Conservative in Practice: The Transformation of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh

DOI10.1177/2321023018762675
Date01 June 2018
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterConservatism in India
Conservatism i n India
Conservative in Practice: The
Transformation of the Samajwadi
Party in Uttar Pradesh
Gilles Verniers1
Abstract
Political conservatism in India is usually associated with right-wing traditionalist positions infused with
religion, or with forms of economic liberal conservatism, the kind of which the Swatantra Party briefly
incarnated. This article asks if the notion of conservatism can be useful to study non-Hindu right parties,
by considering the trajectory of the Samajwadi Party, in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Born out
of the socialist tradition, the Samajwadi Party spearheaded the struggle for reservations, secularism
and the quest of power of the middle peasantry, in the early 1990s. It gradually transformed into a
family holding associated with caste preferentialism, cronyism and the criminalization of politics. This
article seeks to account for these transformations by examining the party’s trajectory since its origins,
its ideological underpinnings and the evolution of its sociological composition, placed in the context of
changing electoral politics in UP.
Keywords
Samajwadi Party, conservatism, backward movement, representation
Introduction
Addressing a rally in Moradabad in April 2014, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party,
a regional party dominant in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), aroused widespread indigna-
tion when he opposed capital punishment for rape, arguing that ‘boys will be boys … they make
mistakes’ (ladke, ladke hain… galti ho jati hai).2 Four years earlier, in March 2010, the same leader had
attracted the ire of his colleagues in Parliament, when he had stated that the tabled Women’s Reservation
Bill would fill the Parliament with the kind of women who invite catcalls and whistles.3
1 Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana,
India.
2 http://indianexpress.com/article/india/politics/mulayam-singh-yadav-questions-death-penalty-for-rape-says-boys-make-
mistakes/
3 http://indianexpress.com/article/india/latest-news/mulayam-draws-flak-for-his-sexist-remark-on-women/
Studies in Indian Politics
6(1) 44–59
© 2018 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
sagepub.in/home.nav
DOI: 10.1177/2321023018762675
http://journals.sagepub.com/home/inp
Corresponding author:
Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka
University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
E-mail: gilles.verniers@ashoka.edu.in
Verniers 45
These problematic utterances, added to the longstanding image of a party associated with dynasti-
cism, cronyism, caste preferentialism and the criminalization of politics, have contributed to forging the
image of a crassly sexist, archaic political force, more in tune with the socially conservative elites that
have dominated UP politics and society over the past decades than the backward masses it claims to
represent. The evocation of the party’s ideological affiliation—socialism (‘samajwad’)—is usually met
with circumspection or sarcasm.
The question this article asks is the following: how do we account for such transformation of a party
that remains the self-proclaimed inheritor of the socialist movement in North India, which once stood up
against caste and gender inequalities and represented resistance against communal forces? Are the con-
tradictions among discourse, practice and professed ideology the result of a change of heart in the party’s
leadership, or is there a more structural explanation for the transformation of a party that initially rose to
challenge the domination of the traditional elites to incarnate the rule of the new elites of UP?
A sub-question that this article also attempts to address is to see whether the category of political
conservatism is useful in any way to characterize the trajectory of a party like the Samajwadi Party.
Political conservatism in India is usually associated with a right-wing traditionalist position infused
with religion.4 Similarly, conservatism in India is also associated with some form of upper-caste repre-
sentations grounded on religion, culture or social relations. It is also associated with forms of economic
liberal conservatism, the Swatantra Party remaining to this day its main ephemeral incarnation.
Can we find traces of conservatism in non-Hindu right and secular parties? What kind of definition or
conception of conservatism might be helpful to read their political beliefs and actions? Is there a defini-
tion or a conception of conservatism that would be helpful to differentiate between such parties, rather
than club them together under a generic label?
This article’s first contention is that to focus on party ideology would not lead very far. Ideology is a
poor marker of a party’s identity in India; which party, between the Hindu right and the left, has not
proclaimed to be pro-poor, pro-farmer and secular to some degree? What party can claim not to contain
any element of social conservatism? Parties in India have been described as pragmatists and oppor-
tunists due to the alacrity with which alliances and counter-alliances are made and un-made (Hasan,
2010; Sridharan, 2004). Ideology was also a vector of division among the socialists in North India
(Brass, 1990), or among the Dalit parties in Maharashtra (Wankhede, 2012).
The second contention is that one should not define a party from its discourse and self-representation
but from its sociology and political practices. The evolution of the sociological composition of a
party—its leadership, its cadres and elected representatives—is a good indicator of a party’s identity and
trajectory.
The third contention is, quite simply, that context matters. Parties trajectory and their sociology
largely derive from adaptation to the changing context of electoral competition.
This article adopts a minimalist vision of political conservatism, defined as a political philosophy that
favours a particular existing form of social and political order, in the face of external forces for change.
But rather than focusing on ideas, or philosophy, our definition of political conservatism concentrates on
practices of defending a particular social and political order. Conservatism in practice, or deed, rather
than in word.
The first section of this article deals with the origins and the ideological foundations of the Samajwadi
Party, specifically the double legacy of Rammanohar Lohia and Chaudhary Charan Singh.
4 See G. Sampath’s remarks on Ramachandra Guha’s article on the absence of conservative ideologues in India. Sampath, G. (2015).
The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-missing-conservative-intellectuals/article7461274.ece

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