For Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, reading his political obituary is nothing new. Many a time he was written off by journalists only to rue and realise latter that the former wrestler-turned-politician possesses an uncanny ability to return like the proverbial cat with nine lives.
In an age of the virtual world where truth is often triumphed by sentimentalism and experiences of the past are treated with contempt, it would be instructive to recall the pugnacious spirit of the man from Saifai who remained at the helm in the country’s most populous state since the 1970s.
Though Mulayam’s association with socialist ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia began in the 70s, he found his place in politics under the tutelage of Chaudhary Charan Singh. In the post-emergency political situation, Mulayam became a cabinet minister in the Janata Party regime in Uttar Pradesh for the first time. He faced his first existential crisis when Charan Singh died, leaving behind an ambiguous political legacy.
Immediately after Charan Singh’s death, his son Ajit Singh claimed the mantle of his father and launched a yatra across the state to emerge as the undisputed inheritor of his father’s political capital. Mulayam refused to play the second fiddle to Ajit Singh and parted company with him. In fact, Charan Singh had left a huge legacy of OBC politics which combined a solid social block of intermediary castes with Muslims. Mulayam was quick to grasp it and cobbled together different caste groups by roping in local influential leaders. He was shrewd enough to keep the company of upper caste leaders like Janeshwar Mishra, Kapil Deo Singh, Reoti Raman Singh with a sprinkle of OBC and Muslim leaders like Beni Prasad Varma and Azam Khan.
When VP Singh rose in revolt against Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 and formed a front against the Congress, Mulayam found himself in the forefront in Uttar Pradesh. In 1989 elections, he deftly decimated Ajit Singh in a show of strength and occupied the post of chief minister of the state for the first time. As his won’t, Mulayam never shied away from keeping people with a criminal record in his company. As the chief minister, he did not try to change himself.
But the most trying time for Mulayam came in 1990 when he ordered firing on karsevaks who attacked the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on 20 October and 2 November. The police firing led to the killing of over a dozen karsevaks and triggered riots across the state. In the fast changing political equations, Mulayam joined Chandra Shekhar and fell out with VP Singh. In 1991 elections, Mulayam found himself completely decimated in the elections while the Janata Dal led by VP Singh emerged as the biggest force in the Opposition. Just after the elections, he met with an accident and had a fracture in the leg.
At the height of the Ayodhya agitation, Mulayam emerged as the most hated figure among Hindus and earned the epithet of “Maulana Mulayam” then. His political obituaries were written many times over in the media. But that did not dampen his spirit and he launched a statewide yatra and bounced back as a formidable force in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1993 elections. He was elected as the chief minister for the second time and continued till 1995 when the BSP pulled the rug from under his feet. Mayawati’s emergence subsequently proved to be a big challenge for him but Mulayam managed his equations too well. In 1996, in the United Front government where he served as the defence minister, he got himself very close to the post of the prime minister.
Though his relationship with Sonia Gandhi soured in 1999 when Mulayam undercut her attempt to become the prime minister, the SP chief used Amar Singh to develop a close proximity with Manmohan Singh in the UPA regime. His dexterity in managing changing political equations beyond ideologies kept him eminently relevant always. He not only belied his obituaries but gained strength after every fight.
In the ongoing family feud that cast a shadow on Mulayam’s political capital, the script is slightly unfamiliar. It is high on drama with elements of filial love, betrayal, suspense and conspiracy. Given the past experience, Mulayam has gone through these ordeals, albeit in different contexts, to emerge as victorious. The former wrestler is far too shrewd to let the script go haywire and squander his political capital built by sweat, tear, and blood. His occasional reprimand to Akhilesh is merely intended to teach him lessons that he had learned the hard way in his career.