On a day when Opposition leaders had gathered in Delhi to try and stitch together a grand alliance to take on Narendra Modi in the upcoming election, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav created a political storm by praising the prime minister, and even wishing him a second term.

Speaking during the last session of the 16th Lok Sabha, the veteran leader said: “I want to congratulate the prime minister that he tried to move ahead taking everyone along.” But what he added was the stunning part. “I hope all members to win and return, and you [Modi] become prime minister again.”

That these remarks came only a day after Samajwadi Party workers staged protests across Uttar Pradesh over his son and party president Akhilesh Yadav’s detention at Lucknow airport added to the puzzlement.

The former Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s remarks baffled and embarrassed his party’s leaders, whose only defence now is pointing to a tweet by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai quoting Mulayam Singh Yadav as claiming he never said anything of the sort.

‘Fading memory’

Samajwadi Party leaders Scroll.in spoke with blamed Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “failing health and memory loss for his comments”. “There have been several instances when he has not recognised people, including family members,” claimed a senior leader who asked not to be identified. “Also, he is suffering from memory loss and often fails to put across his thoughts coherently. This could have been the reason for his comments today.” Mulayam Singh Yadav is 79.

The leader recalled that at a rally held by Shivpal Yadav’s Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party in Lucknow last year, Mulayam Singh Yadav sought support for his own party, leading to many in the audience shouting it was not a Samajwadi Party function. He snapped back that such people should not be invited to his rallies. Only after he was told what they meant did he praise his brother for organising such a huge rally.

Another Samajwadi Party leader claimed the remarks were “tongue in cheek”, and said that Manmohan Singh lost power soon after Mulayam Singh Yadav “gave similar blessings to him on the last day of the 15th Lok Sabha”. “After his comments, it is certain that Modi is not coming back to power,” said the leader. He also pointed to the veteran leader’s “failing health and memory”.

Gossip columns have been discussing the former chief minister’s fading memory for some time now. In 2017, the Sunday Guardian noted “lapses in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s memory and how there is talk in Delhi about the senior leader suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s”.

A Yadav family member confirmed the reports about their patriarch’s failing health to Scroll.in. “He is really unwell and needs to be looked after all the time,” they said.

Samajawadi Party Rajya Sabha MP Javed Ali Khan said it was all said in jest since it was the last day of the outgoing Parliament. “I saw many MPs of rival parties wishing best of luck to each other in the Central Hall,” Khan said. “Netaji too spoke in the same context. It’s unfair to make such a huge issue out of it. In any case, he later said that he didn’t mean it.”

Mulayam Singh Yadav’s remarks were in stark contrast to the position he adopted while debating a No Confidence Motion against the Modi government in July 2018. “The promises the prime minister made – 15 lakh rupees, 2 crore jobs – how many do we list? He has not kept a single promise,” he said at the time, adding that everyone, including the Bharatiya Janata Party supporters, were sad. “Farmers are facing problems. The country will prosper only after farmers prosper. Seeds, manure, water, everything is costly. Even unemployed youths are facing problems. All this needs to be solved.”

Which is why, many Samajwadi Party leaders tried to spin their veteran leader’s remarks as an attempt at sarcasm or a polite, Lucknowi way of making a point. This is what he had said to Manmohan Singh in 2014, they added. But party leader Azam Khan darkly hinted at a conspiracy by suggesting that someone had deliberately made him say this. “I was very sorry to hear this,” he said. “These words have been put into his mouth. This is not Mulayamji’s statement. He has been made to say this,” Khan added, without elaborating.

Opposition stumped

Mulayam Singh Yadav’s support for Modi also stumped fellow Opposition leaders, as was clear from Sonia Gandhi’s reaction.

Her son and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said he disagreed with the comments, but respected the senior leader’s opinion. “I disagree with him,” he was quoted as saying by ANI. “But Mulayam Singh Yadav has a role in politics and I respect his opinion.”

Nationalist Congress Party leader Supriya Sule tried to downplay the Samajwadi Party leader’s comments, pointing out that he had expressed a similar sentiment for Manmohan Singh in 2014.

Advantage BJP

As expected, Modi duly noted the Samajwadi Party leader’s remarks in his speech to Parliament. “I am very grateful of Mulayam Singh ji for his blessings,” Modi said, bringing them up twice more in his speech.

BJP leaders quickly pounced to use the opportunity to their advantage. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath said whatever Mulayam Singh Yadav had said was true and it was time his son, Akhilesh Yadav, to realise the same.

BJP spokespersons followed the same script on television debates that followed, referring to him as one of the tallest leaders in the country.

On CNN-IBN, political commentators speculated if this was Mulayam Singh Yadav’s innate anti-Congressism, or just a way of expressing his unhappiness with his son Akhilesh Yadav’s alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and rumours of growing closeness with recently-appointed Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi.

It could be a combination of many factors, said political commentator Manisha Priyam, who found Mulayam Singh Yadav’s endorsement of Modi government “bizarre and unexplained”, coming as it did on a day when “Akhilesh was lashing out big time on the BJP”. Mulayam Singh Yadav came to national prominence opposing the BJP’s campaign against the Babri masjid, Priyam recalled, while Modi remains an unapologetic proponent of Ram temple at the site in Ayodhya.

That Mulayam Singh Yadav’s estranged friend and confidant Amar Singh has lately become a cheerleader for Modi was another factor that was brought up. Could he now team up with younger brother Shivpal Yadav and act as yet another spoiler and “vote-cutter” that could be to the BJP’s advantage and harm the prospects of his son’s alliance?

Political analysts recalled that the feud in the Yadav family, just before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, when Mulayam Singh Yadav was seen to be on the side of his brother Shivpal Yadav and had even approached the courts against his son Akhilesh Yadav for the party symbol, had cost the party dear and was seen as one of the reasons for the BJP’s landslide victory.

Whatever the reason behind Mulayam Singh Yadav’s praise for Modi, it has landed a blow to Akhilesh Yadav, who is seen as one of the architects of the proposed grand alliance of regional parties against the BJP.

Though it is too early to assess the political fallout of the remarks, the BJP is likely to use them for campaigning in areas where Mulayam Singh Yadav enjoys considerable support.

Within hours, news agency ANI reported that posters had come up in Lucknow, thanking Mulayam Singh Yadav.

This, however, is not the first time Mulayam Singh Yadav has come out in support of Modi. In 2017, he lashed out at senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for using “derogatory language against the prime minister”, describing it as an “direct insult to the people of India”. He even sought Aiyar’s expulsion from not only the Congress but politics altogether.

Manisha Priyam summed it up on CNN-IBN by recalling the slogan used for the Samajwadi patriarch in his heyday: “Jalwa uska kaayam hai, jiska naam Mulayam hai (The one named Mulayam remains charismatic).”

Also read: ‘I wish Narendra Modi becomes PM again,’ says Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav

Uttar Pradesh: Mulayam Singh Yadav attends rally organised by brother Shivpal Yadav’s outfit