Being a Yadav bahu can be a tall order. A daughter-in-law of Uttar Pradesh’s first family of politics must drape her sari in the perfect manner. She must be disciplined, speak only when spoken to, and, of course, keep her political ambitions in check.
But what if you are Aparna Yadav? “People say I am very ambitious; some say over-ambitious. But would they say so if a man was entering politics?” asks Aparna, the younger daughter-in-law of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Aparna, who will be contesting elections from the Lucknow Cantonment seat, is making her maiden venture into politics in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, slated to be held early next year.
We are at the official residence of Mulayam Singh, in one of its spacious halls, tastefully decorated with ornate chandeliers, crystal-studded cushions in pastel green and porcelain showpieces. The hall leads into the house where Aparna, 26, lives with Prateek Yadav, 28, and their three-year-old daughter, Prathama. Mulayam’s elder son and UP chief minister, Akhilesh, his wife Dimple, and their children have recently moved into a house next door.
Outside the heavily guarded Yadav residences, the city is abuzz with talk of the power struggle within the family – the recent conflict between the crown prince Akhilesh and his uncle, Shivpal Yadav. In this messy political matrix of the family, the younger daughter-in-law is being seen as crucial: those in the know insist that the roots of the crisis between the uncle and his nephew lie in the “political aspirations” and “ambitions” of Mulayam’s second wife, Sadhana Gupta, Aparna’s mother-in-law.
Ever since Aparna’s candidature was announced by Mulayam’s younger brother Shivpal Yadav earlier this year in March, mediapersons in the city have been busy speculating over how Sadhana has been wanting a share of the political pie for her son Prateek. Prateek, a fitness enthusiast, runs a high-end gym in the city, and in one of his few interviews, has categorically denied any interest in politics.
But journalists and political junkies in the city have not tired of discussing the “political aspirations” of Aparna, as opposed to her more “sober” sister-in-law, Dimple .
Inside the hall, however, Aparna, dressed elegantly, her hair tied in a casual bun, is careful with her words. She speaks favourably of “Akhilesh bhaiyya”, the development work that his government has done, and foregrounds the need for attending to civic issues both in the city, and in her constituency.
“Look at Lucknow now. We have cafes; soon we are going to have the Metro, just like Delhi. Lucknow has become a “yo-type” of city,” she says.
Destined for politics
One day in the early ’90s, Mrs Primrose Pepper, the tall, sharply-dressed teacher at Lucknow’s Loreto Convent, had a discussion with her students on the subject of reservation, an issue that had taken over the country in 1990. The then government, headed by V P Singh, had accepted the Mandal Commission report’s recommendation of giving 27 per cent reservations to OBCs, and set off widespread protests in colleges across the country.
At the discussion, Aparna Bisht, then in class 11, had opposed the decision, arguing that caste-based reservations would only aggravate existing hierarchies, and quotas should instead be based on economic need. “I have always been vocal about issues I feel strongly about,” she says, recalling this as one of those moments that shaped her political consciousness.
Aparna grew up in interesting times – she recalls observing the emergence of new political parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, and her own proximity to these political events owing to her journalist father. “I would see all these dharnas, the foreign correspondents who would come to cover these events. I would often ask my father why all this was happening,” she says.
His answers about the social and political upheaval in UP, it seems, had some impact on her. For her Bachelors degree, Aparna chose to study Political Science, Modern History and English, and pursued International Relations for her Masters at the University of Manchester. “England had fascinated me since childhood. And at that time, I really wanted to become a diplomat, travel the world,” she says.
But destiny had other plans. The boy Aparna had “been friends with for a few years” was the then CM’s son [Mulayam’s son Prateek]. Aparna says she knew she “wanted to be with him for life”. “It was him or no one else,” she says. Predictably then, marriage happened. You can tell that life as a young bride would not have been easy – in a candid moment, Aparna says that as a 21-year-old who “wore boots” and jeans, she couldn’t even tie a sari, or cook aloo-mattha (a dish made of potatoes and buttermilk).
In time, however, Aparna mastered both, and also carved her own niche in the family. “I don’t think they had had anyone like me in the family before. But with my feminine energy, I think I have won people’s hearts. The family has opened up to me,” she says.
Outside of the family too, Aparna worked to brand herself as a champion for women’s rights. She is the brand ambassador of a city-based NGO’s campaign for women’s rights, and has been active in public speaking on related issues. So even as the family patriarch, Mulayam Singh, made headlines with his sexist statements – last year, he said that it was not possible for “four men to rape a girl”; in 2014, he said “boys will be boys..they make mistakes” – Aparna has been vocal about her cause. “The discourse on violence against women has changed since 2012. Women need to stop thinking that it’s their fault. We need to question the boys and not the girls,” says Aparna. “They shouldn’t have let the juvenile [one of the accused in the December 16 Delhi gangrape case] go. I support capital punishment in such cases,” she says, getting visibly agitated.
Learning the ropes
All this while though, Aparna says she was never averse to politics. “Politics and social work are two different sides of the same coin; it’s only Chanakya and Machiavelli who have spoilt it,” she insists, adding that this was the right time to enter politics.
Those in the know insist that the “time was right” because Aparna had often broken ranks – the selfie with PM Narendra Modi in 2015; her tweets against cow slaughter and beef-eating; being the only member from the family to attend a function where the PM was speaking earlier this year, and opposing Aamir Khan for his comments about intolerance (after Mulayam supported the actor).
The proclivity towards the BJP and the PM, many say, was her way to “arm-twist” the family into giving her a ticket.
Aparna’s outspoken behaviour has pitched her in opposition to the elder daughter-in-law Dimple, popular among party workers and often described as “graceful”, “dignified” and “disciplined”.
But Aparna is unfazed by her detractors. “I have my own voice, my own opinion, and that will always remain so. But I can also convince people with my ‘feminine energy’.You don’t have to be like Mayawati to survive in UP politics,” she says.
Now is a busy time for Aparna – hectic campaigning for the elections is already on. We are on way to a function to inaugurate a road in her constituency.
For the event, Aparna has changed into a pale green sari – “I can now tie one in like five minutes” – and is quite at ease with the somewhat frenzied crowd of young supporters mouthing syrupy statements and slogans about “Aparna didi”.
In her speech, she focusses on the area’s civic issues, and also manages to take a dig at her opponent. “Darr ke bhaag gayi (she got scared by me and ran away),” she says about Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the sitting MLA, and a member of the Congress party who recently switched to the BJP.
The war of words has been on for some time – Aparna says Joshi said some “disrespectful” things about her, and so, she had to respond too – so “Rita aunty” became “thuka hua kartoos” (used bullet). “I wouldn’t say these things, but when someone attacks you , what do you do?,” she says.
In the messy world of UP’s electoral politics, the Yadav bahu, it seems, must learn more than just draping the perfect sari.