During the coverage of the Tamil Nadu Vidhan Sabha elections, Professor Yogendra Yadav observed that there is a tendency to underestimate Jayalalithaa while she is in opposition and overestimate Karunanidhi while he is in government. Taking the argument to Uttar Pradesh, I would argue that we could say the same for Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati respectively. Today, Mayawati is perceived to have a great edge over Mulayam notwithstanding the anti-incumbency sentiment, the slew of corruption cases and of course the building of statues and monuments for herself. Mulayam on the other hand is seen as down and out heading a party whose best is behind it. Yet, one need not be surprised if the elections deliver a verdict that is contrary to what the perception is. In all probability, Mulayam Singh Yadav could not only return as the Chief Minister but also play an important role in national politics.
In many ways Mulayam has been an unlucky politician. Cutting his political teeth in the JP movement, he is no doubt the senior most politician from UP today. But, his growth both in the state and at the Centre has been rather curtailed. He has not been able to complete a full term in office (no CM for a long time has done so but arch rival Mayawati will) and from being the strongman who could take on the might of the BJP during its heyday he has become (to borrow Inder Singh Namdhari’s phrase during the Lokpal debate) a ‘circus lion’ who can be easily blackmailed through the CBI. The top job missed him in 1996 when he had to settle for the defence portfolio. The opposition benches beckoned in 1998 and 1999, when he famously prevented Sonia Gandhi from becoming Prime Minister. In 2004 and in 2009 he has substantial MPs but it was a clear case of being all dressed but heading nowhere as the Governments of the day did not need his support till 2008 after which he was politically dumped until Anna happened. Thus, while a Ramadoss or Shibu Soren could become a minister with 4-5 MPs, Mulayam got nowhere with over 20 MPs! He even suffered a crushing defeat in 2007, which has put his party out of any political office for the last 5 years.
But then 2012 could be different. Yes Mayawati does carry the mass support of the Dalit community but there is an anti-incumbency sentiment that exists on the ground. Her regime is seen as a disappointment with a large gap between the expectations and the delivery. As the case of DMK has shown, even strong Governments get weakened as time goes by and the people do yarn for change. Today if the people of UP need change, Mulayam is best suited to deliver it in terms of pan-Uttar Pradesh reach and party machinery. The BJP is nowhere close to its peak in the 1990s while the Congress is plagued by ‘parachute politics’ courtesy Rahul Gandhi. Even the Anna and Ramdev factor could have ramifications in UP that could put the Congress on a sticky wicket. In any case it will not repeat its stellar performance of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
It is in this context Mulayam enjoys a great advantage. There is no doubt both the Congress and Ajit Singh would be more comfortable dealing with Mulayam than a maverick Mayawati. A SP-Congress-Lok Dal government seems the most plausible combination in UP (the other is a BSP-BJP government). The departure of Amar Singh has helped Mulayam Singh in ways more than one. While he successfully retains the contacts he made with Amar Singh, he has also been able to win over the old SP stock that felt isolated with the arrival of Amar Singh on the political scene.
It also helps that the party seems in very safe hands. Mayawati remains a one-woman show while the BJP has no tall leader either young or old in the state. This is where Akhilesh Yadav enhances the chances of his father and the party doing well. Young (by political standards of course) Akhilesh displays none of the trappings Rahul Gandhi does or is he a minor player as Jayant Chaudhary is. He has inherited strong party machinery from his father and he is someone who has been among the people of UP, not making dashes to Dalit homes when elections approach. In Akhilesh the people of UP may see a future which could possible make them vote SP. In an Akhilesh vs. Rahul contest, Akhilesh surely enjoys greater political credibility, which he could turn into administrative excellence too, if he acts prudently.
One must also note that 2014 is the last election for the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Pawar to fulfill their national ambitions. Both of them would be too old to lead the nation in 2019 or onwards making this their final chance. For Mulayam a third front could be a blessing in disguise and unlike in 1996, Lalu Prasad Yadav (who single handedly vetoed his shot at PM ship) is a largely inconsequential leader both in his state and at the Centre. Apart from being the undisputed Yadav leader he will also command a good number of seats in the Lok Sabha elections, whenever they happen. With an unpopular government and a principal opposition that does not enjoy much national credibility the Third Front could be back in business. Needless to say it would be impossible without SP participation.
This optimism does not mean Mulayam will surely win. Mayawati remains a formidable leader with an excellent strategic mind. In terms of age, she has at least a decade in politics. Mulayam may not be the same leader who has the courage to fire at Kar Sevaks nor can he take risks such as the Rampur Tiraha episode of 1994 or the Guest House episode of 1995 but he has that much fire in his belly to be the only force that can stop the Mayawati march. 2012 will be crucial for both he and his son. He realizes better than any of us the stakes of both victory and defeat- the political climate suits a possible comeback but will he be able to do it? Wait for 4th March 2012 for that answer…