A day before Valentine’s Day, on February 13th, a large crowd gathered at the Hindu Inter College ground in Jaswantnagar, Etawah. Their leader Mulayam Singh Yadav—fondly addressed as Netaji— was going to address a campaign rally in the city that had elected him for a record seven times. His brother Shivpal Yadav, a third time MLA from Jaswantnagar is once again in the fray from the family bastion. Shivpal addressed the crowd first. “We have to keep our party flag high under the leadership of Netaji not only in UP but in Delhi too,” he made an emotional pitch. “I have always stood by Netaji and will be with him till my last breath.” The crowd raised their hands in support. Now it was Netaji on the mike. He continued on a similar emotional note. “Shivpal has played the role of a brother perfectly. I am proud of him,” he said. He then moves on to the family fight. “When Shivpal was removed from the Cabinet, I couldn’t do anything. My son Akhilesh is a little stubborn. He gets his way with me. Whatever we are today, it is only because of you. Please vote for Shivpal again and I will take care of the difference in the family. We are one.”
This was only the second campaign rally by Mulayam for Assembly elections 2017. A day before, he had addressed a similar rally at Takha Tehsil in Jaswantnagar constituency. On February 15th, Mulayam was in Lucknow to campaign for his daughter in law Aparna Yadav who is contesting from Lucknow Cant.
Mulayam formed the Samajwadi Party 25 years ago and he has since been the central figure of the party in every elections. But the party patriarch has been forced to take a sabbatical this time. His name figures in the list of 40 star campaigners of the party but he is missing on the ground.
“We have left it up to Netaji to decide where he wants to campaign,” says Ashish Yadav, who is running the election war room of the SP from Lucknow and is in-charge of the campaign schedule for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. But even requests for Mulayam to campaign in certain constituencies come to the party office, it is reportedly not being forwarded to Mulayam. “We ask the candidate to call Netaji directly,” says a party office bearer. The candidates also are cautious and don’t want to be on the wrong side of the family battle. “If Netaji had canvassed for me, the Muslims would have come out in large numbers to vote,” says an SP candidate, requesting anonymity, whose election was in second phase. “But if I call him, the CM would believe that I am against him. He has campaigned in my constituency but Netaji’s connect is different.” The three helicopters which has been hired by the Samajwadi Party for election campaigning have a packed schedule till February end, and it does not include Mulayam. This perhaps means that even if Mulayam will campaign in two or three nearby constituencies mainly where his family is contesting.
“Mulayam is one of the few leaders who has travelled to every corner of the state and has supporters across the state,” says Beni Prasad Verma, SP Rajya Sabha MP and Mulayam’s longtime friend. “Akhilesh might be going high on his development agenda but Mulayam’s absence will have a huge impact on the party’s fortunes.”
Ashish Rajput, a former SP leader who is now contesting the elections on a Lok Dal ticket from Etawah Sadar is confident of his victory. Rajput, a Shivpal loyalist, was given a ticket by Mulayam to contest from the seat. But Akhilesh replaced him with Kuldeep Gupta. Overnight Rajput joined the Lok Dal. When Mulayam was addressing a rally at Takha, Rajput climbed the stage and touched his feet. Mulayam not only blessed him but raised his hands to the crowd indicating towards Rajput. The message was clear. Rather than the official nominee, Rajput is Mulayam’s candidate. “With his blessings, I am surely going to win as the voters in the region are not with any party but with Netaji,” says a jubilant Ashish. “I can be expelled from the party but no one can expel me from Netaji’s heart.” Raghuraj Singh Shakya, the former MLA of Etawah Sadar continues to be in the SP but asks his supporters to vote for Rajput. “Akhilesh may have given pre-mature retirement to Netaji but people here follow only him,” he says.
Around 15 constituencies have candidates from parties other than SP, and they claim to have Netaji’s support. “We have accommodated 12 sitting SP MLAs who have been denied tickets because of their closeness to Netaji and Shivpal,” says Sunil Singh, president of Lok Dal. His party had contested more than 300 seats in the 2012 elections but couldn’t win a single seat. This time, Singh is banking heavily on candidates rejected by the SP—and Mulayam’s blessing. His star campaigner list also includes Mulayam, although Mulayam has not responded to his request. “I had told Netaji to contest from my party in case of a symbol freeze by the Election Commission,” he says. “I have consulted him before giving tickets to his loyalists.”
