My abiding memory of Mulayam Singh Yadav remains the day-long helicopter trip I accompanied him on, almost exactly 26 years ago during his campaign for the 1996 Uttar Pradesh(UP) Assembly Polls. I had come along to both interview and observe at close quarters one of the craftiest mass leaders of contemporary Indian politics in election mode. Needless to say, I was looking forward to the assignment.
Unfortunately, the interview was bit of a disaster. Despite his formidable political reputation, Mulayam Singh was a poor conversationalist answering my questions in monosyllables, his reluctance to open up to me heightened by his inherent hostility towards the English media.
Mulayam: A People’s Politician
To make matters worse what was supposed to be a one-on-one conversation turned out to be three-way. All thanks to the corpulent figure of Amar Singh, the former general secretary of the Samajwadi Party who had squeezed himself between us causing both physical discomfort in the cramped confines of the helicopter and annoyance by constantly butting into the interview with his own opinions.
Although I had previously heard of this former liaison man for the Birla group becoming a fixer for the Yadav chieftain, this was the first time I realised how important he had become.
However, observing Mulayam Singh as he hopped to and fro between a dozen election meetings across the heart of rural UP was an eye-opener.
This diminutive, incommunicative man in the helicopter turned into a mighty lion as soon as it touched down the ground next to the rally ground in a cluster of villages. Greeting his party workers and local leaders by name as he strode to the dais, he seemed to know virtually everyone in the remotest hamlet.
A Leader Who Wielded Promises and Hope
The peasant leader was no orator and displayed no Vajpayee-like rhetorical flourish to work up the crowd. But he already had his audience in his grasp with wild cheering breaking out, alternated by slogans hailing him as he proceeded in a matter of fact manner to explain why they needed to vote him back to power.
Interestingly, the loudest applause particularly from the younger sections of his flock came when the Samajwadi Party supremo declared that once he formed the government, everyone in school and college would pass their exams regardless of their results. As I rolled my eyes in horror, Amar Singh turned to me and winked!
So I did get my story even though not much of an interview with Mulayam. Of course, another special feature on the importance of being Amar Singh was a scoop which in later years he was fond of remembering as the first time the media took him seriously.
The Rise of Samajwadi Chieftain
‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav, the title passed on to him from his political mentor Raj Narain, switched from being a teenage wrestling champ to politics inspired by the ideology of socialist colossus Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. He joined Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) and got elected on its behalf as the first time legislator at the young age of 27.
But his role model was peasant patriarch and former UP Chief Minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh who in a remarkable political coup, united the powerful prosperous Western Uttar Pradesh Jats with the middle and backward castes of central and eastern parts of the state along with Muslims to defeat the Congress in the momentous 1967 assembly polls.
Not surprisingly, soon after Lohia’s death in 1968, Mulayam Singh left the SSP and joined Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD), hoping at one point to be his political successor only to see it snatched away by Chaudhury saab’s own apolitical son Ajit Singh in the mid-1980s.
How Mulayam Thundered His Way Through Delhi Politics
Mulayam Singh was a unique political leader in many ways. He holds an incredible record of being elected to the UP state assembly for the first seven times, each term from a party with a different name. In 1967, it was the SSP, in1974, the BKD, the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) in 1977 and in 1985, the Lok Dal, Janata Dal in 1989 and the Janata Party in 1991 and finally, in 1993 his own Samajwadi Party.
He has also been a very rare leader who remained politically active first in the state and then in national politics over half a century from the late 1960s right through the first two decades of the new millennium.
The Samajwadi Party leader’s political acumen has allowed him to steer between the two poles of Indian politics – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). He has firmly turned his back on the Sangh ever since he followed his mentor Raj Narain and role model Charan Singh in 1979 on the dual membership issue bringing down the Janata government.
He had once prevented the Congress from forming a coalition government in 1999, withdrawing support at the last moment and yet saved its tottering regime nine years later, supporting it on the crucial US nuclear deal vote in Parliament.
Flawed but Sensational
Mulayam Singh was not without controversy or scandal. The shocking manner in which he allowed goons to attack Mayawati inside the Lucknow government guest house just before she toppled his government in 1995 or his casual remark “Boys will be boys” on his party activists accused of rape, provoked all-round criticism.
So did his overt dependence on dubious characters like Amar Singh, the gangster politician Raja Bhaiya and Industrialist Subroto Roy of Sahara India, drowned in corruption charges.
Yet his rough and ready ways was perhaps only the reflection of the tumble of Indian politics and there have been no one else so adept at playing the part whatever the season.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)