On October 11, a gigantic Samajwadi Party (SP) flag that ordinarily towers over Saifai in Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district, fluttering and flapping in the breeze at a height of 60 feet, was lowered for the first time. It was to honour the region’s most famous son, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had died a day earlier at the age of 82. And the smoke that billowed from the flames on his sandalwood pyre signalled the end of an era.
Notwithstanding his often controversial politics, Mulayam Singh transformed the political landscape of India’s most populous and politically significant State with his two calling cards: social justice and secularism. His rise in politics was viewed by lakhs of followers, especially among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), as a source of great pride. It empowered the community in different ways: if reservation helped them get seats in educational institutions and improved their chances of getting government jobs, political power ensured that they now had a say not just in government but in various social structures.
In life, Mulayam Singh was not just diminutive, he was also not the most scintillating speaker. But the village boy who had to wade through a stream to get to school from his village, who started life as a wrestler before going on to teach at a local college in mofussil Uttar Pradesh (after acquiring an M.A. in Political Science and a Bachelor of Education degree), ended up as a storybook political hero, flawed perhaps in many ways, but a hero nevertheless.
Mulayam Singh was politically fortunate in that he had an enviable set of mentors. Ram Manohar Lohia, the charismatic socialist leader, provided him with an incomparable political education in the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). Nathu Singh Yadav, an SSP MLA and fellow wrestler, gave up his own Assembly seat of Jaswantnagar to the young man, recognising in him the ability to take on challenges bigger than himself after watching him in the wrestling pit.
Karpoori Thakur, Bihar’s first OBC Chief Minister, was a source of inspiration for him. And former Prime Minister Charan Singh groomed him, naming him “Chota Napoleon” in recognition of his leadership qualities despite his short stature. A 10-time MLA and seven-term MP, Mulayam became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh thrice and served as Defence Minister in the United Front governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.
Entry into politics
Mulayam Singh’s entry into politics came at an opportune moment, his rise coinciding with the social and political ferment in the Hindi heartland States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 1980s and 1990s. Those were the years when the OBCs began to gain political ascendancy in Uttar Pradesh, marginalising the upper-caste-dominated Congress.
Indeed, after Mulayam became Chief Minister for the first time in 1989, the Congress that had reigned over this region since Independence for the most part, with only a couple of brief breaks, found it impossible thereafter to come even within striking distance of recovering power. And in 1990, after the V.P. Singh-led National Front government accepted the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report, the OBCs came to the political centre stage, making Mulayam Singh even stronger.
Unfortunately for the SP leader, this coincided with the increasing communal polarisation in Uttar Pradesh following the BJP’s belligerent Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. As an increasing number of OBCs began to be drawn into that movement, Mulayam Singh turned aggressively secular, focusing his energies on the Muslims who were at the receiving end of the BJP’s divisive politics. He even ordered the police to fire on kar sevaks who tried to march towards the Babri Masjid.
This led his political antagonists on the Hindu right to derisively name him “Maulana Mulayam”. As the OBCs drawn into the Hindutva project began to abandon him, and the Muslims drew closer to him for protection, his base began to shrink to the Muslim-Yadav combine.
Simultaneously, as he grew older, he began to rely more on members of his own family, especially brother Shivpal Singh Yadav and cousin Ram Gopal Yadav. Shivpal, the quintessential organisation man, was Mulayam Singh’s right-hand man in Uttar Pradesh for a very long time, and believed that he would be his brother’s successor. Ram Gopal Yadav, better educated and more sophisticated, was a Rajya Sabha MP for several terms and his comrade in national politics. This did not go down well among the stalwarts in the party, such as Janeshwar Mishra, Mohan Singh, and Reoti Raman Singh, to name just three.
The Samajwadi Party gradually metamorphosed from a socialist party into a dynastic outfit, with Mulayam Singh’s eldest son, Akhilesh, followed by daughter-in-law Dimple, and a handful of nephews, joining politics.
Amar Singh in SP
What was perhaps most life-changing for Mulayam Singh was the entry of Amar Singh, a middleman and power broker. As early as 1996, when Mulayam became Defence Minister, Amar Singh entered his life and politics. Socialists in the SP and Mulayam’s family members alike watched aghast as Amar Singh brought the opulence and enticements of corporate India and Bollywood to the party and its members, who had until then sworn by Lohia, khadi, and austerity.
Those who had spent a lifetime in the party resented his presence and resisted his rapid rise. But Mulayam Singh, mesmerised by the allurement of big money and big entertainment, allowed Amar Singh to become the public face of the party.
And Amar Singh adroitly juggled his role as Mulayam Singh’s chief confidant with that of being a Page 3 regular, rubbing shoulders with industrialists and socialites. He even accompanied the SP supremo on his first official visit to London as Chief Minister, sharing a suite of rooms with his patron, according to officials who were part of the trip. For those in the party and government, the message was loud and clear: Amar Singh was special.
In the process, Amar Singh not only changed the ideological character of the SP, he is believed to have pitted members of Mulayam Singh’s family against each other to gain control of the SP–even conspiring with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whenever he felt the need.
