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Wrestler-turned-family man

On a warm summer evening in the early 1960s, Nathu Singh, Socialist Party MLA from Jaswantnagar in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh, sat among the spectators at a wrestling tournament in neighbouring Mainpuri district. See graphic

india Updated: Apr 06, 2009 00:32 IST
Sunita Aron

On a warm summer evening in the early 1960s, Nathu Singh, Socialist Party MLA from Jaswantnagar in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh, sat among the spectators at a wrestling tournament in neighbouring Mainpuri district. He was fascinated by a short, wiry looking youngster in the ring whose speed and skill enabled him to overcome bigger opponents. Meeting him after the tournament, Singh was still more impressed to discover that the young wrestler wasn’t mere brawn — he was also a lecturer in political science at the Jain Inter College in Mainpuri town.

The singular guru-shishya relationship that developed between Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav is still talked about in Etawah. When the next assembly election came, in 1967, Singh stepped aside, insisting his ticket be given to Mulayam.

Thus began an extraordinary political career that has seen the one-time wrestler occupy the chief minister’s seat three times, as well as that of India’s defence minister’s. How extraordinary the achievement is can be fully gauged only from a visit to Mulayam’s village Sefai in Etawah to meet his brothers Ratan Singh and Abhay Ram who still work in the fields like all the other farmers of the area.

Ratan Singh prefers sitting on a charpai to a chair; Abhay Ram, his dhoti-kurta streaked with mud, is perfectly comfortable reclining against a sack of potatoes. “We discuss mostly farming, never talk of politics,” said Ratan Singh.

But other family members are not as disinterested. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Mulayam, as a rising Opposition leader, had railed against the ‘dynastic politics’ of Indira Gandhi. Today, there is little doubt who will succeed 69-year-old Mulayam as chief of his Samajwadi Party (SP) when he retires: it will not be his comrade-in-arms Amar Singh, but son Akhilesh Singh, an MP from Kannauj.

Almost as important as Akhilesh in the SP hierarchy, however, are a host of other relatives. There is Shivpal Singh Yadav, another of Mulayam’s brothers, who unlike Ratan Singh and Abhay Ram has followed in his political footsteps.

Starting out as a strongman in Etawah in the late 1980s — with a formidable reputation for ‘booth management’ during elections — he was agriculture minister during Mulayam’s third chief ministerial term from 2002 to 2006.

There is cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, Rajya Sabha member, bespectacled and cerebral looking, who is said to be the party’s main strategist. There is sister-in-law Premlata Yadav, wife of yet another brother, Rajpal Singh, chairperson of the Etawah district board. (Rajpal, a former government servant, has also been playing a key backroom boy role in the party since his retirement.) There is nephew Dharmendra Yadav, also an MP.

But it is not only his family that has benefited from Mulayam’s political rise. So has his village Sefai. It makes for an amazing sight — and not only because of the cluster of mansions that comprise the homes of Mulayam and his relatives.

Deep in the heart of one of India’s most economically backward states, Sefai boasts smooth roads, swank looking schools, colleges, a first rate hospital and medical college, a host of gyms, a sports complex complete with stadium. Thanks to Mulayam it even has an airport — though no commercial flights land here.

Yet another beneficiary has been the community to which Mulayam belongs — the Yadavs or Ahirs of the state.

Mulayam’s rise has done wonders to their self-esteem. It began during his first chief ministerial term itself, with his caste fellows who earlier often dropped their ‘Yadav’ surname flaunting it instead, painting it boldly on the signs above their dhabas, or across the backs of tractors and trucks, they owned.

“Before Mulayam’s rise, Ahirs were not considered the equals of the upper castes in the feudal culture that prevailed in UP...All that has changed. Ahirs now have their place in the sun,” said N.R. Bhatela, retired principal of Mainpuri’s Jain Inter College, the same one where Mulayam taught decades ago.”