A phenomenon called Mulayam: In praising BJP, SP patriarch fights last battle to save his legacy

Mulayam Singh Yadav, who praised his adversary Modi in the Lok Sabha and wished him victory in the 2019 polls, is fighting one last battle to protect his legacy without even getting into the ring

Ajay Singh February 23, 2019 03:00:52 IST

Editor's note: The following article first appeared in this weekend's edition of Firstpost Print.

In the treacherous terrain of the Chambal ravines, notorious for its deadly dacoit gangs, it is said that only those with the sharpest survival instincts can stay alive and ahead. “Bachiho tab hee kuch kari pahio (you need to be alive to be able to do something worthwhile)”. Born 79 years ago (21 November, 1939) in Saifai village of Etawah, contiguous with the ravines, Mulayam Singh Yadav grew up with this old jungle saying.

On 13 February, however, as he rose to speak on the motion of thanks to the President in the 16th Lok Sabha, Yadav was not his usual self. He was not expected to be either. In the evening of a long political career, physically infirm, vocally feeble and robbed of all political authority by son Akhilesh, Yadav was not supposed to do anything remarkable. A few general homilies about this and that, a few barbs against the BJP and that would be that: He would walk into the sunset quietly and without notice.

A phenomenon called Mulayam In praising BJP SP patriarch fights last battle to save his legacy

File image of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. PTI

Going away silently was never in Yadav’s blue book for political survival. In his brief speech, he showered encomiums on Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the very personification of the “evil” forces that he claimed to have fought all his life. Not just that, he said he wished to see Modi return as prime minister. The import of what he said was evident instantly in the “what-did-he-just-say” look on the face of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi seated right next to Yadav. Here was the patriarch of the Samajwadi Party wishing Modi victory in an election his son had staked everything to stay politically relevant. He hit the headlines instantly.

What made Yadav say this? Was this the result of the frustration of a patriarch denied his due by his successor? Or, had he completely lost it? Interpreting his statement as meaningless blabber would be a mistake because his Modi missile was anything but misguided. It was Yadav’s first and the strongest disapproval in public of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party gathbandhan (alliance) fostered by Akhilesh. A wrestler who later became a politician, Yadav is unused to ceding ground however tough the situation. In one fell stroke, his son had reduced the strongest pan-Uttar Pradesh political party to a desperate entity fighting for less than half of the state.

His sudden love for BJP and Modi was pure politics just as his decision to open fire on kar sevaks on 30 October and 2 November in 1990, which earned him the ‘Maulana Mulayam’ sobriquet, a badge he wears proudly even today. The tough stand against the kar sevaks was guided more by the weight of electoral calculus than his commitment to law and order — as later years amply proved — or secularism, as he has just shown by extolling Modi. A political space had just opened up and Yadav made a grab for it. This laid a strong foundation for the next three decades of his Yadav-OBC-Muslim vote bank politics in UP and kept him in the national limelight.

That strong edifice he had built was now weakened by the alliance. Son Akhilesh had been too clever by less than half. He had bartered away so much political capital that the Samajwadi Party runs the risk of never regaining the pole position in UP politics. Yadav always emerged stronger from a crisis but this time it was different for two reasons. One, age was not on his side and, two, this crisis was home-grown. The social code of the ravines had taught him not to turn against family members even when their filial loyalty was in doubt. So, he chose the next best thing, an indirect verbal lashing for his son using  Modi as the prop.

The obvious answer
Salman Khan croons in a Bollywood dance number thus: “Ishq ke naam par karte sabhi ab raas lila hain / Mein karun toh saala character dheela hain”. It roughly translates to: “It’s just flirting when everybody does it and it’s loose character when I do the same”. Akhilesh could well toss that question to his father. Why was your alliance with the BSP in 1993 a masterstroke and why is my alliance with the same party in 2019 a disaster?

Fair question. It has one obvious answer and one not-so-obvious answer.

The obvious answer is Yadav’s intense dislike for Mayawati which developed as a consequence of the 1993 alliance Yadav forged with Kanshi Ram, Mayawati’s mentor. The 1991-93 period was the most challenging time for Yadav as he was tottering on the margins of UP politics following his defeat in the 1991 Assembly election and the surge of the BJP. He broke away from VP Singh’s Janata Dal and joined Chandrashekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) but lost badly in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections the same year.

But he lost neither his ability to fight nor his capacity to throw up surprises. The next year, he founded the SP and toured the state extensively to build it from the ground up. He followed it up by striking an unlikely deal with Kanshi Ram. The BSP was seen  as an upstart whose politics was constricted by its upper caste-hatred but Yadav was shrewd enough to realise the potential of a Dalit assertion in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP’s Hindutva slogan Jai Sri Ram found an effective antidote in “Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, hawa me ur gaye Jai Sri Ram (as Mulayam and Kanshi Ram come together, Jai Sri Ram disappears into thin air)”. The SP-BSP combination successfully stalled the BJP’s political march. But, the bonhomie did not last long and ended after the State Guest House incident when SP goons attacked Mayawati.

