Beni triggers an SP-Cong turf war

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Foot in the mouth? Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma, Photo: AFP

THE POLITICAL storm triggered by Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma’s diatribe against the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, accusing him of having “terrorist links”, created the impression that the UPA2 government’s days were numbered. It seemed like a double whammy for the government with the DMK walking out of the ruling coalition over the Sri Lanka issue. Verma’s belated apology failed to pacify the SP, which insists it won’t settle for anything less than Verma’s removal from the Cabinet. This has led to apprehensions that the party may withdraw its outside support to the UPA.

In Barabanki, Verma’s home town in Uttar Pradesh, SP workers led by local MLA Suresh Yadav tried to ransack his residence on 19 March. Following this, local Congress workers took out a procession on the Lucknow-Gorakhpur national highway.

Political analysts, however, are intrigued by why Mulayam Singh was so peeved this time even though Verma had been hurling the same accusations against him repeatedly since leaving the Samajwadi Party to join the Congress in 2007. The Samajwadi Party had also ignored Congress Vice- President Rahul Gandhi calling Mulayam “casteist” and the party manifesto “a bundle of lies” during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls last year. So, have both Verma and Mulayam, with an eye on the 2014 General Election, allowed the situation to snowball into a crisis for political advantage?

Despite the Samajwadi Party’s official stand, party sources say Mulayam will never burn all bridges with the Congress and topple the UPA2 government. A PM aspirant, Mulayam cannot afford to antagonise the Congress. He may need its support in the post-election scenario if the SP gets a good number of Lok Sabha seats in UP.

In fact, many Samajwadi Party leaders seem pleased with the outcome of the controversy. “The party is on a sticky wicket as its popularity among the Muslims has suffered in (UP Chief Minister) Akhilesh Yadav’s regime,” says a senior party leader. “Now, Mulayam has sent the right signals to the Muslims, that he is being hounded and dubbed a terrorist for taking up their cause.”

Recently, the Samajwadi Party has been making overtures towards Muslims to regain lost ground among the community. On 19 March, Akhilesh Yadav visited Maulana Rabe Hasan Nadvi, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), to reassure him of the Uttar Pradesh government’s concern for the minorities. The visit came just three days before the AIMPLB’s Ujjain meeting scheduled for 22 March, where the board is likely to adopt a resolution hailing the steps taken by the Akhilesh Yadav government for the welfare of Muslims. Earlier, on 17 March, at a convention in Lucknow organised by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Mulayam had promised that innocent Muslim youth implicated in false terror cases would be released.

For Verma, the compulsions to take on the Samajwadi Party supremo are too obvious. “Verma is quite unpopular in his constituency, Gonda,” says Ashok Mishra, a political analyst. “He rarely visited Gonda after winning from there in 2009, and was hooted by the locals while campaigning for the Assembly polls last year.” Mishra feels that Verma’s diatribe against Mulayam is aimed at alienating the Kurmis — a dominant caste among the OBCs, second only to the Yadavs in numerical strength — from the Samajwadi Party.

The Kurmis have been resentful of the Samajwadi Party since the exit of Verma, a Kurmi, from the party. The Congress camp is upbeat that the spat between Verma and Mulayam threatens to reduce the Samajwadi Party to a party of the Yadav caste.

Verma has also been pushing the Congress to ally with the BSP. “He thinks that will not only brighten the prospects of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, but also his own chances to retain the Gonda Lok Sabha seat,” says a senior SP leader.

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