In a day full of surprises, Mulayam Singh brings up nuggets from the past, including how he almost became PM

With the Samajwadi Party billed as the comeback kid of Uttar Pradesh elections-2012, it is time to hit the stump with patriarch Mulayam Singh. But the party office suggests a short interview the evening before the helicopter ride, and I arrive at his splendidly laid-out home on Vikramaditya Marg. Rumours have it that Singh is battling a debilitating illness which has impaired his faculties.

At 72, the SP veteran looks frail and distant — a pale version of yesteryear’s dhartiputra (son of the soil) whose muscular charisma had brought him a worshipful following among the backward classes and Muslims. His Yadav clan was fiercely loyal while Muslims got misty-eyed remembering his gallant defence of the Babri Masjid. It was said of the supremo that he had merely to show up at a rally to ignite the crowds and bring in the votes.

Seeing me, Singh looks a little puzzled, as if unable to place me. But soon recognition dawns and though his reflexes are slow and he has to strain to hear the questions, he begins to relax, affording glimpses of the old “Mulayam,” socialist by upbringing and proud of his subaltern roots. In his later years, much of that legacy would be surrendered for a tryst with glamour and corporate fame in the favoured company of the swashbuckling Amar Singh.

There is no breaking news in the answers, not after the previous day’s fiasco when television channels had flipped out covering his reported offer of support to the Congress. Quizzed on this, Singh is insistent that TV has been up to its usual mischief: There is and there can be no relationship between the SP and the Congress, and the SP’s support to the United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha was only to keep out the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Haven’t you seen how Rahul Gandhi is tearing into us?” the SP boss asks, adding, “the boy is so arrogant and abusive. He calls us goonda (goon) and the Bhaujan Samaj Party chor (thief). Is this any way to talk? Are they angels?” Others present in the room, among them socialist film maker Shankar Suhail and politicians Naresh Agarwal and Kironmoy Nanda, robustly join in the lament, and the conversation inevitably turns towards a comparison between the “imperious” Gandhi ward and the “impeccably mannered” Akhilesh Yadav, the SP strongman’s son, party chief since the past year and the star campaigner for this election season. The foreign-educated Akhilesh has been credited with modernising the party and at least partially ridding it of its goonish, muscleman image.

As if on cue, Akhilesh, bone-weary from campaigning, drops in, and as the praise flows, the father looks on without a word, clearly old-styled and shy about acknowledging the child’s accomplishments. Later, he offers a tidbit, “In 1999, he had just got married and all he wanted to do was roam around and have fun. But party elders forcibly inducted him into politics saying young people were rooting for him.”

I ask SP elder about Amar Singh and notice the sparkling shift in the mood of those in the room. It is clear that the occupants predate Amar Singh and have returned post the purge. Akhilesh himself was said to have led the fight to rescue the party from the usurpers. Singh is discomfited by the question, and I prod him some more: Minus Amar Singh and Bollywood glamour, the SP seems to have reclaimed its zameeni (roots) moorings, I dare to say. “We were always zameeni,” he counters. “It is a different matter that there were other perceptions about Amar Singh.”

It is when we are on the flight the next morning that Singh opens up, talking with childlike glee about his youth, his rise from schoolteacher and wrestler to legislator and minister. A recurring topic is Safai, his village in west-central U.P., which he has transformed into a modern, bustling township complete with an airstrip (its staggering cost has been mentioned by the CAG), three stadia, one exclusively for wrestling, a huge 30,000-seater auditorium — “ the biggest in the world which attracts the best and the biggest from Bollywood” — and a string of post-graduate institutions, including a medical college with over 5,000 students.

Singh brings out delicious nuggets from his past, acknowledging a simmering enmity with the late Vishwanath Pratap Singh, whom he accuses, but without rancour, of scuppering his chance of becoming Prime Minister. Indeed, for the first time perhaps, the SP helmsman reveals a fact that was much gossiped and speculated about without ever being confirmed: in 1996, with Harkishan Singh Surjeet proposing his name and Jyoti Basu seconding it, he almost became Prime Minister heading the United Front Government. But Lalu Prasad, a fellow Yadav, fearing his own oblivion — and egged on by V.P.Singh, according to the SP leader — blocked the move.

The first surprise comes at Amousi airport from where we are to take a private plane to Safai, heli-hopping from there to the rally venues in Mainpuri which is at the heart of the Yadav bastion. “We are going to my gadh (stronghold),” he says, and climbs into the aircraft unaided, disproving Lucknow gossip that he is a spent, tired man. On the flight, Shankar Suhel, who is making a film on Singh, regales us with the Dhartiputra’s childhood exploits. Singh joins in exuberantly, recalling stealing a watermelon from the neighbouring field and jumping into a well. When Suhel narrates the story of Singh knocking down an Amazon-sized wrestler — Singh was himself a champion wrestler — he claps in excitement. Singh’s political memory is sharp and he goes into minute details of his 1989 victory over Ajit Singh for Chief Ministership of U.P.: “V.P. Singh favoured Ajit”.

Then suddenly he says, “You know I can speak English perfectly but speak it only when I need to.” Recalling his 1996 stint as Union Defence Minister, he says the late Inderjit Gupta teased him about appointing Abdul Kalam as his Scientific Advisor. “He said I can’t talk English and Kalam can’t talk Hindi. But guess what happened, P. Chidambaram came to my rescue. He pointed out that I spoke with him in English.” Undoubtedly aware of my Tamil origins, Singh speaks of his own extensive travels down South and of a college hostel in Madurai named after him. “Yet my image is of a rustic UPwala.”

From Safai, we board a helicopter whose pilots Rakesh Sharma and Shiv Kumar say he is the unfussiest politician they have had on board. “He is punctual and makes sure we eat though he himself remains hungry through the day.” There are four meetings to cover, and at each stop, he climbs the steps unassisted. The crowds are not big but they are hugely responsive, incessantly shouting, “Dhartiputra Mulayam Singh Zindabad”. When Singh asks to know how many of the participants are under 35, all hands go up, much to his delight: “The youth is with us and you are going to lead us to victory.” Pot shots at Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati and a string of promises to the poor, farmers and Muslims make up the speeches. Singh reads out the names of 17 most backward castes whose inclusion in the Scheduled Caste category was stopped by Mayawati. The previous evening he had told me he was a Socialist and did not believe in caste!

There are other contradictions. On the way back, I ask about the party ticket going to known musclemen despite the claimed clean-up. Among others, dacoit Dadua’s son, Veer Singh is in the fray. Singh retorts: “How can you blame the child for the father’s misdeeds?”

As I take leave, Singh says he is sure of getting a majority and forming the next government. But with Mayawati’s core vote intact and continuing to be transferable, it could be a tough fight ahead.