If the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls were fought under the shadow of an implosion within the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s founding family, the upcoming state elections are no different. Back in 2017, the feud had on one side former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother and party strongman Shivpal Yadav and the SP patriarch’s political heir and then sitting chief minister Akhilesh Yadav on the other. Five years later, while Akhilesh and Shivpal, now chief of the SP’s breakaway faction Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party–Lohia (PSP-L), are trying to bury their differences and stitch an alliance between their respective parties, it’s Mulayam’s ‘other’ family that has mutinied and joined Akhilesh’s main political adversary in the polls – the ruling BJP.
Great loss or good riddance?
On January 19, Aparna Yadav, wife of Prateek Yadav, Mulayam’s son from his second wife Sadhna Gupta and Akhilesh’s younger ‘half-brother’, was welcomed into the BJP by UP’s deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya and the party’s state unit chief Swatantra Dev Singh. There are speculations that Aparna will be the saffron party’s candidate in the upcoming polls from the Lucknow Cantonment seat. Aparna had contested from the Lucknow Cantonment seat as an SP candidate in 2017 too but was defeated by BJP’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi. SP insiders claim that Aparna had been lobbying for a SP ticket from Lucknow Cantonment in this election too on grounds that she had spent the past five years doing extensive social work in the constituency.
Also read: Mulayam tried to dissuade daughter-in-law from joining BJP: Akhilesh
However, Akhilesh refused to field her as at least two internal surveys conducted by the SP had suggested that she would lose again and the party could fare better if it fielded a Brahmin candidate from this BJP bastion. Aparna, daughter of former journalist Arvind Bisht, who Akhilesh had appointed as a state information commissioner in 2014 during his first stint as the UP chief minister, is a Thakur by birth married into a Yadav family – both communities have limited presence in Brahmin-dominated Lucknow Cantonment.
A day after Aparna joined the BJP, her uncle and Sadhna’s brother-in-law, former two-term MLA Pramod Gupta, too chucked the Samajwadi ‘laal topi’ (red cap) and embraced saffron. While Aparna was guarded in her responses on the current SP leadership during her induction into the BJP, Gupta held back no punches. He alleged that the SP was giving “shelter to mafias and criminals” and slammed Akhilesh for keeping Mulayam “imprisoned” and for “torturing Netaji (as Mulayam is popularly called) and Shivpal”.
This, of course, isn’t Pramod’s first rebellion against the SP or his own family. He had first become an MLA from Auraiya’s district’s Bidhuna constituency in 2007 after contesting as an independent candidate when the SP decided to give the ticket to Sadhna’s brother Sachinpati Gupta. In 2012, he joined the SP and retained the Bidhuna seat, but remained a backbencher MLA despite Akhilesh becoming the chief minister. In the 2017 polls, Pramod lost the seat to the BJP’s Vinay Shakya, an aide of OBC leader Swami Prasad Maurya who recently defected to the SP from the BJP. Shakya too followed Swami Prasad Maurya into the BJP amid rumors that Akhilesh could field him as the party’s candidate from Bidhuna, obviously at the cost of Pramod’s candidature.
In stark contrast to the shock and panic that the Akhilesh-Shivpal spat had triggered within the SP cadre in the 2017 polls amid Mulayam’s stinging criticism of Akhilesh over betraying the family elders, the defections of Aparna and Pramod have been met with a sense of relief, even euphoria, within the SP ranks and radio silence from the party founder. The running joke in UP’s political circles since Aparna and Pramod’s defections has been that there is a greater sense of elation in the SP rank and file than within the BJP camp.
“Besides the optics of the BJP breaking away people from Mulayam’s family, these defections have no electoral significance for the SP as Aparna and Pramod are neither mass leaders nor do they have any hold over the party cadre that is standing firmly behind Akhilesh,” a SP veteran told The Federal.
The leader, a close aide of Mulayam who also enjoys a good rapport with Akhilesh, added that the BJP “went after the weakest link of the (Mulayam) family… had the BJP succeeded in keeping Shivpal within its alliance, it may have been a cause to worry because Shivpal still has a personal standing in the Etawah-Mainpuri belt but he has decided to work with Akhilesh and strengthen the SP.” Sources say the BJP is still trying to woo Shivpal, a five-term MLA from Etawah’s Jaswantnagar seat, to its side but the PSP-L chief has “firmly rejected the BJP’s offers”.
