‘The BJP never talks about issues that matter’
Newly-elected Kairana MP Tabassum Hasan tells Sonia Sarkar why she thinks it is possible to defeat the BJP in 2019
The apartment in Delhi's Jamia Nagar belongs to Tabassum Hasan's younger brother. It is 11am but I am told Hasan fell asleep after sehri - the pre-dawn meal of fasting Muslims during the month of Ramzan - and she is still sleeping. These days, only the mornings are somewhat easy for her. In the evenings, she is busy attending iftar parties organised by various political parties. She is the toast of iftars, everyone wants to invite her after she dealt a stunning defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Kairana Lok Sabha bypolls.
It is not long before Hasan enters the drawing room dressed in a white and pink cotton salwar-kameez. She says, "Everyone is congratulating me as if all of them were desperately waiting to see me win."
The 47-year-old is now the only Muslim MP from Uttar Pradesh - a state with 19.26 per cent Muslim population. Hasan, who will begin her stint in this monsoon session, says, "Being the single Muslim MP from UP, everyone will keep an eye on me. I feel I have a huge responsibility now as a politician."
The Kairana seat fell vacant after the sitting BJP member, Hukum Singh, passed away this year. Hasan, who belongs to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), was backed by the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP).
Many regard the Kairana defeat of the BJP as the preview to a BJP-mukt UP in the 2019 parliamentary polls. In the 2014 polls, the BJP had secured 71 out of 80 seats in the state. But this March, the party lost two bypolls, one in Gorakhpur and the other in Phulpur. Kairana fell in May - it was the third big loss in a row.
But this is not the first time that Hasan has won this parliamentary seat. She won it in 2009 too. "But this win gives out the message that when the Opposition is united, the BJP and its communal agenda can be defeated."
Hasan is wary of the BJP's "communal agenda". She has witnessed it in her own constituency. In 2013, a year before the BJP came to power at the Centre, 62 people died in communal violence in Shamli, the area under her jurisdiction, and neighbouring Muzaffarnagar. BJP leaders, including the late Hukum Singh, Sanjeev Balyan, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, were booked for instigating violence. After the riots, came the issue of mass Hindu exodus from Kairana. Singh blamed the Muslims for it, though much later, questions were raised about the authenticity of such claims.
In these bypolls, the BJP played the Jat vs Muslim card. But Hasan claims she got over 80 per cent of the Jat votes. "These Jats are Hindus. Why do you think they supported me? Ram, Krishna, Allah, all were with me," says Hasan, who won by 50,000 votes.
Shortly before the bypolls last month, the BJP and Bajrang Dal also raked up the issue of "reverse" love jihad. Earlier, they had alleged that Hindu girls were being lured away by Muslim men and dubbed the phenomenon "love jihad". This time round, they alleged that Hindu men were being made to join Islam with the promise of a job and marriage with a Muslim girl.
Hasan laughs at this. "The biggest love jihads have happened in the homes of BJP leaders. The party's national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain's wife, Renu, and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi's wife, Seema, are both Hindus. Who will talk about them?" she asks, and then adds indignantly, "Is this even an issue?"
The BJP never talks about issues that matter, she lashes out. She points out how around the time of the Kairana bypolls, the party created much hullabaloo over a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that has been in Aligarh Muslim University for decades. Opposing the BJP's attempt to divert from real issues, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary coined the slogan, "Jinnah nahin, ganna chalega... Not Jinnah, sugarcane is the real issue here". It was a nod to the statewide problem of non-payment of dues to sugarcane farmers by sugar mills.
Currently, the unpaid dues stand at Rs 1,000 crore. Hasan says, "Plus, the price of compost has gone up, the power tariff for tube wells has increased and soaring diesel prices are also taking a toll on farmers. Why doesn't the BJP talk about all this?"
She seems to believe that no attempt by the Hindutva brigade to resurrect the Hindu versus Muslim debate can help the BJP anymore. "The fact that I am sitting in front of you as an elected MP is the biggest proof of that. Our strategy is to keep a direct connect with the people, raise real issues in Parliament, solve people's problems. That's the only way to defeat the BJP in 2019," she says, as she pulls her white embroidered dupatta to cover her head. "Dhul chatayenge in sabko... We will make them bite the dust."
In this hour-long meeting, for the first time, Hasan speaks with so much aggression. She is otherwise not much of a talker; one has to prod her for detailed answers. And she is very soft-spoken, too. I cannot help but ask how she hopes to survive in the male-dominated Parliament. "Don't go by this side of mine," she says. "I can be tough if need be."
In a resolute voice she tells me she doesn't really want anyone to project her success as a triumph of woman power. In fact, she clearly says, she doesn't want to play the woman card for her political gains. "I won not because I am a woman. My opponent, Mriganka Singh, daughter of Hukum Singh, is also a woman. The fight was equal."
Hasan grew up in a family of wealthy farmers at Saharanpur in west UP. She and her two sisters enjoyed absolute freedom at home. Her younger brother, Mansoor, tells me, "All important decisions were and are still taken by our sisters. Our parents never listened to the sons much."
Her maternal grandfather, Shafquat Jung, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1971 and 1977. Her father, Akhtar Hasan, was the pradhan, or chief, of the Sarsawa block in Saharanpur. Hasan tells me she had watched both of them at work closely and understood the tricks of the trade well before she took the plunge. She was also aware of the risks one takes in elections. She learnt how to garner the support of grassroots workers, too. "A lot of women don't understand politics even if they join it. They cannot even decide whom to vote for; they do as the men in their family want them to do. That never happened in my case."
The political training continued even after marriage. Her father-in-law, also Akhtar Hasan, was a Congress MP from Kairana between 1984 and 1989. "He was an astute politician," says Hasan. She adds that while the older generations in both families were Congress loyalists, she and her husband, Munawwar Hasan, were closer to the SP.
Munawwar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kairana in 1996 and Muzaffarnagar in 2004 on an SP ticket. Later, he joined the BSP. All through his political career, Tabassum sat through political meetings, played an active role in a lot of inner party decision-making and co-ordinated with party workers at the ground level. When Munawwar died in an accident, she assumed charge and fought the 2009 elections on a BSP ticket. "I had to take his legacy forward," says Munawwar's widow, who has since joined the RLD.
I tell her she has the reputation of being quite the party-hopper, to which she replies, "I always changed parties for the welfare of the people."
Since her victory, Hasan has been targeted by various pro-BJP sites on social media. In those posts, certain controversial statements have been falsely attributed to her. A Facebook page titled "Yogi Adityanath-True Indian" quoted her as having said, "This is the victory of Allah and the defeat of Ram." This post was shared over 3,700 times. Hasan finally lodged a police complaint and an investigation is currently underway.
She says, "I would like to ask the BJP, if you are fighting so much for Muslim women and their issues of triple talaq and talking about "sabka saath, sabka vikas", then why are you so worried about a Muslim woman going to Parliament."