polls is not a given. After the stinging defeat in Bihar last year, the Amit Shah-led BJP is consolidating its position in the state, and would have to lose a significant vote share to not become the single-largest party in UP. Indeed, even with the tie-up with the Congress, the Samjwadi Party has a lot of work to do, and while palace intrigue is one thing, winning India’s largest state is something else altogether. Nobody is discounting Mayawati or her vote bank, and it remains to be seen if the elders will have their ultimate revenge and manage to have Akhilesh defeated. Who needs George R.R. Martin when we have UP politics?