Mulayam Singh Yadav passed away Monday aged 82 after a prolonged illness, having been hospitalised since 22 August. A three-time former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yadav also served as India’s defence minister, and was the founder of the Samajwadi Party. This piece was originally published in September 2012.
Has Mulayam Singh Yadav gone gaga with age? Is he acting in dread of the CBI? Has he, the most successful of old Lohiaites, become a latter-day convert to Manmohanomics? The answer is none of the above. Mulayam is the most political of India’s senior politicians. He does have his beliefs and ideology, so he is not entirely cynical. He just has the sharpest sense of what works for his politics. His open, accessible and thick-skinned style is an added asset. He is one of our last regional heavyweights to embody these old-world values where you never stopped talking with anybody, particularly those you disagreed with and vice versa.
He also knows his limitations, better than many others like him, who get muddled up trying to punch above their weight. Not Mulayam. That is why you have never seen him make a maximalist demand, or give ultimatums. And I know, I could be risking an internet kolaveri, but I have to also add that he is a deeply patriotic Indian, in fact, sometimes hyper-patriotic (and Sinophobic), as old Lohiaites tend to be. Among our wonderfully diverse pantheon of powerful regional leaders, he is also the least complexed or self-conscious. Of course he isn’t perfect. Far from it. No politician is. I should speak from some first-person experience there, having fought with him once, and disagreed, and argued with him editorially often enough.
I got to know Mulayam rather well only when we had a scrap that he, subsequently, made public. It was the summer of 2004 and he, then chief minister, called me on my mobile and was furious. He said a young person had died in an accident in his extended family that lived near Agra. Tavleen Singh (formidable Indian Express columnist) was nosing around that village, and how the hell was this her business. He said I had better make sure she desists from any mischief. Or, if somebody broke her legs, he (Mulayam) should not be held responsible. I took a few seconds recovering, but then said to him, in Hindi, that we all know law and order is the state’s responsibility under our Constitution and he, being chief minister, would be responsible for our columnist’s safety, whatever his disclaimers and threats.
I was still reflecting on such a rough exchange when the phone rang. It was Mulayam again, much calmer this time. He said he was so sorry he had been rude to me. But that was because he was stressed about a death in his immediate family and the concern that the media would make a controversy out of it. Yet, he said, he should not have spoken to me the way he did, and would I accept his apologies. I said, of course, and offered my apologies to him as well for having responded so sharply. This too, a senior politician saying sorry after such a rude argument, was a first-time experience. It should be much valued in times when even supposedly genteel and liberal civil society leaders treat you with George Bush-like you-are-either-with-us-or-the-corrupt-so-may-you-rot-in-hell disdain.
The story does not end here. Later that year, in November, Mulayam agreed to be the chief guest at a function to launch the expanded Lucknow edition of The Indian Express, where Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh staged their famous Tumhari Amrita. He put away his written speech and told the audience his very special reason for being there even in such a busy week. He recounted the story of our little dust-up earlier in the year, how he had quickly called back to say sorry and how, as he put it, I was so gracious to mutually forget and forgive. Now that is an old-fashioned Indian politician for you.
Mulayam inherited his political worldview from Lohia, but in politics, he is a most loyal pupil of Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet who, while he held his ideology close to his heart, was one of our most inclusive politicians ever. He had friends on all sides, never treated anybody as persona non grata and loved being a problem-solver. It was only his genius that put together the United Front government in 1996-97, even though he was thwarted in his effort to install his favourite Mulayam as prime minister. In a rare disclosure, he had told me in an interview on NDTV’s Walk the Talk that in an internal vote, Mulayam had beaten Moopanar 120-20, but suggested that rival Yadavs, Lalu and Sharad, orchestrated by our friend of Andhra Pradesh (Chandrababu Naidu) had sabotaged it and if they hadn’t, that coalition would have lasted a bit longer than under Gujral.
That is how close Mulayam had come to prime ministership in 1997. Mulayam’s admiration for Surjeet is even greater. He said publicly that Surjeet would have understood why he supported UPA 1 on the nuclear deal and, in fact, that had he been alive, the Left would not have broken away the way it did in 2008.