Story behind Aparna’s dissidence
Sources close to the SP’s first family told The Federal that Aparna’s ‘revolt’ had been a long time coming while insisting that neither her nor Pramod’s defection would impact the party’s prospects in the upcoming elections. The genesis of the present feud, say sources, dates back to 2007, when Mulayam had, for the first time, acknowledged his marriage to Sadhna Gupta – they had reportedly got married in 2003 shortly after the death of Mulayam’s first wife, Malti Devi – in an affidavit he was forced to file before the Supreme Court due to the disproportionate assets case being investigated against him. In the same affidavit, Mulayam had also admitted to being the father of Prateek, who according to a CBI investigation report in the DA case had mentioned Sadhna and MS Yadav as his parents in his school admission forms way back in 1994.
With the family secret out, those close to the Yadav family say, Sadhna began pushing Mulayam to name Prateek as his political heir. That Akhilesh never had a comfortable rapport with Sadhna or Prateek was common knowledge among SP members who worked closely with Mulayam, say sources, while maintaining that the party founder had already begun grooming Akhilesh to be his political successor. However, it was not until 2012 that this simmering family feud reached fission state.
“In the 2012 assembly polls, the SP won a clear majority and Mulayam decided to anoint Akhilesh as the chief minister, even overlooking Shivpal’s claim. This decision set off a chain reaction after Akhilesh began to assert himself and step out of his father’s shadow. He ended up straining relationships with almost everyone considered close to Mulayam – Shivpal, the late Amar Singh and, for a while, even Azam Khan. Sadhna was never on Akhilesh’s side to begin with and when Shivpal revolted, she backed him in the hope that Prateek would finally get his political break. However, the cadre stood behind Akhilesh and eventually Netaji took a step back and let the former run the party. Now, even if grudgingly, Shivpal also acknowledges Akhilesh as the new face of SP,” a former SP and founding member of the party told The Federal.
Interestingly, SP sources say that in this family soap opera, the principal movers and shakers had always been Sadhna and Aparna and not Prateek. “Prateek never showed any inclination for politics despite his mother pushing him hard to demand his share of Mulayam’s legacy. He was more interested in living the high life – traveling the world, partying, body building and owning expensive cars,” said another party leader.
In 2011, Prateek and Aparna, who had known each other since their college days in the UK, got married. Though Mulayam was against the idea of his sons marrying outside the Yadav community, he had already broken that rule when he gave his blessings to Akhilesh’s marriage with Dimple Rawat, a Thakur whose family originally belonged to Uttarakhand, just like Aparna. Sources say Sadhna began backing Aparna’s claim for a place in the SP hierarchy soon after the marriage. Unlike the more introverted Dimple who was happy being a back-room manager for her husband’s politics and even comfortable with justifying evidently regressive, anti-women statements made by her father-in-law, Aparna was always an extrovert and did not shy away from openly disagreeing with views expressed by Mulayam or the SP.
In the run up to the 2017 assembly polls, Aparna made many in the SP, including Akhilesh, uncomfortable with her recurring statements in praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies like the ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’. She had also become vocal on another pet issue of the BJP – the need for gaushalas for stray cows, besides using her NGOs as a platform for speaking on women rights and backing the BJP’s initiatives like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’.
Many in the SP, at the time believed that these were merely pressure tactics by Aparna, with the tacit backing of her mother-in-law, to arm-twist the party into giving her a greater role. In the 2017 UP assembly polls, despite resistance from Akhilesh and Mulayam’s cousin, veteran party MP Ram Gopal Yadav, Aparna got a party ticket from the Lucknow Cantonment assembly seat. However, party sources say, after Aparna lost the election by over 30,000 votes to BJP’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Akhilesh refused to give her any new responsibilities and she once again began publicly endorsing various BJP initiatives and praising both Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Also read: UP defections reflect BJP’s inability to practise inclusive politics
While inducting Aparna into the BJP, Keshav Prasad Maurya declared that he “always felt that Aparna’s ideology was in sync with the BJP”. The SP cadres agree. However, the electoral dividends that the BJP is claiming to reap by the defection of Aparna – or Pramod – remain unclear. For now, in the UP election potboiler, the defections of Aparna and Pramod merely appear like a saas-bahu soap opera, albeit with a twist. Comparing its electoral fallout with the family feud witnessed in the SP five years ago during the Akhilesh-Shivpal spat is, perhaps, as much of an exaggeration as any jumla (rhetoric) made by political parties in poll season.