LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - As a former wrestler, Mulayam Singh Yadav has got India's government where he likes it - in a vice-like grip.
The ructions over fresh economic reforms that reduced the ruling coalition to a parliamentary minority last month left Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dependent on this wheeler-dealer from the country's dusty northern plains.
In an interview with Reuters, Yadav insisted there were no strings attached to his support for Singh's Congress party, just a desire to keep the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power.
"We are supporting them," he said in the Hindi language, looking hearty for his 72 years despite rumors earlier this year that his health was failing. "There are no conditions of any kind, it's only to ensure communal forces do not get strengthened."
However, Yadav is at least as well known for his maneuvering as he was in his youth for pinning opponents down in a wrestling bout: Congress party leaders know he cannot be trusted to stick with them through thick and thin - and few are convinced when he denies any ambition to one day become prime minister.
For now, the 22 lawmakers of Yadav's Samajwadi (Socialist) Party will side with the government, ensuring it can muster the 272 votes needed in parliament to prevent its collapse. Their support became crucial after another regional party leader left the coalition, angry over hikes in the price of subsidized fuel and a decision to open India's doors to foreign supermarket giants.
Yadav's take on the reforms is that he opposes them, but will nevertheless continue to support the government. "We will oppose anything that goes against the interests of the people," he said. "But we will not allow the government to fall."
Yadav was born to a rural family in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with 200 million people and - since it sends more lawmakers to Delhi than any other - its politically most important.
As a young man, he trained as a wrestler before being attracted to socialism and local politics, eventually becoming chief minister of the state three times and federal defense minister in a coalition government during the 1990s.
Six months ago, when his Samajwadi Party returned to power in Uttar Pradesh after a hiatus, Yadav stood aside for his son Akhilesh to head the state government. That, and what was perhaps a bout of ill-health, set off reports he was seriously ill and no longer well enough to hold office.
"I am fine," Yadav said at his sprawling colonial bungalow in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. Impeccably dressed in the starched white dhoti-kurta of the region and his salt-and-pepper hair still damp from a mid-morning bath, he showed few signs of age as he strode out from under the porch of his home, chatting with aides and party colleagues.
"Those were just rumors. I went on the campaign trail and I am fine now."
In India, where caste and family play hugely important roles in politics, the Yadavs have several advantages. They are from a land-owning lower caste whose members were mostly subsistence farmers and cattle herders, but have become wealthier, more politically aware and socially assertive in recent decades.
Yadav, his daughter-in-law Dimple, a cousin and a nephew are in the federal parliament. A brother is in the Uttar Pradesh state government headed by Akhilesh.
On the negative side, the party is anathema for other lower caste groups. Critics also say it is tarred by association with people who have criminal pasts, and previous Samajwadi Party rule in Uttar Pradesh brought rampant corruption and increased violence.
The other family firmly entrenched in Indian politics is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled the country for a majority of the years since independence in 1947, and also looks on Uttar Pradesh as its base.
Akhilesh is often compared to the scion of that dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, whose Congress party was burned by the Samajwadi win in the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year. He dismisses talk of rivalry or probable cooperation.
"He is a new leader, a nice man, a youth leader," Akhilesh said in a separate interview. "We are of the same age. His party should give him an opportunity."
Although the Congress party-led coalition could coax other parties to keep it alive, for now it is dependent on Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is widely expected to demand a pound of flesh despite his professed unconditional support.
News reports have said he will press for an illegal wealth case against him to be dropped, and for impoverished Uttar Pradesh to get more federal aid.
Longer term, Yadav could be preparing to form a "Third Front" government, an amalgam of smaller parties that keeps out both Congress and BJP after national elections due by mid-2014.
Analysts and voter surveys suggest no clear winner will emerge in those polls, meaning the Third Front may well have the parliamentary numbers to stake a claim to power.
Since Yadav's party won Uttar Pradesh with a large majority, odds are he will have enough lawmakers in parliament after the 2014 elections to put him in pole position to form a coalition, and to head it.
Asked if Yadav could become prime minister, Sudha Pai, a political scientist who is rector at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: "He knows how to make a deal, how to get on with other political parties. He is very good at negotiating, he is the traditional Indian politician."
Yadav dismisses such ambitions: "I have never been a candidate for prime ministership, and I am not now," he said.
But the murmurs in his party, where he is called Netaji, or leader, are growing.
"No political party has a leader who is from a village or is a farmer," said Samajwadi Party spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary. "This is a nation of villagers and farmers and Netaji represents 70 percent of the country."
The Samajwadi Party, which is more or less restricted to Uttar Pradesh, cannot expect to get anything near a parliamentary majority on its own, but its workers say it can clinch up to 60 of the state's 80 parliamentary seats.
It could be joined by other regional parties and left-wing groups and even a section of the Congress party could be won over to cobble a majority, analysts say.
Akhilesh, the son and new chief minister, says governing Uttar Pradesh is as important to him as increasing numbers in parliament.
"It's not enough to say that because we won the state elections so well, we will get more MPs," he said. "I have to perform, and if people believe that my government has performed well, then the result will be good.
"My priority is Uttar Pradesh," said the 39-year-old, a contrast, at least on the surface, to his politician father.
The younger Yadav speaks fluent English, is tech-savvy, and studied in Australia. He was trained as an environment engineer and was once a keen footballer and Manchester United supporter. Now he says, politics consume him almost completely.
"If we go to the center, Netaji will go there (and) some of our senior leadership, but I am happy in the state," he said, adding the party was not looking to topple Prime Minister Singh.
His father is similarly cautious.
"In 2014, Samajwadi will fight on its own strength, there will be no understanding with anyone," he said. "After the elections, things (alliances) happen, nothing happens before. Depending on the circumstances, we will take decisions then."
Editing by John Chalmers and Dean Yates