The humiliating rout of the SP-Congress alliance and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh has raised questions about the political future of the leaders of all three parties: Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati. However, the biggest loser of the three is possibly Akhilesh who could well be stripped of all leadership roles in a fresh outbreak of the family feud post-defeat.
There are rumblings already against Akhilesh with stepmother Sadhana Yadav and Mulayam Singh loyalist Madhukar Jetley firing the first salvos. While Sadhana criticized Akhilesh for disrespecting his father and warned that she would not remain silent any more, Jetley went a step further to demand that the son hand back the party president's post to Mulayam.
The SP patriarch defended his son in his first comments after the defeat, saying that no one person should be held responsible for the party's poor performance. But he could not hide his anguish at the cavalier manner in which Akhilesh threw away the legacy he was given to allow the BJP entry into a state which has been the fiefdom of regional parties for nearly two decades.
In fact, relations between father and son remain strained. They went separately to the family hometown of Saifai to celebrate Holi. Mulayam went first and left for Lucknow before Akhilesh reached, revealing the depth of the chasm between them.
Several flashpoints loom large, all of which threaten to plunge SP into further crisis and present Akhilesh with the most serious challenge yet to his leadership. The first one is the appointment of the Leader of Opposition, which is a crucial position in the state assembly. Akhilesh is not even in the race for the post. He did not contest the assembly election and is not an MLA. He ruled as chief minister as a member of the upper house, the Legislative Council.
Relations between father and son remain strained.
In the face of the party's decimation and the BJP's stunning rise, Akhilesh cannot even dare consider fighting an assembly bypoll which he would most likely lose in the current scenario. In any case, he may not even succeed in finding an MLA willing to resign his hard won seat to make way for the Yadav scion.
On the other hand, Shivpal is an MLA who won his Jaswant Nagar seat with the highest margin of all SP victors. He defeated his BJP rival by more than 52,000 votes. This gives him the clout to stake claim to be appointed Leader of Opposition.
Akhilesh has already moved to block Shivpal by getting the newly elected MLAs to authorize him as party president to appoint the LoP. He has floated the names of veterans Azam Khan and Ram Govind Chaudhary to counter any claim Shivpal may make.
This brings us to the second flashpoint. Can Akhilesh remain party president in the wake of a defeat of such monumental proportions? SP has been reduced to its lowest tally ever since its inception, winning just 47 seats of 298 it contested. Worse, it received a drubbing in the Yadav belt and was virtually wiped out on its home turf. Only two SP candidates won from the family areas of Etah, Etawah and Mainpuri. One of them was Shivpal from Jaswant Nagar.
A meeting of the party's national executive has been fixed for March 25. SP circles are bracing themselves for another ugly spat between uncle and nephew, similar to the one that rocked the party at the last meeting just before Akhilesh ousted his father from the post of party president and appointed himself instead.
According to a senior SP source, Jetley's demand that the party president's post be handed back to Mulayam reflects the sentiment of a large section of the rank and file which feels that Akhilesh doesn't have the maturity or experience to lead the party out of its present crisis.
SP circles are bracing themselves for another ugly spat between uncle and nephew...
Much depends on whether Akhilesh can drum up enough support in the national executive. SP veterans now accuse him of being arrogant and sidelining the old guard in favour of young city slickers who are out of tune with the dynamics of the party and its rough and ready Yadav rural vote base.
There was much criticism of Ahilesh's tactics on several counts. One was his decision to bring in a political consultant from Harvard, Steve Jardin, to design and run his campaign. Jardin succeeded in getting Akhilesh a high media profile but clearly failed to read the mood on the ground in UP.
The other was his last minute alliance with the Congress and the concession of as many as 105 seats to the grand old party. Akhilesh's campaign, which had got off to a fling start, lost both momentum and focus after that. In addition, it annoyed SP workers who were groomed by Mulayam as an anti-Congress force. Ultimately, the alliance simply failed to work on the ground. There was hardly any vote transfer.
Jardin succeeded in getting Akhilesh a high media profile but clearly failed to read the mood on the ground in UP...
Despite all this carping, Akhilesh has two advantages, which many in the party recognise. One is age. He is in his forties and therefore, time is on his side. The second is mass appeal. Most voters in UP had a positive word for him even as they complained about the goonda-gardi of SP MLAs and their supporters. Shivpal certainly can't match Akhilesh in this department.
But there is a harsh lesson for Akhilesh to learn to save his political future. He needs the blessings of his father who remains the tallest and most respected SP leader. Akhilesh may find few takers in his party for another round of rebellion against the patriarch.
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