16/09/2016 7:08 PM IST | Updated 16/09/2016 7:27 PM IST

The Yadav Family Feud Couldn't Have Come At A Worse Time For Samajwadi Party

This is not only Mulayam’s worst nightmare but also his biggest challenge.

Stringer India / Reuters

The only surprise about the chacha-bhatija war in UP's ruling Yadav clan is that it should have erupted just months before a crucial assembly election. Even as the clan's patriarch and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh scurried between son Akhilesh and brother Shivpal to broker a truce, it was beginning to dawn on all the actors in the sordid drama playing out over the past few days that the fight in the family had done incalculable harm to the party's poll prospects.

Although Akhilesh and his mentor and Mulayam's cousin Ram Gopal have blamed "outsiders" (a euphemism for Amar Singh) for stirring trouble in the family, the fact is that the ongoing battle was just waiting to happen. At 77 and in poor health, Mulayam is a lion in winter. Akhilesh and Shivpal are rival claimants to his political legacy. They have been jockeying for the past five years to establish their claim.

It's not that Mulayam was unaware of the tension between his son and brother. He was acutely conscious of it and has been doing a fine balancing act to keep the impending storm at bay. For the most part, he succeeded. But with elections approaching, it's all come unstuck.

Tensions are running high within the SP. An anti-incumbency backlash and a strong challenge mounted by both the BJP and BSP have sparked fears of defeat. Akhilesh's attempts at course correction through an image makeover to reclaim his Mr. Clean title set off a chain of events that have spiraled out of control.

First, he sacked two ministers perceived as corrupt but close to Shivpal, mining minister Gayatri Prasad Prajapati and panchayati raj minister Raj Kishore Singh. Next, he stopped a poll alliance that Shivpal was trying to broker with Quami Ekta Dal, led by jailbird Mukhtar Ansari. Then, he struck at another close Shivpal aide who is also fighting allegations of corruption - chief secretary Deepak Shinghal. The officer was unceremoniously removed soon after he was spotted at a party thrown by Amar Singh in New Delhi in honour of newly elected BJP Rajya Sabha MP and media baron, Subhash Chandra.

Shivpal hit back by pushing Mulayam to remove Akhilesh from the post of state party president and appoint him instead. Akhilesh retaliated almost immediately by stripping Shivpal of most of his important ministerial portfolios. The family soap opera has since been playing out on television with cryptic comments flying back and forth amid pledges of allegiance to Mulayam as the family patriarch.

No-one is in any doubt, however, that this is a war of succession. It has broken out before the succession issue has actually arisen since Mulayam is very much around. But there is a very real fear in the party that battle between Akhilesh and Shivpal to inherit Mulayam's mantle may have reached a point of no return. Even if they paper over their differences for the elections, the fight is bound to erupt again especially if the SP loses badly.

This is not only Mulayam's worst nightmare but also his biggest challenge. He has managed to keep his family together through the sheer imposition of patriarchal dominance. He is head of the clan and any order he issued had to be obeyed. SP under Mulayam's leadership never functioned as a democratic political party. It was always a family-held concern that operated on feudal levers.

Now, in the winter of his life and political career, he is being forced to announce a succession plan that can only split his Yadav undivided family apart. The lines are pretty clear within the immediate family. Akhilesh and wife Dimple, a Lok Sabha MP, are one coterie, backed solidly by Ram Gopal. On the other side is Shivpal who has formed another coterie with Mulayam's second wife (and Akhilesh's stepmother) Sadhana, her son Prateek and her daughter-in-law Aparna. Although Prateek is said to be uninterested in politics, Aparna is believed to be highly ambitious and Mulayam has obliged her by announcing that she will be fielded in next year's assembly elections as the SP candidate from Lucknow Cantt.

In between the two groups are 19 members of the extended clan who hold some position or the other, either in the state government or in the state assembly or in Parliament. It's all very much in the family.

Mulayam would obviously not want to choose between his son and brother. While Akhilesh appeals to a younger aspirational generation of Yadavs, Shivpal is the solid organization man who networks with Yadav power brokers to deliver winning votes to the party. According to one source, Mulayam feels Akhilesh is the right man to run the government while Shivpal is the man to win elections for the SP.

In an ideal world, the two would have complemented each other to seal victory for SP next year. But with both daggers drawn, the advantage has gone to the opposition. It's now Mayawati versus BJP for the UP prize, unless Mulayam pulls a rabbit out of a hat.

Also on HuffPost India:

Photo gallery Kids Are Asked What They Know About Religion, Their Answers Are A Lesson For Every Indian See Gallery