Mulayam Singh Yadav's sudden breaking of ranks with the Congress over protesting the Lalitgate and Vyapam scams should not have come as much of a surprise to anyone. The wily Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo has a track record of apparently random U-turns that are in fact grounded in realpolitik.
So when he got up in the Lok Sabha on Monday and started prising his party away from Congress, there were some wry smiles among those lawmakers with longer memories. Seven years ago, the SP dumped its natural ally, the Left, to support the Congress-led UPA government on the Indo-US nuclear deal. This was in fact a case of the Left being twice bitten: In 2002--according to his claims--Mulayam suddenly proposed the name of the late APJ Abdul Kalam as President, effectively finishing off the prospects of the Left's candidate Lakshmi Sehgal. In 2012, it was another presidential battle and another volte-face, as Mulayam abandoned Mamata Banerjee when she initially opposed presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee.
Each flip-flop had a rationale, but what was constant was Mulayam's unpredictability. This time, the reasons appear to lie in the fact that Mulayam cannot afford to take a high moral ground on corruption, and in the need to stay on the right side of the Centre to get funds for Uttar Pradesh's development.
The SP government in Lucknow faces the prospect of being drawn into the scandal surrounding Noida Authority engineer Yadav Singh, which is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The 75-year-old Netaji, as he is known, is in no mood to open up another political front with the Centre at this stage, partymen said. A CBI plea seeking permission for an independent inquiry against him and his family in a disproportionate assets case has remained pending in the Supreme Court since 2009 and the agency has shown little urgency to approach the court for an early ruling.
To put things in perspective, Mulayam's revised position is in fact in sync with that of many other regional parties including Mamata's TMC, Navin Patnaik's BJD and Sharad Pawar's NCP. After an initial burst of criticism, even Mayawati's BSP has sought to remain neutral on the Congress demand for the resignation of external affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Incidentally, the CBI is investigating corruption cases involving leaders of regional parties in some of these states.
Mulayam's courting of the BJP for the sake of UP sets itself up nicely for future U-turns. After all, the BJP did spectacularly well in the Lok Sabha elections in the state, and is likely to be locked in bitter battle with the SP come the assembly elections in 2017. Mulayam has shown his clout as a spoiler in neighbouring Bihar, where he is one of the engineers of the Nitish-Lalu tie-up designed to keep the BJP at bay.
For now, Mulayam clearly wants to focus on his home state as he also contemplates the likely revival of Mayawati. The former wrestler is keen that he rediscover the political constituency that he lost after his party's humiliation on its own turf in the Lok Sabha elections.
But no one is betting against future flip-flops, abandonments or U-turns; after all, the very creation of the Samajwadi Party in 1992 was preceded by such an act, the ditching by Mulayam of the late Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and others.