The Rampurs, emblems of a feudal past, have reinvented themselves to keep up with changing times
Taking a break between election meetings, Kazim Ali Khan, the Nawab of Rampur, sits in his elegant living room, clad in an impeccably tailored white shalwar kurta and polished black shoes. But, in his posters, the Congress candidate is dressed in jeans, head tilted provocatively, film star-like, a look aimed at small town youth, a section he admits candidly is his target — the 18-35 demographic.
In an election in which the Congress symbol is not an asset, Mr. Khan — a Columbia University-trained architect who assisted I.M. Pei with the glass-and-steel pyramid for the Musée du Louvre in Paris — has created a contemporary persona and adopted a strategy that bypasses the party machinery.
He has pitched himself as an “anti-establishment” figure, battling the “new” Nawab of Rampur, SP’s Azam Khan, whom he describes as an “oppressor” and the “Modi of Muzaffarnagar” for his alleged role in last year’s communal violence there. A Muslim peon at the Raza Library says simply: “People support Azam Khan, some out of love, some out of fear.”
Mr. Azam Khan, a powerful and controversial minister in Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party government, is not contesting this election but has made the success of the SP candidate a prestige issue, framing the electoral battle as one between the street and the palace. In neighbouring Moradabad, Mr. Kazim Ali Khan’s mother, Begum Noor Bano, the Rampur MP in 1996 and 1999, is the Congress candidate. Like her son who wears his 54 years lightly, she is sprightly at 75.
Dressed in her trademark georgette sari, the pallu draped over her 60s-style bouffant, she climbs a chair with ease to access a makeshift stage. At urban stops, she talks of communal harmony and working to help the thousands of artisans – largely Muslim – secure loans and access markets; to the villagers, she makes it personal, describing them as members of her extended family.
Can the Rampurs work their charm in the two minority-dominated constituencies where the SP and the BSP have also fielded Muslim candidates? In the battle for hearts and votes, most people here agree Kazim Ali Khan stands a better chance than Noor Bano.
The Nawab, a sitting MLA, has won five times from two segments of the Rampur LS constituency for the Congress, the SP and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, by turn; family members have won the Rampur LS seat seven times since 1947; he has a dedicated team built over the years and his Muslim rivals are both old and undistinguished.
In Moradabad, the Begum’s competitors — among them the BSP’s Haji Yakub Quereshi, a wealthy meat exporter from Meerut, and the SP’s Dr S.T. Hasan — are popular; the former among the more extreme elements in his community. Dr. Hasan is a formidable opponent, but she is dependent on an uncooperative party machinery. Her plus point is that Thakurdwar, one of the five Assembly segments in Moradabad, was in the Rampur LS seat before 2009.
“Last time,” a local Congress leader says, “we helped Azharuddin win Moradabad; he let us down by not working. This time, we have another outsider.”
Aware of this, Noor Bano starts every speech by praising ex-Congress MLA Sualat Ali (an aspirant), stressing they will work together for the constituency. In the past her family always stood with the people here whenever there was a crisis, she added.
In a rapidly evolving democracy, the Rampurs are emblems of a feudal past, now being challenged by the not-so-genteel, upwardly mobile segments of the Muslim community. Mr. Kazim Ali Khan, conscious of the changing times, has reinvented himself to take on the new forces; Ms. Noor Bano, by contrast, is still playing the Begum, an image that still works in rural Moradabad, where this writer saw her being mobbed, particularly by women.
The Congress’s strategy in fielding the Begum and her son is the hope that their larger-than-life personalities will compensate for the anti-incumbency it faces nationally, and its lack of organisation, locally.
But will it work?