Politicians are often judged by how they handle the last phase of their political lives.
And that is why with his decision to expel Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Singh has squandered his political legacy. Unless reversed immediately, the decision will leave Mulayam Singh’s real love, the Samajwadi Party, in ruins. To understand why, trace his career.
The paradox of Mulayam Singh
Mulayam is inarticulate; he is among the worst administrators in political landscape; he has practised communal politics in the most blatant manner for at least a quarter of a century, playing on Muslim insecurities while offering them little in return.
He is also widely perceived as among the most unreliable and untrustworthy political interlocutors who can switch positions and sides at any moment and keeps channels with all sides open at all times.
Yet the man has been extraordinarily powerful in the politics of Uttar Pradesh for three decades. He has won elections repeatedly and he is a truly mass leader. And the secret of that is his rootedness, the manner in which he empowers his base, and the ability to craft social coalitions.
Ask supporters, and they are willing to do anything for Netaji. Few know the vast state of UP as well as Mulayam. In each district, Mulayam knows hundreds of people by name - and in most villages, he would know a person or two. Anecdotes abound about how Netaji went out of his way to support a worker’s family in times of crisis; how he travelled to remote areas, through rough roads, on a motorcycle, just to attend a wedding in the family of a sympathiser; how no loyalist would return disappointed from his home if he was in financial crisis. SP is what it is because of Mualayam’s sheer hard work and energetic organisation building.
But there is obviously a political story that goes beyond personal patronage. Groomed in Lohia-ite politics, Mulayam -- like Lalu next door -- recognised that India’s backward castes were political orphans. The Congress decided to focus on Brahmans, Dalits and Muslims and that demographic coalition was enough to see it remain in power for decades. But with the Green Revolution, growing economic power of the backwards, their slow inclusion in government services, OBCs were looking for political might. Mulayam filled in this vacuum. The OBCs may today be the new power elite, but one should not underestimate how their rise was a transformative moment in Indian politics.
And finally, as the Muslims got disillusioned with the Congress after the Babri Masjid demolition, Mulayam smelled an opportunity. Yadavs on their own would not be able to wrest power: in a coalition with Muslims, SP could become at least the single largest party and acquire state power.
Once state power was acquired, Mulayam was dismissive of those who thought universal welfare or development was needed to remain popular. He operated with simple logic -- those who helped him win will be rewarded, and the state exists only for his voters. That is why under the SP there is the ‘democratisation of corruption and goondagardi’, Allahabad journalist Anupam Mishra once explained. Cadres are empowered to do as they wish; the administration becomes defunct in front of them.
The riskiest gamble
But there are clear limits to this kind of politics. As the middle-class expanded (and a Yadav middle-class grew too), as there was a generational transformation and as aspirations grew, the electorate wanted not just the recognition of identity and security. Akhilesh Yadav decided to fill in this gap. And Mulayam thought that while he would retain real power, the son could be make a token CM.
But there is nothing called a token CM since power creates its own dynamics. Akhilesh realised that while caste was an essential tool of mobilisation, it could not be the only tool --- which is why he became the first Yadav leader who was not just seen as a Yadav leader. He realised that urban middle-class and opinion makers, in the information age, had far more influence than their size dictated and needed to be nourished. He realised that the younger demographic among the poor and lower middle classes wanted urbanisation, infrastructure, technology as much as the rich. He realised that while patronage and corruption were necessary ingredients of politics, it could happen by expanding the development pie. And he decided that if he wanted to do all this, he needed control over the party structure, resources, finances and build his own cadre of loyalists.
But Mulayam was just not been able to reconcile himself to this shift - and with the fact that his son was becoming more popular than the father. He regretted that he did not become CM himself in 2012.
One should never underestimate the importance of inter-personal dyamics in determining politics. It did not help that the father and son have never been particularly close; it also did not help that everyone Mulayam is close to disliked Akhilesh and vice versa. Mulayam’s closest associate is Anita Singh, who ran a parallel administration much to Akhilesh’s anger. Mulayam’s brother, Shivpal, has felt that he his contribution to the SP is far greater than his nephew’s and thus he deserved chief ministership; Mulayam’s second wife, Sadhana Gupta, and her family, are deeply resentful of Akhilesh’s power; and Mulayam’s old friend, Amar Singh, is keen to undercut Akhilesh, who in turn feels strongly that Singh had corrupted his father and must be kept at a distance.
There was a school of thought in Lucknow which believed that Mulayam was just being shrewd; that while there was an undercurrent of tension between the father and son, the two were actually playing a good cop and bad act; and eventually, Mulayam would just let these battles play out in his lifetime because at the end of it all, it would help Akhilesh emerge stronger. People would perceive the young CM of having taken on the old guard, and rally around him.
Politics rests on the art of deception, but the expulsion shows this is a conspiracy theory.
A battle of this nature cannot be orchestrated.
There is a divide between the father and the son, between their political styles, between their network of associates, between the grammar and language they choose to employ, and their understanding of how political power can be won and regained. And strange as it may sound, there is a battle of egos, there is envy and there is anger and hurt.
Yet, both needed each other - at least for the 2017 elections. Akhilesh does not have an organisation; Mulayam does not have a face. And that is why conventional political logic suggested they would end up coming together. With Friday evening’s move, that door has been closed.
The endgame matters
What you do at the end of your political life matters.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee semi-retired after 2004, leaving people with the memory of his credible term in office. Health has now rendered him inactive but there is a surge of affection whenever his name crops up. He is remembered for the statesmanship and sobriety he brought to office.
LK Advani let ambition get the better of him. He did not bow out after the 2009 defeat, desperate for another bid at prime ministership. He was left humiliated in his party, deprived of power and influence and commands little respect either in his party or broader public.
After a rich career in public life, Manmohan Singh decided, in UPA 2, that staying on in power was more important than asserting himself at key moments - allowing the perception of corruption, policy paralysis and a weak PM to grow and tarnish his legacy. Still respected for his contribution to the economy, he evokes little political admiration.
V P Singh, after leaving office after a short but significant term as PM, moved away from electoral politics and office, and devoted him to public causes and social campaigns. He evokes respect among India’s civil rights activists and most marginalised.
Mulayam’s political stature may not be the same as these leaders. But he is, undoubtedly, one of North India’s most remarkable political figures.
At the end of his career though, Mulayam has lost the one element that helped him stand out --- the instinct for power. Friday’s decision marks the beginning of the end of his political life. He may retain the organisation and party flag; he may still have a loyal core of Yadav and Muslim voters; he may still have enormous wealth. But Mulayam has lost his political platform, his legacy, and his son.