'Akhilesh can't stand Amar Singh, for his ways and for his interference'

Kiranmoy Nanda, the lone Bengali elder in a heartland party, reveals to  Debaashish Bhattacharya  the reasons for rift among the Samajwadi Yadavs

By Debaashish Bhattacharya
  • Published 6.11.16
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Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Kiranmoy Nanda could not take it anymore. It was late October and the Samajwadi Party's (SP) state convention in Lucknow was on to resolve the differences in the ruling family of Uttar Pradesh.

Addressing the meet, Shivpal Yadav, the SP state chief, apparently accused nephew and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav of plotting a split in the party.

"Akhilesh told me he would form a new party and forge an alliance with the Congress and [Rashtriya] Lok Dal to fight the BJP in UP and Nanda ji was there all through," Shivpal is believed to have told a stunned audience, swearing on Gangajal.

"It was a blatant lie," says Nanda, the SP's national vice-president and number two in the party after SP national president Mulayam Singh Yadav.

"I got up from my seat and protested. I told our workers no such discussion had ever taken place in my presence. They broke out in a thunderous applause," he adds.

By "clearing the air" at the party convention, Nanda believes he has paved the way for a truce in the family.

It is indeed remarkable, how Nanda, who hails from the then undivided Midnapore district in Bengal, has found a foothold in the rough and tumble of north Indian politics. "I am possibly the only Bengali today in the complex Hindi heartland politics. I do not speak much except give one or two bites to national television or one or two quotes to newspapers," he says.

Indeed, this once-garrulous fisheries minister in the Jyoti Basu Cabinet has cultivated an uncharacteristic reticence since he joined the SP.

But today, the Rajya Sabha MP who does 30 minutes of pranayam every morning, followed by a 30-minute walk and looks much younger than his 70 years, seems to be in an expansive mood.

He is in Calcutta on a "well-deserved break" from Lucknow. We are at his home-turned-office in Salt Lake. On the wall behind us hangs a yellowing photograph of a younger Nanda with a smiling Jyoti Basu, the late Marxist chief minister of Bengal who first made him a minister in 1982.

"Jyoti Basu had changed the portfolios of many ministers, but never mine. I remained stuck like a fishbone in his throat for many years," says Nanda.

It was Basu who had suggested that the former West Bengal Socialist Party leader meet Mulayam in 1992, when Nanda was worried about the fate of his small party in Bengal.

Right next to Basu's photograph is a more recent one of Nanda with Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Nanda knows Mulayam Singh and the SP closely. He was there when the party was launched in 1992 and even helped name it. "Initially, we had thought of naming it Socialist Party. Then, we decided against it, for fear of not getting the election symbol because there was Dr Ram Manohar Lohia's Socialist Party that had merged with the Janata Party. So, we decided to call it Samajwadi Party, as it means the same in both Bengali and Hindi."

But what has triggered the present turmoil within the SP?

Nanda says it is all rooted in a longstanding rivalry between Ram Gopal Yadav and Shivpal Yadav.

Until recently, Mulayam Singh was more fond of Ram Gopal, his cousin, than of his younger brother Shivpal. This caused much heartburn between the cousins. As Nanda sees it, the seeds of discord between Shivpal and Akhilesh were sown after the 2012 elections.

"Akhilesh was in charge of the party campaigns, but no one was projected as CM candidate. After we won, the parliamentary board met to decide on the leader. Even though the party's inner circle had agreed to make Mulayam CM for a year before projecting him as the PM candidate in 2014, Ram Gopal proposed Akhilesh's name in the meeting all of a sudden, causing others, especially Shivpal, to protest against it."

Mulayam, who was not well at the time, subsequently let his son become CM, but Nanda believes that Shivpal's reaction hurt Akhilesh.

Even so, Mulayam managed to keep a lid on the simmering discontent between son, brother and cousin for the better part of Akhilesh's rule, but all hell broke loose after Shivpal persuaded his elder brother to welcome back Amar Singh into the party fold.

Singh, who had been expelled from the party in 2010, now became a Rajya Sabha MP.

Nanda himself is no fan of Amar Singh. He blames him for causing a rift between him and Jyoti Basu, when Singh as SP general secretary decided to field candidates against the Left Front in Bengal in 1997. Nanda quit SP and returned only in 2011, after he lost in the Bengal Assembly elections.

"Akhilesh cannot stand Amar Singh," explains Nanda, "for the kind of man Amar Singh is and the way he interferes in the affairs of government and party." So, when Shivpal smoothed his passage back into the SP, the UP CM was furious. The animosity between uncle and nephew deepened.

Then in September, Singh was made one of the seven general secretaries of SP. Mulayam, all of a sudden, asked his son to drop a minister - Gayatri Prasad Prajapati - on corruption charges. But within two weeks, he asked Akhilesh to take him back.

