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Mulayam Singh Yadav: Reconciling contrary strands of his politics

Published on Oct 11, 2022 03:44 AM IST

Many are likely to remember him as a backward caste leader who championed the politics of social justice and secularism. However, Yadav traversed a long distance – from being a firebrand socialist leader to presiding over one of the largest political dynasties in India.

Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Samajwadi Party patriarch and three-time chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) Mulayam Singh Yadav’s steady rise in politics captures an arc of political developments in the Hindi heartland. His foray into politics in 1967 coincided with a wide array of social and political changes in India and, perhaps, quickened the pace of some of these changes. Take, for example, the assertion of backward castes. It transformed not just his community’s position, but also became an undeniable illustration of the power of caste-based mobilisation in the country.

Many are likely to remember him as a backward caste leader who championed the politics of social justice and secularism and a politician who represented the interests of farmers and rural folks. However, in a career spanning over six decades, Yadav traversed a long distance – from being a firebrand socialist leader to presiding over one of the largest political dynasties in India. In the past few years, approximately two dozen of his family members were elected to political offices. As a result, Yadav’s brand of politics is now also associated with criminal linkages, accumulation of massive wealth, the influence of business in policy decisions, and the politicisation of bureaucracy and the police.

How does one, then, reconcile these two contradictory portrayals of a politician such as Yadav?

Having honed his skills in socialist tradition of anti-Congress politics, Yadav represents a class of politicians who emerged from the grassroots and later straddled the power corridors with great ease. At times, these rustic politicians (Yadav was famously called “dharti putra”, a son of mother earth) cajoled power brokers for access to these corridors and, at other times, threatened to turn this world upside down with the brute electoral force they commanded in the hinterlands.

The life of Yadav captures the struggle between India and Bharat, the elite and the native.

To understand his phenomenal rise and politics, it is essential to find answers to certain questions about his life, the political economy of the state, and the vast networks of alliances he created to control the levers of power.

First, what role do initial conditions (political geography and political economy) play in shaping a politician’s career trajectory? Yadav was born in UP’s Etawah district, one of the poorest parts of India. The political economy of such regions makes entering politics a costly affair that can even turn life-threatening. Yadav once escaped a murderous attack in 1982 when assailants fired several rounds of bullets at him and associates spoke of how he once cycled from Etawah to Delhi in the middle of the night to save his life. These incidents must have impacted his personality and politics.

Second, what role do ideological positions play in creating larger-than-life image and do politicians incur damage when they deviate from that cause?

Yadav’s initial training was in the Lohiaite brand of socialist politics and former deputy prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh’s philosophy of espousing the cause of the agrarian classes. As a state minister of cooperatives in the 1977 Janata Dal government, the reform measures Yadav unveiled were hailed by farmers. He was also a vocal advocate of the politics of social justice and espoused the Lohiaite line pichdle paanve sau mein saat (backward castes should be allocated 60% share in government position).

All of this began to change in the mid-90s, when his ideological lines on social justice and secularism appeared to be overtaken by his zeal to put community members in positions of power. His secular credentials started getting tarnished as he failed to promote any development agenda for Muslims. Furthermore, his enthusiasm for agrarian politics receded from his public engagements, and he was seen hobnobbing with big businesses and Bollywood celebrities.

Third, how are political dynasties created in electoral democracies? Ironically, Yadav became CM for the first time by rallying Lok Dal MLAs against the dynastic succession of Chaudhary Ajit Singh, the son of his mentor Charan Singh. Since then, he has put many family members in important political positions. For example, in 2014, all five members representing the SP in the Lok Sabha were related to him. The family now presides over a vast network of allies and affiliates in politics, business and civil society. Recent electoral setbacks notwithstanding, the family will continue to play a crucial role in shaping the political trajectory of India’s largest state in foreseeable future.

Fourth, what resources and instruments are needed to be in power for a considerable time? Political power in competitive electoral democracies necessitates control over the State and its institutions. Yadav understood that longevity in politics is determined by a politician’s grip on local political economies, which produces a reliable network of mobilisers, acts as a constant source of patronage, and finances political campaigns.

For example, with the support of his family, he ensured direct control over block and district panchayat offices in Etawah, Mainpuri, and neighbouring areas. Similarly, he made early moves to control the institutional network of UP’s cooperative sector through his brother Shivpal Yadav. Another facet of his political patronage is the “Yadavisation” of State machinery, especially the police. Newspaper reports in the 1990s allude to his attempts to induct many Yadav clansmen into the Provincial Armed Constabulary and the police. These steps shaped the SP’s organisational culture and governance model. Hence, it is not surprising that the goonda party tag sticks more to the SP than any other party in UP.

Finally, what do Yadav’s life and politics inform us about India’s democracy? His politics offers us optimism about what democracy in India has achieved against all odds and despair at where the Indian democracy failed, despite promising beginnings. Political entrepreneurs such as him have used democracy as an instrument for the empowerment of the marginalised, but also leveraged it to entrench themselves in power structures.

(Rahul Verma is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

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