"I have this moment in an interview with him where it's very hard to understand him because he keeps laughing at his own story," professor Gilles Verniers, one of the foremost authorities on UP politics in the country, says while speaking to The Quint about the late Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Verniers, a Belgian native who can speak Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi, is currently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. His Ph.D. dissertation was on "The Construction and Institutionalisation of Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh", under the guidance of Christophe Jaffrelot.
The Quint interviewed him about the legacy of Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician who served thrice as the Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister and once as the Union defence minister, who passed away on 10 October at the age of 82.
Recounting Conversations With Mulayam
Speaking to The Quint, Verniers says that "even in a phase of his life where he was a little bit weakened, you could talk to him about the past and he could tell you the names of local party cadres across the state from 40 years ago."
He goes on to say that there is another thing about Mulayam that often surprises about interlocutors, which is "how humorous he was."
"I've met him a number of times. He was once telling me stories about his imprisonment during the emergency and how he used to prank his cellmates who were RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) cadres. I have this moment in an interview with him where it's very hard to understand him because he keeps laughing at his own story."
On Mulayam's Legacy
Verniers asserts that "there are few people in post-independence India who have had such a long and rich political career" such as Mulayam.
"And the one thing that strikes me in a long and complex career such as Mulayam's is that he was perhaps par excellence the quintessential indian politician, at least North Indian politician. There are few people who have succeeded in embodying what it means to live and breathe through politics."
He goes on to say that it is rare, even today, to find new generations of politicians who are as dedicated to politics as he was.
"It was a 24*7 activity and it's quite revealing that the nickname that he has — 'netaji' — is very generic, because 'netaji' is a generic word for political leaders, at least in Northern India. But at the same time, when you'd say 'netaji' in UP, everybody knew immediately who you'd be talking about."
That, Verniers says, is a tribute to the kind of dedication that Mulayam has shown in his life.
Understanding Netaji's Success
"He succeeded in becoming," Verniers argues, "an embodiment of an issue that was larger than himself, which was the cause of social justice, the quest to build caste and class solidarities and do away with the monopoly that upper castes had enjoyed on public institutions and politics."
He then reiterates that it was the capacity of embodying ideas that are larger than oneself that made Mulayam the leader that he was. And that is why, despite being a regional politician, he eventually became a national figure.
Why Did Mulayam's Power Diminish?
Talking in-depth about structural factors of UP politics, Verniers points out that the political landscape of the state has always been very fragmented.
"This meant that you could make majorities in UP with a relatively small number of votes. And that created incentives for political parties to focus on building a core support group, usually along caste lines."
For example, traditionally, the SP has sought the votes of the Yadavs and the BSP have sought the votes of the Jatavs, a Dalit community considered to be a part of the Chamar caste. Political Parties would be guaranteed of winning their community's votes and would, therefore, "seek to get the additional votes that they needed by co-opting candidates who come from the local elite."
These strategies, however, were what Verniers calls "minimal winning strategies," which were aimed at winning a seat with 30 percent, 32 percent, or 35 percent of the vote." And parties would also bank on the fact that the rest of the political landscape would remain intensely fragmented between other parties inlcuding the Congress and the BJP among other regional and small parties.
"But that model proved its limits when the BJP rose with the ability to gathering almost everyone else and so a party like the SP, and especially BSP more spectacularly so, became prisoners of their model of politics that helped them rise initially, and is insufficient today to win elections."
What Does Mulayam's Death Mean for the SP?
Mulayam Singh Yadav's clout, Verniers argues, had already considerably faded ever since he gave the reigns (of the Samajwadi Party) to his son (Akhilesh Yadav) in 2012.
"It's been 10 years he had not been the head of the party. He was a patriarch and a guiding figure, and an important figure. If anything, it (his death) consolidates Akhilesh Yadav's position because those who opposed him within the party no longer have his father to use as a name to rally around."
The power transition in the SP, however, took place long ago, Verniers adds.
"It's definitely the end of an era but more in terms of symbol than actual politics."