And when Akhilesh removed Deepak Singhal, reportedly close to Shivpal, from the post of chief secretary, Mulayam demanded he be reinstated. When Akhilesh explained that he had already appointed another officer in his place, an angry Mulayam removed his son from the post of state party chief and appointed his brother Shivpal instead.

Akhilesh retaliated by stripping Shivpal, a minister in his Cabinet, of his key portfolios of revenue, irrigation and PWD. Mulayam interceded on behalf of his brother. Akhilesh then gave Shivpal back all his old portfolios except PWD.

The internecine battle continued within the Yadav clan. More heads rolled. Ram Gopal Yadav, an Akhilesh confidante, was expelled from the party for six years on October 23.

Nanda says he has watched the developments with horror as he struggled to keep the party and the family together.

In his view, Ram Gopal's fall from grace has been spectacular. "Neta ji trusted him so much that the party was virtually handed over to him," he says.

What galls the veteran socialist leader most is the way Ram Gopal had "short-circuited" attempts to create a united SP in 2015, with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad on board. "It was almost stitched up. But Ram Gopal put his foot down and said it would be suicidal for SP to become a national party with Lalu and Nitish... Mulayam ji backed Ram Gopal, as was usual in those days," Nanda recounts.

Nanda, who has given up his trademark bush shirt and trousers for the white kurta-and-pyjama of politicians in the north, still cannot get over the embarrassment at the breakdown of SP's alliance with the Nitish-Lalu combine ahead of the 2015 Bihar elections.

Upon learning that the JDU-RJD combine had denied SP seats, Nanda, who was in charge of Bihar, was asked to rush to Patna. "I met Lalu ji at his residence who asked Nitishji to come. After discussing the alliance, they both agreed to give us five seats each."

When Nanda informed Mulayam, he was delighted. But when he returned from Patna, the SP boss called him up and asked him to snap ties. "I was stunned. When I asked him why, he said Ram Gopal did not want it. I lost face."

According to Nanda, Mulayam now believes that Ram Gopal had misled him all through.

He has made it clear that Akhilesh will run the government without interference and Shivpal will run the party.

Nanda believes that the truce will hold. After all, elections are drawing near - February or March 2017 - and few in SP can afford to lose.

Launching the Mulayam Yatra in September, Nanda has already covered much of western UP, where the party has been traditionally weak.

"It took me 12 hours to cover 80 kilometres from Lucknow to Kanpur as people thronged our vehicles. They all want Akhilesh back," he says.

As for Mulayam's remarks that the party legislators would decide on the CM after results, Nanda says the party boss was referring to the legislative procedures. "I said later that Akhilesh will be the CM if we return to power. Has he contradicted me? If anything, he smiled at me and said when we met after the press conference: 'Nanda ji has already made Akhilesh CM.'"

According to Nanda, Prateek Yadav, Mulayam's son from his second marriage, has no interest in politics. "He is a businessman and has just opened a gym in Lucknow. His wife Aparna, a social activist, will contest the 2017 Assembly elections from Lucknow."

Mulayam, his wife and two sons and their families, all live together in Mulayam's official residence. "They get along well,'' says Nanda.

According to Nanda, people and legislators love Akhilesh's polite and courteous ways. And his decision to give away smartphones to 6 crore people who have passed Class X could well be a game-changer. The smartphone dream, however, will come true only if the SP returns to power.

Nanda has given some "private advice" to Akhilesh in this regard. "I told him the phones should have 'Made in UP' inscribed on them. He liked the idea."

And what does Nanda like? Now that he has, by his own admission, overcome his weakness for spicy Bengali food. It seems, he cannot resist a trip to Gulmarg every winter to watch the falling snow. Now, that's a rare Bengali.


tetevitae

Nanda, son of academic and social worker Jyotirmoy Nanda, begins political activism in the All India Students Federation

1977: Elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly as a Janata Party candidate from Mugberia in Midnapore; sits in the Opposition 

1981: Helps form the West Bengal Socialist Party (WBSP) after split in the Janata Party; serves as its general secretary for many years 

1982: WBSP joins the Left Front government. Nanda serves the Left government for 28 years. Holds the fisheries portfolio as Cabinet minister 

1996-2010: During this time, the WBSP merges with the SP, breaks away and joins forces again

2009: Nanda speaks up against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led Left Front government, calls its style of functioning autocratic — Tughlaqi — and insensitive to its minor constituents

2012: Is nominated Rajya Sabha member from UP

2014: Low key but loyal and close to Mulayam Singh, he is elevated to the very important post of SP’s national vice-president — the second most senior position in the party set-up

2016: Upset with the Left Front’s decision to forge ties with the Congress ahead of the WB Assembly polls, the SP, and with it Nanda, walk out of the coalition