It would be naïve to impose labels on Mulayam Singh Yadav or to find traces of ideological consistency
It is not surprising that the obituarists and memorialists of Samajwadi Party patriarch and three-time Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who passed away on Monday at Gurgaon’s Medanta Hospital at the age of 82, displayed a blurred view of the socialist leader from the Hindi heartland. Many of them got the Mulayam chronology right but could not distinguish the political watermarks of that chronology.
They rightly called him a follower of Ram Manohar Lohia, and then paired him with former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was a product of the 1970s’ Jayaprakash Narayan movement, without realising the Lohia-JP rift, and there was an implication that they were the beneficiaries of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s decision in 1990 to implement the Mandal Commission report on reservations for Other Backward Classes. Mulayam Singh Yadav was off the political block in 1967, around the time when V.P. Singh was struggling to get a foothold in Uttar Pradesh Congress politics.
There was also a bit of confusion that Mulayam Singh Yadav was a staunch secularist as it is understood in metropolitan India — that he was against the BJP’s anti-Muslim Hindutva ideology. It is true that he had stopped the BJP’s planned kar seva at Ayodhya in 1990 with a flourish, but he was not opposed to the BJP in the sense of being a secular zealot. The Muslims in Uttar Pradesh trusted him because they could see the decline of the Congress and saw in the rise of Hindutva a clear danger. But Mulayam Singh Yadav was playing a power game of his own and he was not cynical in his alliance with the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. He was a Yadav politician who was fighting Hindu upper caste hegemony in the state. He therefore had no hesitation in joining hands with Kanshi Ram and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1993 but he was not an Ambedkarite or even a Congress Gandhian supporting the Dalits. The Yadav-Dalit problem was an unresolved one, and Mulayam Singh Yadav was not bothered about it. He knew that one always had to live with contradictions and conflicts.
Mulayam Singh Yadav was adept at moving from one political circle and group to another and dealing with the contradictions involved in the manoeuvres, defying labels, including ideological ones. It should be plain to anyone that the politics of Charan Singh and Ram Manohar Lohia were very different and the tenuous thread that connected them was their opposition to the Congress. While Mulayam Singh Yadav was a Lohia socialist, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan came from the Jayaprakash Narayan school of Gandhian politics with a wee bit of socialism. And V.P. Singh was essentially a Congressman who had nothing to do with Charan Singh, Lohia and JP, and socialism.
Mulayam Singh Yadav was on friendly terms with Atal Behari Vajpayee, not at a personal level, but he was on the same political wavelength as well. He had friendly ties with the Communist parties and their leaders. He did not carry the socialist hangover of opposing Communist parties. Mulayam Singh Yadav had no hesitation in playing the “Sonia Gandhi as a foreigner” card in 1998, but was quick to support the Congress-led UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when the Left Front withdrew support in 2009 over the US nuclear deal. In 2012, Mulayam Singh Yadav supported the candidacy of Pranab Mukherjee for President and in a way influenced the Congress’ decision in Mukherjee’s favour.
The political duel between Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh was a natural one, and not the undignified father-son squabble that it seemed to the well-heeled political commentators in New Delhi and Lucknow. Mulayam Singh Yadav had anointed his son Akhilesh in 2012 and made him the chief minister, and in 2017 expelled him from the party even as he lost his foothold in the Samajwadi Party that he had founded in 1992. He was least embarrassed by his connection with Amar Singh, the middleman, who brought him in touch with Anil Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan. He treated Jaya Bachchan with a lot of respect and she continued as a party member in the Rajya Sabha.
Mulayam Singh Yadav played the political game in the classical sense of pursuing power and showing enough adaptability in its pursuit. He both succeeded and failed but was at the game till 2019. He used ideologies, and social and political connections to get on with the game. He did not pretend to be what he was not. He did not play the role of a socialist or secularist, the two terms that many like to use to describe him and place him on their side of the ring. He didn’t mind being placed anywhere because he was busy dealing with the changing political situation.
Without overdoing the wrestler metaphor, it can be said of Mulayam Singh Yadav that he was an earthy politician of Uttar Pradesh and he remained an endearing rustic despite his brush with power in high places. He was dignified and honourable in his own way. Even Mayawati seemed to have recognised it when she went along with him in the 2019 BSP-SP alliance. And he followed the rules of conduct of a politician — that you could be a partisan, and change sides, but you should not carry grudges. A genuine politician like Mulayam Singh Yadav understood that ideologies don’t matter and that it is important to reach out to everyone. This is not opportunism, but it is the nature of politics.
It would be naïve to impose labels on Mulayam Singh Yadav or to find traces of ideological consistency. There was no doubt he never reached out to Dalits or to the upper castes in Uttar Pradesh. He did not try to expand the caste base of his party and his politics. He did not go out of his way to identify with Muslims in the name of secularism. He dealt with the BJP without saying yes to Hindutva. Not many would remember how then BJP president Amit Shah took Mulayam Singh Yadav to his seat during the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan in May 2014, and Mulayam went along. He had lost the battle to the BJP in UP but he knew it was part of the political game.