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Mulayam Singh Yadav Gave Voice to Muslims But His Secular Model is in Decline

With the rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav & Samajwadi Party, Muslim representation also rose in Uttar Pradesh politics.

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Mulayam Singh Yadav, socialist leader and the founder of the Samajwadi Party, has passed away at the age of 82.

Besides his role in the anti-Emergency movement and in providing a voice to OBCs in Uttar Pradesh, Yadav also stood for an important model of secular politics. This was a politics that went beyond lip service to secularism and involved forming an on-ground alliance between OBCs and Muslims. It was may have now been reduced to Yadavs and Muslims, but we'll come to that later.

Opposition to the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement

The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was at its peak during his first tenure as chief minister and Mulayam Singh Yadav did not hesitate in ordering the police to fire at the Karsewaks. To his credit Yadav didn't allow the Babri Masjid to be harmed under his watch.

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Mulayam Singh Yadav provided Muslims in Uttar Pradesh a sense of security at a very crucial time. This was a time when Hindutva mobilisation was at its peak due to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was also a time when the community felt betrayed by the Congress.

First Rajiv Gandhi's government got the locks of the Babri Masjid opened and then Gandhi began one of his election campaigns from Ayodhya. The last straw was PM PV Narasimha Rao choosing the path of inaction during the actual demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Increasing Representation

But Mulayam Singh Yadav's 'secular' politics went beyond protection of minorities and a strong stand against communalism. He genuinely considered Muslims as stakeholders in his politics.

The Samajwadi Party's rise saw a significant increase in Muslim representation in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. Muslims account for around 19 percent of Uttar Pradesh's population. But in the era of Congress' one party domination, Muslim representation in the UP Assembly never crossed 10 percent.

Through the 1960s and 1970s it was between 5-7 percent. But in the Janata Party win in 1977, of which Mulayam Singh Yadav was an important part, it increased to 11.5 percent.

The percentage of Muslim MLAs fell in 1991 to an all time low of 4 percent amidst the Ram Janmabhoomi wave and BJP's victory. But the Samajwadi Party was formed in 1992 and since then Muslim representation has increased steadily until it peaked in the 2012 SP win to 17.1 percent.

However, it fell again in the 2017 BJP wave to 6 percent but increased to 9 percent in 2022.

The SP's strategy of giving more tickets to Muslims compelled its main competitor - the BSP - to give even more tickets than the former. However, throughout SP continued to account for the bulk of Muslim representation.

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Mohammad Azam Khan was one of the SP's founding members and a close confidant of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

With the rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav & Samajwadi Party, Muslim representation also rose in Uttar Pradesh politics.
Azam Khan. (File Photo: IANS)
In Azam Khan, the SP provided a new kind of Muslim leader, very different from the Congress' Muslim leadership that was seen as too elite and distanced from the community. Azam Khan on the other hand was unapologetic about his identity and someone who could give it back to the Hindutva side in the same coin.

Not just Azam Khan, whose popularity was mainly in Rampur and adjoining areas, many other Muslim leaders also emerged - such as Alambadi in Azamgarh district, Waqar Shah in Bahraich.

The increased representation also trickled down at the ground level to some extent with local Muslim notables gaining more influence than ever before in the past.

The BJP may have called this appeasement but in terms of providing a greater voice to a minority, Mulayam Singh Yadav did put forward a model that was effective to some extent.

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Creating a Constituency for Secularism

The important part wasn't just the greater voice that Muslims got, Mulayam Singh Yadav also helped create a constituency for secularism within a section of the majority community.

Like Lalu Prasad in Bihar, Mulayam conveyed to the OBCs that it was in their interest to forge a political alliance with Muslims and break Upper Caste political hegemony.

That their fates are linked with Muslims and with the survival of secular politics is a message that both Mulayam and Lalu Prasad conveyed clearly to their community.

While SP and RJD's support among non-Yadav OBCs declined with time, Yadavs to this day remain among the strongest anti-BJP voting blocs among non-minority voters in UP and Bihar.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Yadavs in UP and Bihar and Jatavs in UP remain the only caste groups in the Hindi heartland among whom a clear majority of votes were against the BJP. The SP, RJD and BSP deserve credit for this respectively.

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Breakdown of Mulayam Singh Yadav's Secular Model

In many ways, the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots marked the breakdown of Mulayam Singh Yadav's social coalition.

The BJP managed to create the impression that the riots were a result of the SP's alleged appeasement of Muslims. This despite the fact that a majority of those killing in the riots were also Muslims.

The BJP managed to almost entirely consolidate the non-Yadav OBC vote in addition to the non-Jatav Dalit vote in the state, besides the Jat community of West UP. While the RLD was the worst affected by the BJP's rise, the BSP, SP and Congress also lost considerable ground.

Though the SP managed to retain the support of Yadavs and Muslims and remain the main Opposition party in UP 2017 onwards, it hasn't quite managed to grow beyond this.

With Mulayam Singh Yadav's demise, the support of both these communities for the SP may be in doubt.

However, Mulayam Singh Yadav's brand of secular politics - involving increased representation of Muslims and an open stand against Hindutva - may have already died much before.

Yadav himself had diluted his Opposition to Hindutva during the 2000s by briefly bringing in Sakshi Maharaj and having a tacit deal with Kalyan Singh, both seen as villains of the Babri Masjid.

Then under Akhilesh Yadav's leadership, SP's secular politics has witnessed a further decline with the leader maintaining an arm's length distance from any issue that is associated with Muslims.

Under him the party has tried to manage the relationship with Muslims through the backdoor - such as by using Muslim intermediaries or by sending compensation to victims of police violence without openly supporting them.

Akhilesh Yadav has also sidelined important Muslim leaders like Azam Khan and fallen out with Shivpal Yadav, who understood Mulayam's secular politics better.

With Mulayam Singh Yadav no more, it may not be easy for Akhilesh Yadav to retain the support of both the communities.

While the 2022 Assembly elections may have seen a massive consolidation of Muslims behind SP, it may not last if the party continues to failt to defeat the BJP.

The Congress and AIMIM taking a more clear stand against anti-minority violence, so at some point Muslims may look for alternatives unless Akhilesh Yadav goes for a course correction.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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