The not-so-obvious reason
In the circumstances that led to the collapse of the SP-BSP alliance lies the not-so-obvious reason for Yadav to detest Akhilesh’s handshake with Mayawati.

First, he seems to think it is not a handshake but surrender. Akhilesh displayed his weakness to Mayawati who has effortlessly moved into the position of the senior partner. This is anathema to Yadav who was politically very fragile in 1993 but struck the deal with BSP from a position of strength. In 1992 the SP contested 267 out of the 425 Assembly seats. The BSP with 156 seats was the unambiguous junior partner.

From an uncertain future as the chief of a just-launched party, Yadav became the tallest leader of UP and the biggest challenger to the two national parties.

A phenomenon called Mulayam In praising BJP SP patriarch fights last battle to save his legacy

In the circumstances that led to the collapse of the SP-BSP alliance lies the not-so-obvious reason for Yadav to detest Akhilesh’s handshake with Mayawati. PTI

Yadav was now keen on expanding the SP’s social base. He appropriated the space of the Left parties. Legendary CPI leader ZA Ahmed joined the SP with all three party MLAs. The CPM, too, followed suit as did a splinter of the Janata Dal.

It was not like Kanshi Ram was unaware of Yadav’s ambitions. More so Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s handpicked successor. Kanshi Ram and Mayawati knew that Yadav would try to poach into the OBC base of the BSP that covered Kurmis, Rajbhars, Gujjars and other social groups. They fiercely protected their turf and tried to make the BSP distinctly different from the SP leading to many public spats between the two. In one of my many interactions with Yadav, I recall him blaming Mayawati for misleading Kanshi Ram.

When Mayawati pulled the plug, Yadav parleyed with the Congress to bear on UP governor Motilal Vora to reject her claim to form government. He was doing this not just out of personal pique, which was pretty strong, but also because he could see the consequences of elevating a Dalit to the chief minister’s post. He told Vora that he would be creating a political Frankenstein, opening up space for a new political force of the marginalised sections. Here again, he was demonstrating his political survival instincts where ideology was just a convenient tool.

Yadav’s implorations fell on deaf ears. Mayawati emerged as a powerful political force in a short span, pushing even her mentor into near oblivion. Both the national parties were marginalised as SP and BSP alternately ruled the state.

It would have continued to be that way, but for 2014 and the Modi phenomenon. Yadav was sharp enough to realise that the ground was slipping beneath his feet. Though age had slowed him down physically, his political pugnacity had hardly dimmed. To hold off the Modi wave and underscore his own credentials as a pan-state leader, he chose to contest from two places, Mainpuri (West UP) and Azamgarh (East UP). He won both his seats, but 2014 was not 1993; the SP was blown away by the Modi wave. His only solace: so was the BSP.

That leaves both the parties struggling for relevance and survival. But Yadav’s concern comes from the fact that while Mayawati has built on the legacy of Kanshi Ram, Akhilesh is frittering away Yadav’s legacy. Having joined Ram Manohar Lohia as a worker in the 1960s, Yadav found his mentor in Chaudhary Charan Singh in the 1970s. After Charan Singh’s death in 1987, he wrestled with Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh for every inch of the political space in UP. In 1989 he beat Ajit Singh to the chief minister’s position against the wishes of prime minister VP Singh. Within a decade, he hijacked Charan Singh’s legacy and reduced Ajit Singh to a Jat leader relevant only to the Meerut belt while himself becoming the poster boy of Mandal and minority politics.

As sweet as the victory in grabbing the legacy of Charan Singh, it must be agonising for Yadav to see his son squander his legacy while he is still alive. He perhaps suspects that Akhilesh, like Ajit Singh, does not have the political smarts to deal with Mayawati and could be setting himself up for getting the same treatment from Mayawati that his father (Mulayam) gave Ajit Singh.

The very idea of Mayawati at the helm with Akhilesh playing second-fiddle revolts against the basic principle of Yadav’s politics. If the gathbandhan works in the general election, then not only would Akhilesh become easy meat for Mayawati in the killing fields of UP politics, but she might end up being the beneficiary of his legacy, a thought that must rile Yadav no end.

That is why his praise for Modi is as much a reprimand of his son as a take-down of the gathbandhan and takes the sheen off it by introducing an element of doubt in the minds of the OBCs and the minorities.

Yadav is fighting the last battle to protect his legacy without even getting into the ring. A masterclass in politics if ever son Akhilesh needs one.

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