Mulayam Singh Yadav was known as the ‘dhartiputra’ (son of the soil) not for nothing. It is said he could identify a village on the ground in Uttar Pradesh even while travelling in a helicopter. He remained truly a down to earth politician right till the very end. With his death, Indian politics lost its Gama Pehalwan who, in the ‘dangal’ of Indian politics, could pin down opponents when they least expected it. On many occasions this seasoned wrestler left the power elite across the political spectrum guessing his next daav-pench (moves) in the dirt-pit of national politics.
He was one of the biggest beneficiaries, along with his bete noir Mayawati, of the rise of caste-based politics aspiring for social justice following the Mandal Commission. He and Kanshi Ram joining hands to halt the Hindutva juggernaut immediately after the frenzied demolition of the Babri Masjid and violence that followed, was truly the most significant contribution of his political career earning him the nick name ‘Maulana Mulayam’ in the process.
However, petty egos fuelled by the BJP ensured that this formidable combination breaks down within months. The infamous 1995 State Guest House incident was the last straw in the short-lived SP-BSP alliance, paving the way for a BJP-supported BSP government led by Mayawati. The animosity between the two so-called stalwarts of social justice in Uttar Pradesh remained irreversible turning Mulayam and Mayawati into lifelong foes.
Another contribution was his successful consolidation of the backward Yadav vote, nurturing it well and adding a sizeable Muslim vote, as well as other sections of OBC votes to ensure his party’s repeated success at the ballot. The winning streak was halted by the second coming of ‘kamandal’ politics led by Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine from 2014 onwards as it nibbled away a section of the Yadav and OBC votes, tilting the balance in favour of the aggressive BJP.
The founder of the Samajwadi Party was an astute politician who often kept his cards close to his chest. Even party and ministerial colleagues were never sure of his next move. More so, after he came in contact with a maverick character like Amar Singh. During this period the SP had put together a strange combination of friends and fellow travellers — an Ambani here, a Harkishan Singh Surjeet there; an odd Jaya Prada or Jaya Bachchan to raise the glamour quotient.
His then ‘Man Friday’ Amar Singh was believed to be behind many incongruous choices — the 1999 decision of not backing Sonia Gandhi for Prime Minister’s post; sudden U-turn in 2002 on supporting NDA presidential candidate APJ Abdul Kalam rather than the Left-supported Azad Hind Fauj’s Capt Lakshmi Sehgal; volte-face on the nuclear deal; and the short-lived tie-up with Kalyan Singh’s Rashtriya Kranti Party ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, denting his party’s secular credentials.
Strained ties with Congress
In 1975, during the Emergency, Mulayam had been arrested and kept in custody for 19 months, sowing the seeds of his anti-Congress stance that explained many of his future decisions.
No wonder it came as a huge embarrassment for Mulayam in January 2017 when his son Akhilesh Yadav sprung a surprise by addressing a joint press conference with then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to announce a pre-poll alliance ahead of the assembly elections. Mulayam not only opposed the alliance and refused to campaign for it but also urged his people to fight against Congress candidates in the 105 seats given to them.
However, three days later, he approved the alliance and wanted the candidates under it to win. A few days later he agreed to campaign for his brother Shivpal Yadav and if “time permits” for other SP leaders. A week after the alliance, Mulayam further softened his stance by agreeing to campaign for other SP and Congress alliance candidates, declaring there was no division in the party and family, and reiterating that Akhilesh would be the next chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The result: a rout for the SP and the Congress and the BJP’s first ever absolute majority government in Uttar Pradesh.
Mulayam had learnt his networking lessons well and was always confident to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. One day he could be seen on the streets leading a Bharat bandh to protest the FDI and hike in prices of diesel and LPG along with CPM’s Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury; and a day later, with equal ease, he could meet SAD leader and BJP alliance partner Sukhbir Badal to explore the possibility of working towards a third front.
Despite winning 36 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, SP could not play any significant role in the UPA I government formed at the Centre as the Congress kept Mulayam’s party out managing the numbers with the help of the Communist parties. The SP came to the rescue of the UPA government in 2008 when the Communist parties withdrew their support over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Along with 22 MPs in 2009 Mulayam decided to continue supporting the UPA II from outside to keep the communal forces at bay.
Founder of the ‘Mulayam clan’
He was among the early politicians to have no qualms about promoting nepotism. At any given time, there were about a dozen family members in politics in Uttar Pradesh from the panchayat to the Parliament; at one point as many as 23 members of the Mulayam clan held some or the other public office.
In 2014, the party had been reduced to four Lok Sabha seats. Mulayam won the two seats of Mainpuri and Azamgarh, his nephew Dharmendra Yadav won from Badaun while his daughter-in-law Dimple won from Kannauj. When he vacated the Mainpuri seat, his grandnephew Tej Pratap won it, famously making opponents retort that the SP parliamentary affairs meeting could be held around the family dining table.
What was perhaps his strongest point, a rare quality in Indian politics nowadays, was his connect with party workers. For party workers, he remained their beloved ‘netaji’—one who was always approachable and available anywhere anytime – a quality missing in his contemporary Mayawati or even in his son Akhilesh.
“I do not remember a single occasion when I went to meet Mulayam Singh and came back without meeting him. He remembered even the most insignificant party worker by name and it was this quality that endeared him to everyone,” said a senior party MLA.
Failures that spelled his fall
However, if Mulayam failed miserably on any front it was in deciding a clear line of succession for the party. He launched son Akhilesh from the Kannauj Lok Sabha constituency and kept him out of Uttar Pradesh politics while youngest brother Shivpal Yadav was his man at the helm of the organisation in the state till 2012.
The decision to announce Akhilesh as the chief minister in 2012 never went down well with brother Shivpal who continued to sulk as a cabinet minister in his nephew’s government.
Differences came out in the open on the eve of the 2017 assembly election with a very messy split in the party. When Mulayam initially sided with his brother in the family feud, Akhilesh stripped him from the post of party president at the party’s national convention giving him a mere ceremonial post of party patron and assuring to make him the party president once again after the assembly election, which never happened.
Complaining about this at a press conference Mulayam once said, “A person who is not true to his word cannot be trusted and never succeeds in life. What can I say? Who can I trust?”
In the past five years since Akhilesh took charge of the party Mulayam had withdrawn into a shell. The changing dynamics in the party reduced the stream of visitors into a trickle and Mulayam – for the first time, had few visitors.
“He would often ask us if there were people waiting to meet him. He loved going to the party office and delight in the hustle bustle there. At home, he had virtually nothing to do,” said one of his close staff members.
Added to this was his daughter-in-law Aparna, wife of his adopted son Prateek, joining the BJP and the messy feud between son Akhilesh and brother Shivpal once again festering after the recently concluded assembly elections raising a stink.
Such developments and the demise of his second wife Sadhana Gupta Yadav in July 2022 left him shattered and lonely costing him his health.
Once the mascot of secular politics in Uttar Pradesh, this one-time wrestler, would be remembered for stalling the Hindutva wave in the UP hinterland for well over two decades.