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What Azam did & Congress didn’t

- The battle for the votes of Muslims in heartland

In a quiet corner of the visitors’ room at Azam Khan’s Rampur home hangs a priceless photograph. It shows Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav planting a kiss on his favourite politician’s cheek, as a thrilled-looking Khan closes his eyes.

Khan’s aides can’t put an exact date to the photograph but they think it must have been taken in 2010 when he returned “home” to the Samajwadi after an Amar Singh-induced estrangement with Mulayam.

Khan is a senior minister in Akhilesh Yadav’s government and is counted among the four “super chief ministers” in a phalanx consisting of Mulayam, Ramgopal Yadav and Shivpal Singh Yadav. Khan must feel doubly honoured with the moniker because he is the only one outside the Yadav family to have earned it.

A love fest, or a one-way display, between two old netas — Mulayam is 74 and Khan is 66 — is not eye candy. It’s a political statement. Khan is Mulayam’s one-way ticket to win over the hearts and minds of Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims.

He delivered the Muslim votes in the 2012 Assembly polls when the Samajwadi swept Rohilkhand. It consists of the Lok Sabha constituencies of Amroha, Moradabad, Rampur, Bareilly, Pilibhit, Aonla, Sambhal and Badaun that have the largest population of Muslims and the highest number of minority votes in Uttar Pradesh.

Therefore, on April 17, when these places poll, Khan’s detractors in the Samajwadi will keenly wait and see if he can do an encore.

Ask the Muslims of Rohilkhand to list their choice and it goes: Samajwadi is their reigning favourite, the Bahujan Samaj Party is a strategic option where the BJP must be defeated and the Congress is a “useless” party that doesn’t actively figure on the radar.

Murtaza Iqbal, Moradabad author and political activist, explained why the Congress was a no-go for the Muslims in a national election where it ought to have been the logical option to take on the BJP.

“Just after (Narendra) Modi was named as the PM candidate, I led a delegation that called on senior Congress leaders, excepting Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. I told them ‘please understand this will be an RSS election and the BJP’s secular elements will be marginalised. We Muslims are afraid’,” Iqbal said.

“Janardhan Dwivedi (Congress general secretary) said to me, ‘go meet the minorities commission chairman’. I said our problems are social and political and can’t be redressed by an administrative person.

“When nobody heard me, I issued an open letter in the Urdu press. We still think only the Congress can safeguard the idea of secularism but the leaders never appreciate the real issues.”

Amir Jaffrey, Moradabad lawyer and Congress member, poured out his angst: “Please check the visitors’ register at the local Congress office. From March 31 till date, only 200 have signed in. See how much enthusiasm there is for us!”

Jaffrey frankly said “80 per cent” Muslims liked the Samajwadi. As one travels in the hinterland, the reasons pan out.

Hasim Saifi, 39, who owns an electrical appliances’ outlet in Gajraula, 50km west of Moradabad, said: “The Samajwadi has done everything for us, Rs 30,000 for high school pass Muslim girls, laptops, electricity for 18 or 19 hours.”

Azam Khan’s “bayaan baazi” (statements), the last of which gave a Hindu-Muslim spin to the Kargil conflict, appear to have struck a chord here.

Aseem Aijaz, a Rampur contractor, said: “What he said was correct because nobody, not even the so-called secular media, ever appreciates the role Muslims play in guarding the country’s borders. We are only painted as terrorists.

“We are with Khan sahab because he has done everything for us, from giving us modern schools and colleges to flyovers and roads. Rampur is known for its royal family but I ask, did any member even show his talwar (sword) against the British, what to say of the RSS and BJP? Khan sahab is the only match for Modi and Amit Shah.”

However, the chinks in Khan’s armour were apparent in a communally polarised election. The Samajwadi’s core Yadavs and the BSP’s base Jatav votes were visibly migrating towards the BJP: the Yadavs in a backlash against Mulayam’s alleged patronage of Khan and of Muslims in general and the Jatavs to vote Modi as the Prime Minister.

Maulana Tauqeer Raza, the Bareilly cleric and president of the Itihad-e-Millat Council who is as sought-after by politicians in Rohilkhand as Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid is before an election, claimed he was “fighting hard” to salvage Mayawati’s Jatav votes.

Maulana Raza withdrew his “hands” from the Samajwadi and placed them on the BSP because “it is the only party that is fighting Modi in every district”.

But what about the shaky Jatav base? “Yes, the Jatavs were moving away from Mayawati. But over the past few days, my men have been telling the Muslims to cast their votes en bloc for the BSP. Now the message is slowly percolating among the Jatavs that if the Muslims vote the BSP, they too should come back and strengthen Mayawatiji.”

May 16 will tell who was more effective: Azam Khan or Maulana Raza.

● Rohilkhand votes on April 17