On a hot April day amid hectic campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav aka Netaji made an emotional appeal to voters in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri, his family’s pocket borough. He requested the people to ensure his victory in his last election. Little did they know that his statement would prove to be prophetic.
Mulayam’s demise on October 10 this year has created an emotional and political void in Mainpuri besides necessitating a bypoll on December 5. The Lok Sabha seat is set to witness its first election since 1967 without the SP founder.
In Netaji’s absence, his son and party president Akhilesh Yadav has fielded his wife Dimple Yadav to retain the family’s stronghold, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has declared Mulayam’s former disciple Raghuraj Singh Shakya as its candidate. Both contestants are seeking votes by staking claim to the legacy of the socialist doyen.
Mr. Akhilesh, who has been leading the party since 2017, is hoping to coast to victory in the Yadav-dominated constituency, which has consistently voted for the party. By choosing its candidate from the Shakya community, the second-largest electorate after the Yadavs in Mainpuri, the BJP is hoping to win with the help of non-Yadav votes.
On November 14, before filing her nomination papers, Ms. Dimple and Mr. Akhilesh visited the ground in Saifai, Mulayam’s native village in Etawah district, where his last rites were performed, and pledged their commitment to Mulayam’s principles. The party plans to build a statue of its founder at the ground, the venue of the Saifai Mahotsav, a cultural festival, which was started in 1996 and had a successful run till 2016.
“This is not my election, but Netaji’s election. His blessings have been with us and always will be,” she said, urging voters to bestow on her their affection for Mulayam. Since then, Ms. Dimple has been residing at her father-in-law’s ancestral house and hitting the campaign trail. While she has been meeting women voters and touring urban areas in the constituency, Mr. Akhilesh has been organising booth-level meetings to forge a connection with the party cadre. The Lok Sabha constituency comprises five Assembly segments — Mainpuri, Bhongaon, Kishni, Karhal and Jaswantnagar.
Fight for the baton
Before kicking off his poll campaign, Mr. Shakya, too, paid his respects at Mulayam’s memorial and asserted that Netaji’s true political heir should be his shishya (disciple) and not family members who have “betrayed him for power”. “The family has let down Netaji. I am his disciple. I know Mainpuri will hand over his baton to me,” he said.
Elected to the Lok Sabha in 1999 and 2004 from Etawah on an SP ticket, Mr. Shakya was close to Mulayam and his younger brother Shivpal Yadav. In 2018, he and hundreds of fellow party workers joined the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia), which was formed by Mr. Shivpal after accusing Mr. Akhilesh of “disrespecting” him. Early this year, when Mr. Shivpal formed an alliance with the SP to defeat the BJP in the Assembly election, Mr. Shakya, who was denied a ticket, defected to the BJP.
Subhash Chandra Yadav, former State Minister and son of Nathu Singh Yadav, the political mentor of Mulayam, disagrees with Mr. Shakya. “Only Akhilesh and Dimple can replace Mulayam in Mainpuri,” he says, recalling the days when the SP founder used to campaign on a bicycle without even a mudguard. Mr. Subhash Chandra says his father had once seen Mulayam fighting in an akhada (wrestling ring) in Saifai and immediately decided to make him his political heir. He vacated the Jaswantnagar Assembly seat for Mulayam, who went on to represent it seven times between 1967 and 1993. In 1996, Netaji decided to contest the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat and handed Jaswantnagar to Mr. Shivpal, who has retained the seat since then.
The Karhal and Kishni constituencies, dominated by Yadav and Muslim voters, are loyal to Mr. Akhilesh, says S.K.S. Yadav, the principal of National PG College, who recalls meeting Mulayam for the first time when he was a professor at Meerut College. “At a rally attended by over 10,000 people, Mulayam pointed at a man in the crowd and called him up on stage. He then addressed him by his name and asked how he managed to travel the long distance from Mainpuri to Meerut. He could identify people even in a crowd of thousands,” he says.
However, an SP worker says Mulayam’s son and daughter-in-law neither have their ear to the ground nor have similar affection for Mainpuri. He attributes the party’s recent bypoll defeat in Azamgarh, another stronghold of the party, to Mr. Akhilesh’s overconfidence. Mr. Subhash Chandra says the SP chief won’t repeat the mistake in Mainpuri. “We have told Akhilesh not to be overconfident and not to leave the ground,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Opposition has accused the late SP founder of nepotism. “The Samajwadi Party has always used Mainpuri to kick off the careers of Mulayam’s sons and nephews. Mainpuri will not be fooled by parivarwaad (dynastic politics) anymore,” says Jaiveer Singh, State Tourism Minister and MLA from Mainpuri (Sadar).
According to the Opposition, Mulayam had been fielding his family members from Manipuri and the neighbouring districts of Etawah, Etah, Firozabad, Kannauj, and even Sambhal and Azamgarh. Mulayam’s nephew Dharmendra Yadav and grandson Tej Pratap Yadav started their political careers from Mainpuri. Ms. Dimple was picked to contest from Firozabad, which she lost, but managed to win Kannauj in 2014. Akhilesh too was an MLC from Kannauj. Mulayam also paved the political path for his cousin brother Ram Gopal Yadav and nephew Akshay Yadav.
Dinesh Katiyar, a lawyer in Mainpuri, says Bhongaon, a constituency dominated by Lodhis and Yadavs, where the BJP’s Ram Naresh Agnihotri is the sitting MLA, will vote in Mr. Shakya’s favour. In Mainpuri (city), too, upper caste voters are fed up with the SP’s “hooliganism” and are looking for change, he says.
“Even after winning from Mainpuri, whatever Mulayam did was for his home town, Saifai,” says septuagenarian wrestler Shri Krishna Yadav. He says Saifai has a medical college, air strip, international cricket stadium, VVIP guest house, proper roads, well-developed markets, colleges and recreational centres.
Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya recently said Mr. Shivpal is “welcome” if he ensures Mr. Shakya’s victory. After meeting with Mr. Akhilesh and Ms. Dimple earlier this week, Mr. Shivpal gave his assurance to campaign for the family’s bahu (daughter-in-law) and protect its traditional seat.
A source in the Samajwadi Party said Mr. Shivpal wanted the Mainpuri ticket for himself and would have left Jaswantnagar for his son, whose political career is yet to kick-off. “Akhilesh refused his uncle’s proposal. So, if you think that those pictures on social media portraying them as happy family are true, you might be wrong,” says Durvesh Singh Yadav, a social worker, who claims that the key to victory in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha bypoll is Jaswantnagar, the same seat from where Mulayam started his political career.