Debating India

UTTAR PRADESH

Samajwadi Party: light years from Lohia

Saturday 11 February 2006, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

The Samajwadi Party has grown and prospered notwithstanding internal discomfiture over its new orientation. Today while the SP hogs the limelight for the wrong reasons, the BSP is determinedly expanding its base.

THE SAMAJWADI Party’s man for all seasons, Amar Singh, is unmatched even by the yardstick of Indian politics, an open house known to embrace the oddest - film stars, cricketers, business tycoons, history-sheeters, not to mention assorted swamijis and sanyasins. The SP general secretary is a politician by definition. But it is for matters other than politics that he hits the headlines - among other things, for the company he keeps and for the lifestyle he favours.

That Mr. Amar Singh is not the tiniest bit embarrassed by the focus on his non-curricular excursions - his once-too-often page 3 appearances, his lavish courting of the rich and the famous, his much-in-evidence Bollywood connection - apparently adds to his charm. In the course of the recent telephone tapping controversy, he made the disarming admission that his "morals are different." Though that, he said, was no reason for him to be stealthily taped. There was more scintillating stuff for television channels hungrily foraging for fodder.

It is another matter that the Amar Singh phenomenon has left Mulayam Singh’s avowedly socialist party feeling dispirited and disoriented. Just why and how the pro-big business and self-confessedly fun loving Mr. Amar Singh has come to be seen as the public face of a party tracing its origins to the fetishly frugal Ram Manohar Lohia is a question that baffles them. At the same time, they know better than to raise the issue with the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister.

Indeed, so complete is Mr. Mulayam Singh’s identification with his flamboyant, media-friendly lieutenant that when cinestar Raj Babbar launched a broadside against the SP general secretary, not one person from the party came to his defence. Instead, the MP from Agra found himself in the dock. "What is his contribution to the party," asked Ram Gopal Yadav, the Chief Minister’s once favourite cousin and now a distant also-ran. Mr. Yadav accused Mr. Babbar of working behind the scenes with the Congress. Mr. Babbar is unlikely to have stuck his neck out without securing his future. Yet in not hearing him out, Mr. Mulayam Singh only lent weight to Mr. Babbar’s televised allegation that Mr. Amar Singh wielded disproportionate clout in the SP.

For all his bravado, Mr. Mulayam Singh himself is clearly troubled by the charge that the SP has lost sight of its original goals, that the glamour quotient in the party has reached levels incompatible with its backward caste, backward class orientation. Not just Mr. Amar Singh, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister himself rarely appeared in public without his business and Bollywood friends in tow. It had become common for him to address press meets flanked by film star MPs rather than by the party’s toiling, and increasingly faceless, office-bearers. It did not help the SP’s carefully nurtured pro-poor image that corporate giant Anil Ambani won his Rajya Sabha seat with the party’s help.

Perhaps to correct the signals this could send out, Mr. Mulayam Singh recently invited the press to meet party warhorse and die-hard Lohiaite Janeshwar Mishra. Though in semi-retirement and convalescing after a crippling illness, Mr. Misra valiantly defended his party chief. But with a genteelness typical of the old times. When this writer met Mr. Misra at his residence, the sombre mood was evident. He did not utter a word against Mr. Mulayam Singh or Mr. Amar Singh. But he spoke his heart out on Lohia, the man’s convictions, his egalitarian spirit, his simplicity, his large-heartedness. On a long ago, cold winter day, a group of poor Muslim peasants met Lohia, Mr. Misra recalled. Seeing that one of them had no warm clothing, he asked the young Janeswar to fetch a cardigan from his (Lohia’s) cupboard. Lohia threw a fit when he saw that it was a sleeveless cardigan. He wanted the poor peasant gifted a full-sleeved cardigan even if that was all that Lohia himself possessed.

"Vastu ka moh"

"What we see today is vastu ka moh (lusting after material possessions)," Mr. Misra lamented, his anguish revealed in the downcast eyes, in the halting manner of his speech. But then "the times are such" and it was futile to blame any one person for it. "When I sit in the comfort of this heated, carpeted room, I think of the poor people out in the cold." From any other politician, the words would have sounded hollow. Not from a party elder with no personal axes to grind and no expectation or fear of reward and punishment.