In nearby Barthana seat, sitting SP MLA Sukhi Devi Verma has been replaced by Kamlesh Katheria, an Akhilesh supporter. The Lok Dal has given ticket to Dhekendra, who was sure of an SP ticket. Now with both campaigning strongly, BSP candidate Raghvendra Kumar Gautam predicts an easy victory for himself. “Last time BSP lost the seat by a margin of 17,000. If Lok Dal candidate gets that many votes, it will be smooth sailing for me,” he says.
In 2012, the Samajwadi got a full majority for the first time and behind this was the constant hard work of Mulaym Singh Yadav. “He experimented with different caste combinations over the years to come out with a successful combination in 2012,” says AK Verma, department of Political Science at Chirst Church College, Kanpur. “He became an OBC leader post Mandal Commission and those vote banks stuck with him for some period.” In October 1990, as Chief Minister, he ordered the firing on Kar Sevaks in Ayodhya, killing 16 Hindus, a decision he regrets now. But he reaped the benefits of Muslims leaving the Congress and siding with him. Ever since then, he has enjoyed the full support of Muslims. This also resulted in the forming of stronger Yadavs who count for around 10 per cent of the total votes. With Yadav’s becoming stronger, some of the OBCs (20 per cent) started deserting him. He needed much more than 27 per cent of Yadavs and Muslims to make a winning combination. This is one of the reasons that leaders like Beni Prasad Verma, a popular Kushwaha leader in the Avadh region, were given prominence in the party. “When Mulayam and I used to campaign together, Muslims and OBCs would automatically come to our fold,” says Beni Prasad Verma. “Now I doubt Muslims would prefer Akhilesh as they consider Mulayam their leader.” In later years, Mulayam started wooing some sections of the upper caste to keep his vote percentage intact. “One of the major reasons for 2012 victory was a sizeable number of tickets given to Thakurs, who voted in good numbers for Mulayam,” says AK Verma. “He always looked for opportunities to add Thakurs to his fold and played his cards right.” When Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiya of Kunda, Pratapgarh, was harassed by the Mayawati government in her earlier tenure, Mulayam stood firmly behind Raja Bhaiya and hence gaining the sympathy of the Thakurs.
Apart from working on caste equations, Mulayam always maintained a distance from the Congress. There were occasions when he came close to a deal with the Congress but never let it materialised. “Netaji always felt that any deal with Congress would re-energise the dying party at the cost of SP,” says Om Prakash Singh, a former minister and currently contesting on an SP ticket from Jamania. “By getting close to a deal with Congress, he would try to give a message that he is not against the secular parties but not at the cost of his own Muslim vote base. He always feared that Congress is a national party and once Muslims go with them, they would never come back in SP.”
In 1989, Mulayam saved his government in UP with support of the Congress and also agreed for an alliance in a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. But the next morning, he went to the Raj Bhawan and recommended the dissolution of Assembly. In 1999, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government fell, Sonia Gandhi staked claim to form the government with a list of 32 Samajwadi MPs, but Mulayam later retracted on his promise of support. In 2008, he saved the UPA Government by voting on the nuclear deal and it looked like an electoral understanding would take place between the two parties. But once again Mulayam refused to give more than 10 seats to the Congress, resulting in both parties going separately in the elections. However he did make one mistake by embracing Kalyan Singh in 2009, who the Muslims felt was responsible for the Babri Masjid demolition. In the elections, Muslims voted for the Congress and the party won 22 seats.
“Mulayam’s anger with Akhilesh for aligning with the Congress is logical, as he knows how it can backfire in the elections,” says a party MLA who is part of the Akhilesh camp. “We have given 105 seats to Congress overlooking the concerns of party cadres who were working hard to get tickets. Definitely this will have an impact.” The leaders from Akhilesh camp reject all such claims and equations. “Netaji himself had said that he would campaign for both SP and Congress which means he is not unhappy,” says Naresh Agarwal, senior SP leader and Rajya Sabha MP. “The situation is different now and the alliance has been formed to defeat communal forces.” But not being unhappy doesn’t translate to being happy and the reservation on Mulayam’s side is quite visible. “It is our job to gift a victory to Netaji whether he campaigns or not,” says Mohd Azam Khan, a Cabinet Minister and senior SP leader. The party slogan of the SP workers used to be ‘Jiska Jalwa Kayam Hai, Uska Naam Mulayam Hai.’ Now it is ‘Jiska Jalwa Kayam Hai, Uska Baap Mulayam Hai.’ Change is evident even if it is a minor one.