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- Fight-and-scoot mp on new wicket

Azharuddin

Age and a fixing scandal may have snuffed out Mohammed Azharuddin’s chances of playing cricket’s newest format, but the former India captain has now imported the T20 spirit into politics.

Go boom-boom, party, then pack up and head for the next venue.

After his unceremonious exit from cricket at the turn of the century, Azhar had been whiling away his time hobnobbing with the glamour fraternity, thanks to his model-actress wife Sangeeta Bijlani.

He then appears to have decided that political power could provide an additional thrill and landed up at Moradabad, western Uttar Pradesh, with a Congress ticket during the 2009 general election.

The minority-dominated electorate lapped him up, only to later realise the cricketer had packed his bags for good after the victory celebrations.

Azhar, who never spoke in Parliament, correctly read the Moradabad pitch this time.

Realising it could be difficult for batting in the second innings, he began scouting for a different wicket — a featherbed — for his next match.

He explored options in Bengal, where seats with sizeable minority votes are aplenty, but the Congress eventually selected Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, where too Muslims can swing an election.

In 2009, Tonk-Sawai Madhopur had elected veteran Congress leader Namo Narayan Meena (who has decided that neighbouring Dausa is a safer option this time).

The Meenas are a powerful Scheduled Caste in Rajasthan who have cornered the biggest slice of the reservation pie to attain political and social clout. They are beholden to the Congress and not swayed by the “Modi wave”.

Ask anyone in the street here and the stock reply goes like this: Muslims and Meenas together form a huge chunk of the electorate and if other Scheduled Caste voters too join in, the Congress candidate would romp home.

Then ask them, who is the Congress candidate?

Woh khelta tha na... Muslim. Theek chal raha hai uska (that man who used to play... the Muslim man. His campaign is good),” said a young man in Bazoria market in Sawai Madhopur.

The stress seemed to be on Azhar’s religious identity. Many shopkeepers argued that any other Muslim candidate from the Congress, celebrity or not, would have evoked similar interest.

If there’s one drawback for Azhar, it’s the “outsider” tag — but it applies equally to his BJP rival Sukhbir Singh Jaupuria, who is from Jodhpur.

Many people here are unhappy with both the Congress and the BJP for thrusting “outsiders” on them.

“Voting is our compulsion as we want to make Modi the Prime Minister; else, we would have boycotted the election in protest against the outsiders,” said Punya Prakash, a hotelier.

Prakash insists that Hindus will vote for the BJP and Muslims for the Congress.

“The BJP is a Hindu party; only Meenas and some other Scheduled Castes vote for the Congress,” he says.

Rajasthan has a history of communal amity and BJP stalwart Bhairon Singh Shekhawat commanded respect among Muslims too, but Modi’s rise has made the fault-lines visible.

Asked whether the BJP would win from here, an auto driver, Sharif, said: “No, this is peace territory.”

Another young man, Azad, said: “The BJP itself wasn’t a problem here but Modi has struck fear in people’s hearts.”

A tour of villages in Tonk and Sawai Madhopur revealed the sense of fear among Muslims. Most of them didn’t wish to be quoted but said that for the first time, a prospective Prime Minister was evoking fear and suspicion.

“His level of intolerance is such that he doesn’t want the Congress in India (a reference to the slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’); how can he live with Muslims? Has there been a reconciliation process in the years after 2002?” an old man said in Beejwada.

Rajas and romance

There’s a romance in the air of Tonk-Sawai Madhopur. The local lore is replete with stories of the Rajput kings’ valour and the scars of the Muslim invasion. The area was also home to one of the leading Urdu romantic poets of the last century, Akhtar Sheerani.

Today’s legend of bravery is woven round the royal tigress Machli, whose reign remained unchallenged at the Ranthambore National Park till she grew old and her cubs took over. Perhaps the biggest Indian wildlife celebrity, Machli made the park an international attraction.

But many here are bitter at ecological concerns for the park having shrunk their employment opportunities.

“Some 3,000 people worked in the cement factory here but it closed down,” said a middle-aged man who is “compelled” to drive trucks for a living. “There won’t be new industries here any more, all for the sake of the birds and animals.”

Nobody believes that Azhar or his BJP rival would make a difference — so voting patterns will be decided by caste and community loyalties.

This indifference to candidates’ credentials has driven a section of voters to Makkhanlal Meena, an Independent who has taken populism to new heights.

A rich local businessman, Makkhanlal started hosting community feasts a year ago, feeding thousands of people in the various Assembly segments. Then he promised to conduct the marriages of 1,000 couples for Re 1 each, creating a huge buzz.

Over 2,100 families have already registered themselves, and the marriages will be conducted after the election because of the code of conduct.

Few believe that Makkhanlal can win. He may, however, win over a chunk of the poor voters and damage Azhar’s chances.

Tonk-Sawai Madhopur votes on April 24