Mulayam Singh Yadav, a firm believer in the adage that there are no permanent friends and enemies in politics, was frequently perplexed by political analysts for his somersaults to protect the party’s interests.
History: Mulayam Singh Yadav (1939-2022), the founder and patron of the Samajwadi Party, died on October 10, 2022, in a Gurugram hospital after a long illness. Mr. Yadav, an astute politician, blazed a new path by putting backward castes at the center of Uttar Pradesh politics, and he served as the State’s Chief Minister three times (1989-91, 1993-95, and 2003-2007). Akhilesh and Prateek, his two sons, survive him.
He also served as Defence Minister during the United Front government in 1996, after coming dangerously close to becoming Prime Minister when coalition politics were the order of the day and regional parties wanted to be more than just kingmakers.
The Samajwadi Party unexpectedly returned to power under his leadership in 2012. Still, he chose to hand over the reins to his son Akhilesh, sparking a feud within the Yadav family over a progressive makeover of the plebeian party.
Mr. Yadav, a teacher by profession, a farmer by ancestry, and a wrestler by training, comes from a modest hamlet in Saifai, Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh, on the outskirts of the Chambal ravines.
He was more than a son of the soil; he was a child of the wilderness who, following in the footsteps of his mentor Chaudhary Charan Singh, decimated the Congress, which represented the upper caste hold on Uttar Pradesh politics, by mobilizing the backward castes, who make up the majority of voters in the State.
The 10-time MLA and seven-time M.P.’s tenacity and touch with the grassroots ensured that the Samajwadi Party remained a force to reckon with since its inception and survived the State’s cauldron of Mandal and Kamandal (caste and religion) politics.
Mr. Yadav, a firm believer in the adage that there are no permanent friends and enemies in politics, frequently perplexed political analysts with his somersaults to protect the party’s interests.
In the national political arena, he acted following the party’s interests in Uttar Pradesh. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the trust vote by a single vote in 1999, he used her foreign origin to keep Sonia Gandhi from becoming Prime Minister. However, when the Left parties withdrew their support from the United Progressive Alliance in 2007, he supported Congress to keep Mayawati, his main opponent in the State, out.
The Last Man in the row could identify with his bucolic persona, which meant that the allegations of corruption had no electoral impact on him.
According to old-timers, the hard-boiled politician survived the jungle of U.P. politics for more than five decades because he herded cattle as a child and cycled across the terrain in his youth. He could sense the political climate from afar as a farmer’s son. His decisions kept his opponents and friends guessing. He was a friend of friends for his beneficiaries and a rank opportunist for his critics.
Mr. Yadav resurrected his socialist roots in 1992, forming the Samajwadi Party with his triumvirate of Janeshwar Mishra, Beni Prasad Verma, and Azam Khan. His seasonal experiments with partners, however, continued. He married Mayawati in 1994, which resulted in an ugly divorce in 1995. It is said that Mr. Yadav’s return to power in 2003, which saved him from political oblivion, was made possible by Mr. Vajpayee’s blessings. He also socialized with Kalyan Singh after the face of the Babri Masjid demolition defected from the BJP.
Mr. Yadav compensated for his lack of oratory skills with one-on-one contact with the karyakarta. He was one of the last politicians who did not rely on party heavyweights in Lucknow to reach out to constituents. Despite allegations of nepotism in later years, Mr. Yadav enabled the local leadership of Muslims, backward and most backward castes, to flourish by selecting committed youth from student politics. One of his brilliant moves was to drop charges against dacoit Phoolan Devi in 1995 and make her the Nishads’ mascot by giving her a Lok Sabha ticket.
His tenures as Chief Minister are remembered for improving the government’s delivery mechanism in rural areas of the State. Mr. Yadav worked for the upliftment of farmers by building roads in villages or providing free water for irrigation, with little to no public relations as we know them today.
He was one of the first leaders to advocate for promoting Hindi publicly. He established the Yash Bharti awards to recognize the achievements of eminent State personalities who excelled in literature, arts, and industry. His friendship with Gopaldas Neeraj, a Hindi poet, was legendary. His friendships with Amitabh Bachchan and Subrata Roy also ended.
He struck a delicate balance between Amar Singh, his ties to big corporations, and Azam Khan, his ties to conservative Muslims. And his younger brother Shivpal, the party’s Man Friday. When confronted by the media and the opposition, Mr. Yadav avoided a sticky situation by giving the impression that he was being used in his relationships with his more vocal, muscle-flexing partners, but the reality was not as one-sided. After witnessing the plight of his contemporaries, such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, he made peace with the ruling regime by praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament. The central agencies hardly bothered him in the last decade.
Mr. Yadav will be remembered for the scandals that surrounded him. When he was in charge of the State, not only the Kar Sevaks but also the activists of the Uttarkhand movement were targeted. He refused to be politically correct because he was committed to an atavistic patriarchal worldview. He never truly apologized for the alleged assault on Mayawati by S.P. workers in the State Guest House in 1996.
The impertinent and sexist remarks in which he almost condoned rapists and gang rapists, as well as his opposition to reservation for women in Parliament, continued to haunt him, but he refused to change his tone. Mr. Yadav was intimately familiar with his voter base, but he could also read the writing on the virtual walls of social media. So, in his final maneuver, Mr. Yadav handed over the party’s reins to his son, who has a progressive stance on issues that remained a sore spot for his tough father.