Just how far Mr. Mulayam Singh had travelled from the Lohia days that Mr. Misra so longingly recaptured for his select audience became apparent the following week. The U.P. Chief Minister called a press conference to register his protest at having to vacate his MP’s bungalow in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi - 18 months after he resigned from the Lok Sabha. Amidst much slogan-shouting against Sonia Gandhi and the Congress, the occupant of the sprawling chief ministerial quarters in Lucknow dramatically announced that he was now on the streets. Evidently, the SP chief had forgotten his mentor’s strong dislike of official showmanship. Writing in the booklet Niji aur Sarvajanik Kshetra (private and public spheres), Lohia said, "I believe that there is no other country in the world where the discrimination between the high and the low is as marked and as well entrenched as it is in India. The discrimination I talk about is not between the rich and the poor, it is between those with clout and those without it. The high and mighty will get fifty different types of facilities, they will live in splendour, with minions at their beck and call; they will receive the utmost respect and courtesy; the common folk too assume that this discrimination is natural and justified."

To be sure, Lohia wrote this in 1960, when the nation was still idealistic and the political climate relatively more innocent. As Mr. Misra pointed out, "the times" have changed - not just for Mr. Mulayam Singh but for all political parties. Lohia lived his beliefs as did Gandhi. If Lohia’s obsessive austerity seems an anachronism in Amar Singh’s SP, the starkness of Gandhi’s life has long faded from the Congress’ memory. In its youth, the sectarian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh too practised simple living of a kind that contrasts sharply with the seven-star atmosphere prevailing in the conclaves of the current-day Bharatiya Janata Party. Today’s political parties are as much about politics as they are about parties - parties where the rich and influential are wined and dined, where wealth is shown off, and deals are sealed.

It is worth noting that Mr. Mulayam Singh’s affection for Mr. Amar Singh has done no damage to his constituency. If anything, the SP grew and grew in the Amar Singh decade. In 1996, when he became general secretary of the SP, the party won 16 of 85 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh for a vote share of 20.84 per cent. In the Vidhan Sabha, its share of seats and votes was 110 of 424 seats and 21.80 per cent. In 1998, the SP’s Lok Sabha tally from the State rose to 20 seats and its vote share to 28.7 per cent. This was the BJP’s peak year: the Hindutva party won 57 Lok Sabha seats and polled 36.49 per cent of the popular vote. By 1999, the SP, the BJP, and the Bahujan Samaj Party were in a tight, tense race - the BJP down to 29 Lok Sabha seats and a vote share of 27.69 per cent, the SP just behind with 26 seats and a 24.06 per cent vote share, and the BSP a close third with 14 seats and a 22.08 per cent vote share.

In the 2002 election to the U.P. Assembly, the SP surged past the BJP with 143 of 203 seats and a vote share of 25.37 per cent. The BSP was next with 98 seats and a vote share of 23.06 per cent while the BJP finished third with 88 seats and a vote share of 20.08 per cent. It was the SP’s best moment and the BJP’s worst.

The story was to be repeated in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Mr. Mulayam Singh’s party topped the chart with 35 of 80 Lok Sabha seats to the BJP’s 10 and a vote share of 26.74 per cent to the BJP’s 22.17 per cent. Yet the potential dark horse was the BSP with 19 seats and a vote share of 24.17 per cent.

Mr. Amar Singh is not quite the liability he is made out to be. So what explains the disquiet in SP circles? The reason has to do with Mayawati’s party, which has raised its profile where it matters - among prospective voters. In the recent panchayat polls, the SP swept the indirect elections held for the posts of district panchayat chiefs. But in the villages, where political destinies are decided, the BSP held sway, indicating just what Mr. Mulayam Singh is up against in the 2007 Assembly election.

The SP cadre is understandably dismayed that while its leadership protests non-issues and hogs the limelight for the wrong reasons, the BSP is doing its work - quietly, determinedly, and away from the television studios.

See online : The Hindu

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