Senior Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and Opposition stalwart, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement, expressing his wish to see Narendra Modi back as Prime Minister makes it abundantly clear that he disapproves of the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh. In political circles, Mulayam’s views seen as an endorsement for Modi, have, in fact, put his son, and former Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav in a fix.

Given the delicate equation between the father and son, Akhilesh is definitely in no position to denounce the observation made on the last day of the Lok Sabha. Instead, the criticism against the senior Yadav has been mounted from adjoining Bihar, where Rabri Devi has attempted to downplay the issue by claiming that Mulayam was a senior citizen, who many a times was unaware of what he was stating. In other words, Rabri’s implication is that the former Defence Minister was suffering from a failing memory and as a consequence was not in control of his actions and speech.

Those who have been following Mulayam, popularly referred to as “Netaji”, know that he is a shrewd and perceptive political player who enjoys springing surprises at the most unexpected time. In 1999, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government lost the vote of confidence in Parliament by a single vote, and after Sonia Gandhi publicly proclaimed that she and her allies had the magic number of 272 required to form the government, Mulayam threw a bombshell. He not only decided not to support Sonia’s claim, but ensured that the Congress stood completely exposed for forcing a mid-term poll within one year of the Vajpayee government being in power.

The story, as narrated by the late Makhan Lal Fotedar, political adviser to both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, does provide an insight into why Mulayam changed his mind at the eleventh hour. Madhavrao Scindia, who shared a close rapport with the then Congress president, had expected that he would be projected as the next Prime Minister, following the fall of the Vajpayee government, but was taken aback when Sonia Gandhi informed the then President K.R. Narayanan that Manmohan Singh was going to be the Congress nominee for the position.

This information offended and aggrieved Scindia to the extent that he sought the assistance of his friend Amar Singh to convince Mulayam to withdraw from the proposed coalition. According to Fotedar, Amar Singh, who had an extremely close association with Mulayam, managed to persuade him to change his mind. The rest is history. Elections were announced and Vajpayee returned to power in 1999.

In the latest instance, Mulayam continues to be the token head of the party he had founded, but keeps vacillating between his brother, Shivpal Yadav, and elder son, Akhilesh, who do not see eye to eye with each other. For a long time, it was Shivpal who controlled the reins of the party and had an absolute hold over the organisation, till Akhilesh in a power struggle out-manoeuvred him, forcing him to form his own outfit, which has positioned itself close to the BJP.

Historically as well, Mulayam, while projecting a pro-Muslim public posture, has in the past been accused of doing business with the BJP. His dislike for Mayawati is a well documented fact and it was under his leadership that the BSP supremo had been subjected to a murderous assault by SP goons, yet managed to survive. At one stage, Mulayam shared a cordial relationship with the then UP Assembly Speaker and now West Bengal Governor, Kesari Nath Tripathi, who had covertly provided him political help in countering Mayawati.

The SP-BSP alliance for the 2019 UP elections has not sat well with many activists of the Mulayam era. They have scant respect for Mayawati, which made Akhilesh publicly declare that any insult to the BSP chief would be construed as a personal affront to his leadership. Many political pundits in UP firmly believe that the BSP may not reap political dividends it hopes to rake in from the tie-up.

While the BSP is the sole party that is in a position to transfer its votes, the same cannot be said about the SP. The question that arises is, whether the Yadavs, who over the years have nursed deep-seated contempt for Mayawati, would support her candidates in places where they have a sizeable population. Shivpal has been urging members of his community to ignore both the BSP-SP alliance as well as the appeals of his nephew, Akhilesh. If he manages to draw a wedge between the Yadavs, the coalition against the BJP would decisively suffer a huge setback.

Rabri Devi has made it categorically clear that Mulayam has become irrelevant in the politics of his state, but it would be political naivety to dismiss him with callous casualness. He is unpredictable and is ascertaining the ground situation, thus keeping his options open. His friendship with Anil Ambani, whom Modi’s critics have been attacking in the wake of the Rafale deal, could also become a factor in determining his calculations and permutations. The BJP is overjoyed with the development and Netaji has undoubtedly become as of now the saffron brigade’s “poster boy”. Modi and Shah are banking on Mulayam to split the anti-BJP vote and therefore preventing any consolidation.

However, Mulayam, despite his fading memory, is not a greenhorn and would take his next step in a calibrated manner. Till then, he would keep his son as well as the entire Opposition guessing. Between us.

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