The contrast could not have been sharper. There was the leader, a quintessential Lohiaite breathing fire and brimstone. And there was this safari-suit-clad suitor fervently in pursuit of him, boasting of a lifestyle and connections that could not have been more contrarian. It was at a Kanpur industrialist’s house that Mulayam Singh Yadav was introduced to a certain Amar Singh — he of the gold cuff-links and phirangi cars, reeking of all the apparent signs of a five-star-variety socialite who frequented filmi parties and boasted of Bollywood connections, apart from several other attributes associated with such a type. The two came to be politically identified with each other in 1995 and, much to the chagrin of the Samajwadi Party rank and file, ‘Netaji’ actually managed to strike an instant rapport with someone so ostensibly different from the kind of people he had otherwise associated with in his political career.
The credit for the initial spadework in the relationship, say insiders, goes to the burly Amar Singh. He brandished his contacts and a silver tongue, and knew how to work political and corporate interests as also handle the English media, something that ‘Netaji’ found difficult. It did not take the two very long to travel a long distance from those early identities. Together, they made the Samajwadi Party a byword for opportunistic politics.
Over time, Mulayam has hobnobbed with everyone — the Left parties, the Congress, Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party (though he stands opposed to Mayawati’s BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party — in an attempt to increase his weight in national and state politics. In Amar Singh, Mulayam found just the man who knew what sells in New Delhi and, in turn, provided him the legitimacy and the political platform for his glib sales talk. And, for a long while, both benefited. One with his rural background and a solid caste base desired acceptance by the urban elite and the other, with overwhelming political ambition, had no political base. Amar Singh brought the icons of urban India to Netaji’s doorstep and helped realise his urban fantasies.
There was more. Amar, in the honeymoon phase, facilitated hobnobbing with the captains of industry and helped cut deals with them. The party’s brand ambassadors were not those leading backward caste or rural struggles, but Bollywood personalities — Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Jaya Prada and Sanjay Dutt. Some of them were accommodated in Parliament as Rajya Sabha members and others used for elections and other campaigns.
Even as Amar Singh became the Samajwadi Party’s predominant fundraiser, there were subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the bargain. From Saifai and village chaupals, the Samajwadi Party moved to five-star hotels, and from Etawah to Bollywood and the corporate boardrooms of Mumbai and New Delhi.
Mulayam started out as a primary school teacher who was influenced by Ram Manohar Lohia. He was elected to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in 1967 on a Samyukta Socialist Party ticket. From there he moved to Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Lok Dal. Charan Singh saw himself as a leader of farmers — who made up 90 percent of the voters in Uttar Pradesh — not of castes, and so did Mulayam at that time. He also shared Charan Singh’s visceral hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold over politics.
The politics of Uttar Pradesh, however, changed suddenly and unrecognisably after the Babri Masjid demolition and the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Two backward-caste leaders — Mulayam Singh and Kalyan Singh — were launched on the national stage from seemingly opposite ends of the political spectrum. The former represented the Yadavs and the latter, the Lodhs. One was projected as the champion of secularist ideals and the other was the Hindutva hero who helped destroy the Babri Masjid.
Over the years, Mulayam’s desire to see his kin control politics at all levels has propelled them to positions ranging from block pramukhs and district panchayat heads to MLAs and MPs.
The camaraderie between Amar Singh and Mulayam, however, did not last. There are solid reasons for the estrangement — for one, Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav has no love lost for someone who was among those because of whom the Samajwadi Party’s leading family slowly moved away from rural issues. Even the Yadavs began to see the party as representing only one section of the community — the Kamariya Yadavs, to which Mulayam Singh belongs — to the detriment of the rest of the Yadavs (the Ghausi Yadavs). Moreover, the rise of Amar Singh in the party had gone hand-in-hand with the marginalisation of leaders of consequence from other castes and communities — whether it was the late Janeshwar Mishra or one-time-Mulayam lieutenant Beni Prasad Verma or Azam Khan. Some were reduced to ciphers within the party organisation, others ousted.
Given the sweepstakes, there was just no way that Amar Singh could have remained in the Samajwadi Party given immediate personal and political factors that worked five years ago. But is there the possibility of a rapprochement between the two? Although badly done in by serious health issues, Amar Singh is said to be keen on a berth, either for himself or for close friend Jaya Prada.