Why Was Mulayam Singh Yadav Given The Padma Vibhushan?
A Padma Vibhushan to the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister is controversial, but it's not without reason.
The dominant sentiment on my Twitter timeline is that of bewilderment mixed with anger, more of the latter, over the second-highest civilian award being given to Mulayam Singh Yadav.
At the outset, this piece is not a justification of the government’s decision, nor its defence. Rather, it is an attempt to make intelligent guesses to figure out why the decision was taken in the first place.
To this writer’s mind, there are two reasons for the Modi government awarding the Padma Vibhushan to Mulayam Singh Yadav:
1. Mutual respect shared between Mulayam and Modi
2. The BJP’s pitch for Mulayam’s legacy among voters from his community.
As we will see in the remainder of this piece, both the factors listed above are not arbitrary.
1. Mutual Respect Shared Between Mulayam And Modi
It is difficult to imagine that an award as high as the Padma Vibhushan (second only to the Bharat Ratna), be announced without the express approval of the Prime Minister himself. Equally, it is not difficult to imagine Prime Minister Modi approving a Padma Vibhushan for Mulayam Singh Yadav.
There are numerous instances over the last 10-15 years which suggest that there was genuine and mutual respect between Narendra Modi and the Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch.
Some of these instances are:
–On 10 October 2022, when news broke that Yadav had passed away, Prime Minister Modi spoke of him fondly in a public event in Gujarat. He referred to the mutual affinity which he shared with Yadav, since his days as Gujarat Chief Minister.
–On the last day of the 16th Lok Sabha in 2019, with Sonia Gandhi seated next to him, Mulayam declared that he wished for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to return as the Prime Minister. He spoke of how Modi would always grant him an audience and would readily oblige if Mulayam presented him with a request.
–In 2012, there were also rumours that the then chief minister Modi desisted from campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, for the Assembly elections, on the request of Mulayam. Eventually, the SP won a simple majority in Uttar Pradesh 2012.
–Not just this, in 2014, during the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, when Amit Shah saw that Mulayam was seated in the middle rows, he walked up to him, held his hands, and brought him to the front.
–In late 2021, both Mulayam Singh Yadav and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat found themselves attending the wedding reception of Venkaiah Naidu’s grand-daughter in New Delhi at the same time. Even as the UP elections were only a couple of months away, Mulayam had no qualms in being seen seated right next to the RSS chief. In fact, images from the event showed both of them having a cordial relationship.
One of the reasons why the top-2 of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held Yadav in respect, could be that, when it came to people’s skills, Narendra Modi and Mulayam Singh Yadav seemed to belong to the same school of thought.
Almost everyone who has met either of them, would come out of the meeting and tell you that they were both great listeners. When you spoke with either of them, they would give you their undivided attention. For the duration of the meeting, what you spoke was more important than anything else for them.
Perhaps Prime Minister Modi saw a validation of his own approach to people in Mulayam.
2. The BJP’s Pitch For Mulayam’s Legacy Among Voters From His Community
This is not without reason. Can you take a guess as to what percentage of the Yadav voters voted for the BJP alliance in Uttar Pradesh in 2019?
As per CSDS-Lokniti, the BJP+ got 23 per cent of the Yadav vote in Uttar Pradesh, in the 2019 polls.
Note also, that this was the number when:
a) Mulayam Singh Yadav was alive, and,
b) the SP was in a historic alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)
Since 2019, Azamgarh, which Mulayam represented in the Lok Sabha has gone to the BJP. Besides, the BJP itself has been consistent in its bid to attract more support from the Yadav community.
Last July, for example, Prime Minister Modi attended, via video conferencing, an event to mark the 10th death anniversary of Harmohan Singh Yadav. Harmohan Yadav was a long-time, and amongst the earliest associates, of Mulayam. One branch of his family is now in the BJP.
Besides, if the BJP thinks that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s legacy among the Yadav's is up for contest, then Akhilesh Yadav is not without blame for it.
In the last few years of Mulayam’s public life, there was more than one report on how he had been sidelined in the party he founded, by his son.
In fact, in April 2017, months after SP lost power to BJP in the state, Mulayam had gone on to record to say that ‘’.
The Yadav clan conflict had reached its peak four months earlier, when Mulayam had even expelled Akhilesh and his uncle, Ramgopal, from the party for six years. This suspension was later revoked.
Akhilesh was seen as returning the favour in October 2017, when the new national executive council of SP had no place for Mulayam Singh Yadav.
In this context, and having already got close to 25 per cent of the Yadav community votes in 2019, there are legitimate reasons for the BJP to try and get that number close to 40 in 2024.
And if a posthumous Padma Vibhushan to Mulayam is part of that project, it would only suggest that the party is serious about its target.
To be sure, this wouldn’t be the first time Mulayam received validation and support from the ‘Right’.
On two occasions, 2003 and 2009, the late Kalyan Singh, hero and symbol of the Rama Janmabhoomi movement, allied with Mulayam. In 2003, his party was part of Mulayam’s coalition government in Uttar Pradesh.
Their relations went one step further in 2009. Early that year, Kalyan Singh’s son, Rajveer Singh, joined the SP as a general secretary, and in the Lok Sabha election later that year, the SP did not field a candidate against Kalyan Singh, who contested as an Independent from Etah. He was eventually elected from the constituency.
As a matter of fact, the electoral campaign in Etah that year saw a joint rally by Mulayam and Kalyan Singh, where the former heaped praises on the latter.
The decision to award a Padma Vibhushan to Mulayam Singh Yadav from a BJP administration therefore, is not as arbitrary as it may seem at first.
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