Mulayam Singh Yadav (1939-2022): the socialist wrestler-teacher known as ‘Neta Ji’

Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav (82), who passed away on Monday after prolonged illness, will be known as a grounded but pragmatic ‘socialist’ leader

Mulayam Singh Yadav (1939-2022): the socialist wrestler-teacher known as ‘Neta Ji’

Naveen Joshi

Fond of reminding people that he was a champion wrestler in his youth, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s potential as a political leader, it is said, was actually recognised at one of the wrestling tournaments in Mainpuri.

An associate of socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, Nathu Singh, was impressed with the young wrestler and persuaded Praja Socialist Party to field a 28-year-old Mulayam Singh Yadav in the assembly election in 1967 from Etawa. He won and became the youngest MLA in the UP Assembly for the first time. The rest, as they say, is history. He went on to win in as many as 10 assembly elections and was elected a Member of Parliament too seven times.

SVD (Samyukt Vidhayak Dal) governments were formed in 1967 in several states. The non-Congress coalitions comprised of unlikely partners like the communists, the Jan Sangh and also the socialists among others. While SVD governments had a roller-coaster ride in power and did not last too long, the experiment of disparate political groupings coming together to defeat the Congress continued. Mulayam Singh Yadav swam with the tide with the Janata Dal and along with Jan Sangh leaders, supported Jai Prakash Narayan against Indira Gandhi and went to jail during the Emergency.

Following the demise of Lohia, Mulayam Singh Yadav joined hands with first Charan Singh and thereafter with Chandrashekhar and VP Singh during the tumultuous period between 1989 and 1991.

He parted ways with his mentors in 1992 when the Samajwadi Party was formed. Following the 27 per cent reservation recommended by the Mandal Commission and implemented by the VP Singh government, Jana sangh in its new avatar Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), engaged in promoting the politics of ‘Mandir’ to counter the influence of ‘Mandal’. This was an opportune time to consolidate the OBCs and counter the communal politics of the BJP. Mulayam Singh Yadav sensed the opportunity before others did.

As Congress became progressively weak in Uttar Pradesh, the void left by the national party was filled up by regional parties like SP and BSP. With BJP on the rampage with the Rath Yatra and subsequent demolition of the Babri Mosque, Muslims blamed the Congress government at the Centre for the failure to protect the mosque. Mulayam Singh Yadav grasped the opportunity to forge an alliance between OBCs and the minority community to take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1990s the two regional parties came together also against the BJP but while BSP joined hands with the BJP in some elections, Mulayam Singh Yadav consistently stayed away with the BJP.

'Maulana Mulayam', as he was called by the BJP, reaped the benefit of the combined votes of the OBCs and Muslims in the state. Paradoxically, the more favourably inclined he appeared towards Muslims, the more it helped the BJP to polarise the people on communal lines. Did Mulayam Singh Yadav do enough to counter the communal virus and the growth of the BJP in the state is something that will be debated for long.

While Advani’s Rath Yatra to Ayodhya was stopped in Bihar by Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then Bihar chief minister, it is difficult to say with certainty what Mulayam Singh would have done if the Rath had been allowed to pass through Bihar and enter Uttar Pradesh. It is worth recalling that despite Mulayam Singh Yadav’s boast that the security cordon in Ayodhya was so secure that not even a bird could wriggle through, vandals from the Sangh Parivar did penetrate Ayodhya and climbed on top of the dome of the Babri mosque for the first time in 1990.

The 1990s was marked by liberalisation of the Indian economy and political instability. Following the exit of the Congress government headed by PV Narasimha Rao in the 1996 general election, United Front governments proved to be short-lived. This was the period when Mulayam Singh Yadav confused both friends and foes by his unpredictable stands. Although he was the defence minister in the union government headed by Inder Kumar Gujral, he did not see eye to eye with the PM on several issues.

When Sonia Gandhi staked claim to form the government in 1999 after the fall of the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mulayam Singh refused to support her. He was indeed among the first few leaders who questioned her legitimacy for allegedly being a ‘foreigner’. While he did extend his support to the UPA, he opposed the civil nuclear deal with the US negotiated by Dr Manmohan Singh. His flip-flops were in marked contrast to Lalu Prasad Yadav, who stood firm in his support to forces opposing the BJP. Mulayam Singh Yadav kept shifting between the NDA, the Left, the UPA and Mamata Banerjee.

Central Bureau of Investigation was called upon by the Supreme Court to investigate into disproportionate assets acquired by the Mulayam Singh clan and charges of corruption against him. But unlike Lalu Prasad Yadav, who possibly paid the price for his steady opposition to the BJP, Mulayam Singh and his family managed to get a ‘clean chit’ from the CBI. His flexible political commitments are said to have helped.

While the ‘socialist’ leader initially resisted the temptation of inducting family members into politics, he succumbed to political compulsions and declared his son as his political heir. Akhilesh Yadav became the chief minister with his blessings and despite the opposition of Mulayam Singh’s brother Shivpal Singh Yadav. He will also be known for being lenient to different power brokers and criminal syndicates. He would often be surrounded by ‘dons’ and was accused of encouraging lawless elements.

This may not be the time or the occasion to make a full evaluation of Mulayam Singh Yadav as political leader and chief minister, but he did shower fulsome praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament in the last few days of the 16th Lok Sabha. He also wished that Prime Minister Modi would win the general election and returned as PM in 2019.

There will be other occasions to evaluate his performance as chief minister and politician. But he was undoubtedly among the more prominent leaders who left their mark on national and state politics during the past three decades.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines