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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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MAKING A BUSINESS OUT OF POLITICS

A giant poster blocks the sunlight from the flats in an old building on Haji Niaz Ahmed Azmi Marg. 'Captain' Abu Asim Azmi, president of the Samajwadi Party in Maharashtra, stares out of one of them. Limousines block the pavement, lush villas weigh down the old neighbourhood.

This is Abu Asim Azmi territory, housing his home, villa, hotel, his son's restaurants, buildings... This road, leading from the Gateway of India, and one of the oldest in Mumbai, was known as Arthur Bunder Road, till Azmi renamed it after his father in 2001.

The resentment felt then was echoed by Maharashtra's Muslims during last month's assembly elections, when the Samajwadi Party drew a blank in all the 95 seats it fought. They had had enough of the 'Azamgarhi' party, where relatives and business partners of the president held sway, humiliating party workers and blocking access to the man who could, just a decade ago, bring the proceedings of any public meeting of Muslims to a halt simply by striding in late.

What went wrong' Abu Asim, who was jailed under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act for the 1993 bomb blasts, like scores of his community members, came out not just swearing his innocence but ready to take on the police. He was young, outspoken, flush with funds, a political novice willing to learn. For the small group of politically-active Muslims looking for someone to build up a base in Mumbai for their messiah, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Abu Asim became the natural choice.

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm however. Writer-journalist Sajid Rashid, who had fought the 1995 assembly elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket, dissociated himself from the party once Abu Asim became president. 'I could not share a platform with a bomb blast accused,' he explains. Azmi's discharge by the Supreme Court a few months later, failed to convince Sajid. 'I knew his other connections.'

Everyone did, but they simply closed their eyes to it. Others, like socialist Husain Dalwai, who left the Janata Dal to become Maharashtra president of the Samajwadi Party, reasoned that Abu Asim's business didn't affect his politics.

Dalwai, like all the others who fell from favour, soon realized it did. For Dalwai, with his grounding in Lohiaite politics, the threats didn't matter much. But to others who had by then begun gathering around Azmi, the dreaded phone-call from 'Bhai' was a very real danger.

The small group of activists that brought Azmi into politics was very soon been pushed aside by ambitious maulanas and Muslim League corporators eager to latch on to a national party that spoke their language. For a while, when Dalwai was state president, TADA and larger mosques shared equal space with cotton prices in Vidarbha. But that phase couldn't last long.

'Murli Deora is as arrogant as Asimbhai,' points out a close associate of Abu Asim. 'But because he's risen from the ranks, he knows he needs the lowest party worker as much as he needs musclemen and moneybags... His dealings have always been with businessmen of a certain kind. For him, party workers have no meaning.' Says another former Samajwadi Party leader, 'In the Congress, though ultimately the high command's will prevails, you will be heard out if you get up and disagree. In Asimbhai's party, if you dare to disagree, you're told to shut up by his brother-in-law or even summoned to his house in the middle of the night and beaten up.' Not surprisingly, one by one, all Abu Asim's men left him, some for the Nationalist Congress Party, others for the Congress. 'They left for posts I couldn't offer them,' says Azmi. 'Couldn't he at least offer them the dignity due to MLAs' ask his former followers.

From intellectuals to social workers to small-time businessmen, Muslims across the board in Mumbai have seen through Azmi's tactics. With his Jamaat-e-Islami background, Azmi very soon became a patron of various maulanas, even fielding one of them in the recent assembly elections from a communally sensitive Muslim pocket. 'These maulanas are for sale, we see them sometimes with Asimbhai, sometimes with Naseem Khan (Congress minister),' is what many Muslims feel.

Starting off by being unafraid to take a stand against the police and the Shiv Sena, Azmi soon began to model himself on the latter. His speeches ranged from 'If my Shariat is attacked, the country may break into pieces' to 'we have also drunk the milk of Muslim mothers'. Ironically, his own party MLA (and relative) Nawab Malik, who was housing minister in the previous cabinet, distanced himself from Azmi's 'country may break' speech and finally left him to join the NCP.

A. Rashid, a college lecturer, recalls, 'I happened to hear him once at an Id Milan function. He spoke of retribution; it was hardly the occasion. All of us present were educated middle class Muslims. It left a bad taste in our mouths.' A Bhiwandi powerloom owner, Ibrahim Ansari, had seen his farmhouse, and 32 Muslims sheltered in it, go up in flames during the 1984 riots. 'We have somehow maintained the peace here for the last 20 years,' says he. 'Now this man comes and gives threatening speeches, talking of TADA and POTA when the issues here are employment and power supply. Thanks to him, even Congress Hindus ended up voting Sena.'

Azmi's decision to give up his Rajya Sabha seat and contest the assembly elections from Bhiwandi, where the Congress had a winning candidate in its sitting MLA, sealed his fate this time. It is common knowledge that the Congress denied its MLA a ticket and put up a weak candidate instead, in exchange for Azmi not fielding a candidate against Sushil Kumar Shinde in Sholapur. The expected communal polarization took place, and for the first time, the Sena won in Bhiwandi. 'That's Azmi's gift to the Muslims,' says social worker Maqbool Alam bitterly.

Bhiwandi was the most blatant case. But Muslims are ready with details of electoral adjustments allegedly brokered between Amar Singh, Pramod Mahajan and Sushil Kumar Shinde, in the presence of Anil Ambani. Reacting to Azmi's complaint that his own community let him down, riot victim Abdul Haq Ansari recalls the feelers sent to him by Azmi on behalf of Chhagan Bhujbal to 'settle' a 1992-1993 riot case involving Bhujbal's men; while bank manager Iqbal Ahmed says he's been waiting for a whole year for Azmi to recommend to him names of needy Muslims who could take advantage of bank loans.

Activist Fazal Sha'd was one of those who originally brought Azmi to politics, only to break up with him in a few years. 'When Mulayam Singh grabbed the defence ministry without making the repeal of TADA a precondition, going back on his promise to us, we knew we'd been had,' says Sha'd. 'Here too, Azmi began showing his true colours, using TADA as a political weapon, but in fact doing nothing for the victims. In 1999, the Maharashtra assembly polls were due, and tickets were being auctioned in Asimbhai's office.'

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