The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

Mulayam, the ununderstood mover of UP politics
Review by Baljit Kang

Mulayam Singh — A Political Biography
by Ram Singh and Anshuman Yadav. Konark Publishers, New Delhi.
Pages 219. Rs 300.

HE is a politician whom other politicians and the media would love to forget, but who refuses to go away. Instead, like an obdurate wrestler, squarely beaten but blissfully unmindful of the referee’s verdict, he hangs hopefully around the ring. And just when everyone is agreed on his epitaph, he is back again.

Yet for a politician who has been around for over three decades, (he was first elected an MLA in UP in 1967 and made a Minister in 1977) surprisingly little is known about Mulayam, the man. And what is known about Mulayam the politician is from the often highly-coloured media interpretation. For, belying his name Mulayam has never been cushy with the media.

Thus a political biography on Mulayam Singh Yadav, the man and the politician, should help fill an important gap in people’s understanding of this key figure in today’s Uttar Pradesh and national politics. Unfortunately, despite its title, this book does not do that. The reason — its authors, a teacher and a political activist, share Mulayam’s background and his social concerns and have viewed from too close the acrimony, the shifting loyalties and sharp social divides that are the hallmark of Uttar Pradesh politics. They are themselves visible touched by it.


Thus rather than try to understand where Mulayam is coming from so as to interpret where he might go next, the book contents itself with a long though not always linear chronology of the ups and downs in Mulayam’s political career, from his days as a Lohiaite student leader to the period after the fall of the United Front government. The authors are also acutely conscious of the bad press that Mulayam Singh has received. But rather than try to rationalise this, they have sought to correct it by introducing a bias of their own, by a defence of his rocky career.

And as they have not clearly identified the provocation it wraps the narrative, twisting it around this phantom attacker.

Not that Mulayam does not need defending, for he is uncharacteristically direct for a politician. This more than his purported battle with the status quo has meant that his career has had much more than its share of controversy.

He is fact courted it within days of being sworn in as Chief Minister in 1989, when, acting on his poll manifesto he decided to make Hindi the official language. Hindi has been the official language of the state all along. Thus his interpretation was, at best, one of degree. But his stridency on the issue, along with the implicit insinuation that his English-speaking opponents were "status-quoist" (a much maligned word) earned him the wrath of the English press. Rather than reach out to the fourth estate he ignored it. It was an especially unpolitic move. For it earned him a life-long enemy in the English press.

Just over a year later he would repeat the act with the vernacular press, though this time his role as provocateur was limited. Instead, by then the pace of events in Uttar Pradesh was dictated by Delhi where the two partners in power, the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, were locked in a bitter contest to emerge as the alternative to the still larger-than-life Congress. The key to this was the 85 per cent Hindu vote.

The BJP sought to harvest this vote by projecting the 15 per cent minorities as the enemy through the symbolism of mosques at Hindu holy sites of Ayodhya, Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura.The Janata Dal, for its part, wanted to cut the middle out of this vote bank by cornering the projected 50 per cent backward class vote. This bitter polarisation cast its shadow on the media as well, which veered sharply towards Hindu "nationalism" when pushed to choose between L.K. Advani rath yatra and the Mandal Commission recommendations.

It was against this backdrop that the Mulayam Singh government in Uttar Pradesh, besieged by aggressive kar sevaks in Ayodhya since October 30, 1990, opened fire in an attempt to disperse them on November 2. Several kar sevaks died, and "Mullah" Mulayam became enemy number one of the vernacular media. Days later the BJP pulled out of the National Front government in Delhi leading to its collapse. The Janata Dal too split, and it was now only a matter of time before Mulayam’s minority government meet the same fate.

In the bitter election campaign that followed the vernacular media was as much an active participant as the politicians, playing on the Ayodhya "massacres". And it won, the BJP bagging 211 of 421 seats while Mulayam’s splinter of the Janata Dal, christened the Samajwadi Janata Party, got just 35. Mulayam’s epitaph had been written.

But barely had the ink dried on it when the Hindu passions drummed up during the election campaign found expression in the bringing down the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, leading to riots and the dismissal of the BJP government in UP and three other states. Though chastened and its image bruised by the riots, the media refused to "forgive" Mulayam. But the voters did. When elections were next held in late 1993. Mulayam, and his new alliance partner, the BSP, were voted to power.

The latent flames of animosity flared again when Mulayam sought to increase the reservation quota in UP to 27 per cent as mandated under the Mandal Commission report, by then made into law. The decision was opposed in UP’s four hill districts. And when Mulayam persisted, the issue was capitalised by a low-key movement for a separate Uttrakhand state.

In the violent protests that followed several persons were killed and Mulayam was once again demonised by one newspaper after another.

This time though, he decided to hit back through his "halla bol", (literally attack) programme.Finding itself at the receiving end, the vernacular media meekly caved in. Until it again smelled blood when emboldened by BJP overtures, the BSP decided to dump its partner in a bid to form a government of its own on June 2, 1995. Mulayam countered this by splitting the BSP, holding a vulnerable faction hostage in the state guest house.

The truth of the tumultuous next hours will probably never be known. But at the end of it a BSP government was in, and Mulayam was a national pariah.

Despite the "universal" condemnation, he resurrected himself to emerge on the national stage a year later, emerging as a serious contender for the post of Prime Minister in the United Front government.

His absence from Lucknow helped mute the criticism until he committed another "unforgivable" crime in 1999 by refusing to back Sonia Gandhi in her bid for power in 1999, following the fall of the first NDA government. This time he had gone too far the pandits decided, his Muslim voters would never forgive him. They were wrong once again, with Mulayam emerging as the major force in UP while the Congress was decimated.

With election in UP now round the corner, the media has grudgingly begun to concede the importance of Mulayam Singh but the rift is as wide as ever.

While the authors tacitly admit to the centrality of the media in vilifying Mulayam, they have fought shy of spotlighting this factor, focusing almost exclusively on political players. Even in this the insight are skimpy as the 200-page-book tries to cover some 40 years of UP politics and social movements, along with elements of national movement. If it is still worth reading, it’s because of the famed TINA factor, there is no alternative source of information about this enduring enigma in the nations politics.