He reportedly worked hard to pit Akhilesh Yadav against his younger half-brother, Prateek, and later Akhilesh against his uncle, Shivpal Singh Yadav, who formed a breakaway SP faction ahead of the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, which helped the BJP.
It was only when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in Delhi that Amar Singh found himself operating in a “hostile” environment. In Uttar Pradesh, the family members of Mulayam Singh, who was Chief Minister at the time, began to call the shots and his activities were severely curtailed.
Shivpal Singh Yadav held sway over the day-to-day administration, while Akhilesh, who was already the Kannauj MP by then, was clearly being groomed for a bigger role. Ram Gopal Yadav continued to hold his own. And Shivpal and Akhilesh made no secret of their dislike for Amar Singh in party circles.
The period between 1996 and 2004 exposed Mulayam Singh’s vulnerabilities, but what saw him through his long chequered political career was his enormous capacity for hard work, his inbuilt capacity to take on political challenges, and an inborn empathy for those living on the margins.
His capacity for hard work was demonstrated, for instance, when he took out his “Kranti Rath” in 1987, mobilising a range of opposition parties under the Krantikari Morcha umbrella to take on the Congress, then the dominant party in Uttar Pradesh. The training he had received under Charan Singh also helped him build his own party.
The skills he had picked up as a wrestler, picking himself up from the dust each time he was knocked down and battling on, also came in handy. In 1990, his old friendship with Chandra Shekhar saw him abandon V.P. Singh, leading to the end of the latter’s tenure as Prime Minister, and allowing the former to take on the mantle briefly, even as Mulayam continued as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh with the aid of the Congress.
In 1993, shortly after forming the SP in 1992, he combined forces with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), forming a Yadav-Muslim-Dalit combine to take on the BJP. But that came apart after Mayawati pulled out from the government and the infamous guesthouse attack against her, mounted by angry SP workers, took place. In 2003, Mulayam was sworn in for a third time after the BSP-BJP government collapsed, when he was able to pull in rebel BSP legislators, independents, and smaller parties.
Later, although the 2012 Assembly election was fought in his name, he realised that if the SP were to remain a formidable force, it needed a fresh face to lead it: his son Akhilesh.
The Muslim conundrum
If the OBCs naturally looked to Mulayam Singh for inspiration and power, for Muslims, proximity to the SP was a double-edged sword: if the protection he offered against the growing might of the extended Hindutva family was a source of comfort, it also made them more vulnerable. Much was made of a controversial statement that he made in his later years about rape, but this writer recalls a heart-stopping moment in his first stint as Chief Minister. Addressing a public rally, attended by a large number of women, he said that one of the first things he would do was build toilets for his “mothers, sisters and daughters”. As if on cue, all the women began to weep. Perhaps for the first time they had heard a person in power, and that a man, acknowledge problems that plagued generations of village women: of risking physical assault if they used the fields after dark to relieve themselves and the deleterious impact of not drinking enough water.
The softer side of Mulayam, a word which means “soft”, was seen in his dealings with people in his family. His abiding affection for younger brother Shivpal was visible in his dealings with the latter’s three children. This writer recalls a meeting with Mulayam Singh in Lucknow in the 1990s, while interviewing him in his home, when the door burst open and three children ran into the room. The eldest, perhaps 12 or so, glared at Mulayam Singh and said in Hindi: “Tauji, if you speak so loudly, it disturbs our play.” The man who presided over the fortunes of India’s largest State apologised profusely, then looked at me with an embarrassed smile. The children triumphantly left the room.
If such affection was reserved for Shivpal’s children, his eldest son Akhilesh was the one he was most proud of. Akhilesh was brought up very strictly: he was sent to Dholpur Military School in Rajasthan, and then to Mysore’s JSS Science and Technology University where he got Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Civil Environmental Engineering, and finally to the University of Sydney in Australia, where he obtained a Master’s in environmental engineering.
Shortly after Akhilesh became the MP from Kannauj, Mulayam Singh took him to meet his old socialist friend, S. Jaipal Reddy. Instructing his son to touch the older man’s feet, he told Reddy in Hindi, with a hint of pride: “Jaipalji, this is my son, but he can speak English like you.” If he ensured in his lifetime that Akhilesh and not Shivpal or Prateek, his son from his second wife, Sadhana, became his political heir, it is reported that much of his worldly acquisitions have been left to the younger son.
If the tough side of his personality was seen by those he dealt with in politics, there was also clearly a “Mulayam” aspect to his character that was seen both by his family and by the poor and disadvantaged among his voters.
Smita Gupta is an independent journalist. Earlier, she was Associate Editor at The Hindu, and Senior Fellow at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.
- Mulayam Singh transformed UP’s political landscape with the ideology of social justice and secularism.
- He served as UP Chief Minister thrice and was elected to Parliament on several occasions.
- He also served as Defence Minister in the UPA governments of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral.
- His mentors were political legends such as Ram Manohar Lohia and Charan Singh.
- He founded the Samajwadi Party in 1992 and worked tirelessly to keep the BJP out of power in UP.