Back to Netaji

MPs must be banned from addressing the House in English, says Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. Those who do so have a "double character", Netaji claims, because do they not ask for the vote in Hindi? With these statements, the SP chief has finally turned the clock back to the past in Uttar Pradesh. It is as if his son Akhilesh Yadav's 2012 assembly poll campaign never happened, in which he spoke a new language that won the people's trust, across castes and communities in a notoriously fragmented state, weaning votes from every competitor. That was the campaign in which Akhilesh emphasised the untangling of criminality and politics and made an effort to distance the SP from its image of a party that presided over a "goonda raj" in its last stint in power in UP. Akhilesh's efforts to soften the SP's backward-looking and either-or positions on computers and English were part of the same campaign.

If Akhilesh stood for anything when he came to power, it was for a promise untested, of course of a more modern and forward-looking government in the state that would not trade on its several deep-set divides. It was hoped that under his leadership, the SP would begin a generational change, make a start towards renewing itself not just in age but also in ideas, update its pact with a younger voter. At its most ambitious, the hope was also this: the Akhilesh Yadav government would begin a governance turnaround in UP like the one that had been initiated by Nitish Kumar in neighbouring Bihar.

Yet, the backsliding on English by Netaji in Etawah on Saturday, against the backdrop of an acquiescent party, is part of a larger pattern that has been firming up in the state. The impression has gained ground in UP that Akhilesh is not in control, and that the government is virtually led by his father and other SP elders. Over and over again, the Akhilesh government has confirmed that suspicion by addressing new challenges in the old ways. It has failed to control party workers' interference with institutions of government and continued to woo traditional bases with showy but inefficient schemes and token gestures take, for instance, its move for a blanket withdrawal of all terror cases against Muslims. It has unresistingly buckled to the demands of an older vote-bank politics in its controversial responses to communal conflagrations in the state. Mulayam's latest attempt to reset and rewind the agenda by raking up an obsolete Hindi-English divide only confirms that the SP has decided to pass up the opportunity to remake itself under a more modern leadership.

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