It was the winter of 1984, and Mulayam Singh Yadav was on the way to a wedding in Etawah. As his motorcade sped through the picturesque western UP countryside, shots rang out.
In a flash, Mulayam ordered his security guards to shout out in mock panic: “Netaji mar gaye! Netaji mar gaye!”
In the pandemonium that followed, the assailants fled, assuming that their mission had been accomplished. An unhurt Mulayam drove on.
Thirty years later, rumours of the political demise of ‘Netaji’ are similarly unfounded: With elections a month away, the 75-year-old is firmly in control of his party, geeing up his troops to stave off a BJP onslaught, and keeping open the option of a post-poll Third Front.
For two Lok Sabhas in a row, his Samajwadi Party, established in 1992, has been the third largest party behind the Congress and BJP. Now he is naming candidates not just in UP, but as far afield as Kashmir and Andaman and Nicobar.
One more ambition
In his 47th year in politics, he has been chief minister thrice, and a central minister once. There’s only one job he wants now: Prime Minister.
He has said that even if Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa and West Bengal boss Mamata Banerjee -- two others Third Front contenders -- win all the seats in their respective states, he would need only half the seats in UP to exceed their tally.
But Mulayam is a changed man from the firebrand streetfighter of a decade ago. “I was always ready to roll up my shirt sleeves, but I have changed drastically on that count. Earlier, I was in sync with the politics of those days, now I have changed to changing politics,” he said recently.
There have been flip-flops along the way. In the 2009 manifesto, he proposed to ban English and computers. He later retracted, but the SP’s thuggish image was further tarnished.
His espousal of old foe Kalyan Singh ahead of the 2009 elections also made him look like a hypocrite. Muslims, an SP votebank, didn’t know what to think of the overtures towards a man on whose watch the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was pulled down.
But then, Mulayam is nothing if not mercurial: Towards the end of UPA 2, he specialised in sending conflicting signals about his party’s relationship with the ruling Congress. And he started, very publicly, preparing the SP for early elections,
As a young village wrestler, Mulayam was grappling with an opponent in the dirt pits of Mainpuri when Nathu Singh, a local MLA, spotted his skills and resilience in the ring. Nathu took him under his wing, growing so fond of the young wrestler that he gave up his own seat for his protégé, who promptly became an MLA.
Mulayam’s son, Akhilesh, was handed the chief ministership at 38 when the SP won a resounding state victory in 2012. Mulayam, though, has been a less than ideal mentor.
He has stopped calling Akhilesh by his nickname of Tipu and refers to him punctiliously as “Mukhya Mantri ji.” But he often runs his son down in public. Akhilesh has also struggled to cope with Mulayam’s coterie.
So the government has flopped on key issues like law and order, even as it tom-toms the distribution of free laptops. A shaky base from which to mount a campaign for PM, but then Mulayam has relied on his sheer force of personality in the past as well.