Ok, Mulayam is cynical but he is also cleverer than the competition. He knows his essential politics is rooted in the trust of his state’s nearly five crore Muslims. He is, as a matter of fact, Indian Muslims’ most important leader, and one of the reasons why a bigoted, sectarian and exclusivist Muslim leadership has not emerged in India. With many others, including Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee and even Mayawati learning from him, there is no vacuum left that Muslim voters might have wanted a more fundamentalist leadership to fill. But unlike the Left, his idea of secularism is not godless. He proudly calls himself a Hanuman bhakt, like most of his fellow wrestlers would. Over a meal at his village, Saifai, which became a tutorial on heartland politics, he underlined where he differed from the classical Left view of a political utopia free of caste and religion. If you take out caste, religion, clan (jati, dharm, biradari), then politics would become totally cruel because you will take all the softer elements out of it, he explained.
Accordingly, though he has been derided by rivals, particularly the BJP, as Maulana Mulayam, he has a less cliched view of Muslims than others, particularly the Left. Proof: when the Left led the anti-nuclear deal campaign, suggesting that anybody backing it would lose the Muslim vote for ever, Mulayam went exactly the other way. That he wasn’t being daft was proved subsequently as his Muslim vote bank first gave him more seats than Mayawati in the Lok Sabha (2009) and then an unprecedented clear majority in the assembly earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Left lost its Muslims, and West Bengal. Indian Muslims, he said to me in a chat at his Lucknow home during the recent assembly campaign, are like all other patriotic Indians. They want security (from communal elements), and things that everybody wants, water, power, schools, hospitals, jobs. He was the only old custodian of that vote bank to understand that Indian Muslims did not put their anti-Americanism above their Indian nationalism. Of course, he believes that Surjeet would have agreed too.
Mulayam is too clever to allow any emotion, even chronic anti-Congressism, to colour his political judgement. That is why you did not find him sharing the stage anywhere with the BJP, while his old CPM friends broke that self-imposed law in anger. Mulayam knows his Muslim voters worry about Modi, not America. Yet, socially or politically, he would never treat BJP leaders as untouchable. Or, in certain other interesting circumstances. My favourite story, which I once recounted in detail concerns the Sukhoi deal which, spread between four governments, Rao-Vajpayee-Gowda-Gujral, had the makings of a first-rate scam and controversy.
Very briefly, Narasimha Rao had signed the deal during the 1996 campaign as a caretaker PM, and paid Russia an advance of $365 million even before any agreements had been inked and initially the BJP cried havoc the moment Amitav Ranjan of The Indian Express broke the story. Atal Bihari Vajpayee called me home to ask, in the company of Jaswant Singh, if the paper thought there was a scam, because if there wasn’t one, he did not want to damn a good fighter plane like the unfortunate Bofors. Vajpayee’s first tenure lasted just 13 days and then came H.D. Deve Gowda, with Mulayam as defence minister. It was several months later that Jaswant Singh told me in a casual conversation that he and Vajpayee had been invited by Mulayam to sit in on a presentation on the Sukhoi deal to see if anything was wrong. He even accepted the modifications they suggested including a sovereign Russian guarantee that there were no kickbacks and should any surface later, Moscow would reimburse New Delhi fully. Of course, they also discovered the reason why Rao, and Manmohan Singh as his finance minister, had paid that totally arbitrary advance. It was because the Sukhoi factory was broke in Yeltsin’s constituency, he too was facing elections, and would so appreciate that very special favour.
I confronted Mulayam subsequently at a dinner at the IAF mess on Delhi’s Zakir Hussain Road and asked if it was true that he had indeed reached out to the top leadership of the BJP he so detested. He just smiled in child-like delight, and said, haan, bulaya humne, kisee ko pata nahin laga, media phail ho gaya (phail, not fail, as in Phaijal, not Faisal in Gangs of Wasseypur). Now what does this little episode from recent political history do if not underline Mulayam Singh Yadav’s patriotism? Also, an open-minded pragmatism, which is in such short supply in today’s bitter, them versus us and issues be damned politics.
Of course, there is plenty wrong with his politics, and a lot we will disagree or argue with. But that will not change the fascinating political player Mulayam is. And one thing he isn’t, is an enigma. He is a hundred per cent politician and, therefore, mostly predictable.