A fight to finish Azam Khan in his bastion of Rampur in U.P.

Both the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party are attempting to step out of veteran SP leader’s shadow as Rampur braces itself for the post-Azam era

Updated - April 18, 2024 08:51 am IST

Published - April 18, 2024 07:57 am IST - RAMPUR

SP candidate Maulana Mohibullah campaigning in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

SP candidate Maulana Mohibullah campaigning in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Azam Khan’s apparition looms large over the Rampur Lok Sabha seat even as the veteran Samajwadi Party leader spends the polling day in a jail in Sitapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh. While the SP leadership says all is well within the Samajwadi family, it is cautiously preparing the Muslim-dominated constituency for a post-Azam era.

After a lot of rankling over the candidates in Rampur and the neighbouring Moradabad, in Maulana Mohibullah, the party has fielded a candidate who is diametrically opposite to Khan in his tone and tenor. He doesn’t belong to any camp, has the blessings of party veteran Shafiq Ur Rehman Barq who passed away recently and has successfully kept the campaign localised and low-pitched.

Local party leaders feel being a senior cleric (of Delhi’s Parliament Street mosque), Mr Mohibullah, a Turk, will get the support of the numerically less but socio-politically more influential Rohilla Pathans who have ruled the region through the Nawabs and Khan.

The BJP, which snatched the seat from the SP in the bypoll after Khan was convicted in a series of cases, is hoping that a division in Muslim votes on caste and camp lines will see their candidate Ghanshyam Singh Lodhi, once a chum of Khan, through once again. Danish Ansari, the lone Muslim face in the Yogi Adityanath-led Cabinet, has extensively worked on the Pasmanda vote in the area. BJP’s hope also lies with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has made the contest triangular by fielding a Pathan to milk the discontent in the SP ranks.

Close to the chest

The Azam group, meanwhile, is refusing to reveal its cards. “We were not involved in the campaign. We are not dejected as our leader is Azam bhai who has fought several political battles,” said a close acolyte of the senior party leader.

The Congress and the royal family also hold some influence in the constituency. While former Congress MP Noor Bano has extended support to the SP candidate, her grandsons, one of whom is an MLA from Apna Dal (Sonelal), a part of the NDA from Suar, are siding with the BJP.

A choice of party president Akhilesh Yadav, SP is putting its might behind Mr. Mohibullah.

‘Here to spread positivity’

In the villages, Mr. Mohibullah brings in his family’s farming background and presents himself as the son of a farmer who still earns his living from agriculture. He reached out to Dalit families in Milak who were affected by the death of a teenager in police firing. In the city, he is presenting the image of a progressive cleric whose children go to a convent school and have a working wife. “I am here to serve everybody and spread positivity,” he said in a conversation with The Hindu.

Initially, he was ridiculed in the orthodox groups for making a move from the pulpit to the ballot. Mr. Mohibullah said there was no religion bar on him as long as he served people of all faiths and kept himself away from corrupt practices.

The BJP made attacks on Mr. Mohibullah’s personal life by claiming that he has multiple wives. “It is to malign him in social circles. When he lost his first wife to cancer, he remarried but it ended in a divorce. After that, he married again,” said Shakeel Ahmad, chairman of the party’s minority cell.

Then claims were made that a corporate house was funding his polls. The SP has denied it but since the corporate house is working with the U.P. government, it has created an impression in Rampur that the cleric has connections across the board.

In a region where people like to show off a bit, “many people initially felt he is a soft figure for a constituency like Rampur”, said Nazim Hasan, his brother. But when an inspector, who allegedly prevented people from voting in the bypoll, was transferred by the district administration on Mr Mohibullah’s complaint, a sense developed that the cleric has some political heft, according to Danish Khan, an advocate and member of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The district magistrate also held a press conference and promised a free and fair election.

A high voting percentage is a cause of worry for the BJP. Local observers say if it crosses 60% as it did in 2019, it will benefit the SP but if it remains low like in the bypoll, the BJP is in for a rare victory in a constituency where around 55% of the electorate is Muslim.

At the SP office, everybody is respectful of Azam Khan, but not many are missing him. Many feel that it was his ego clash with the then district magistrate, now the commissioner of Moradabad, that contributed to making the people of Rampur a target of the administration. “We have to move on. Our works are getting stuck,” said Muslim Saifi, a small-time contractor.

At the BJP head office, the cadre’s response to Mr. Khan’s impact on the election is mixed. They are happy that their MLA Akash Saxena, who led the legal campaign against the SP leader, has given them the revenge of the wrongs of the past. “It is even now. But it is not getting polarised,” is a common sentiment. “Muslim business partners say that he is no longer interested in politics. Can it be possible?” said office in-charge Sanjay Narula.

Unlike the byelection where the voting percentage was very low, BJP workers know an election in Rampur can’t be won without the Muslim voter. Fasahat Ali Khan Shanu, once the right-hand man of Azam Khan, who famously said ‘Abdul won’t lay the carpet for SP’ is now holding meetings in Muslim colonies explaining the value of government schemes to secure the victory of the BJP candidate. Another former supporter of Mr. Khan who has now switched to the BJP said it was going well for the ruling party but after the Haldwani episode and gangster-politician Mukhtar Ansari’s mysterious death, the narrative has changed.

Among sections of the Hindu cadre of BJP, doubts linger over the integrity of the Muslim voter and the efficacy of the candidate who has had a history with leaders like Kalyan Singh and Azam Khan. Awadesh Sharma, a senior party functionary in the local unit, narrates a recent incident. “Mr. Lodhi went to embrace a Muslim voter. My impression of that person is that he is anti-BJP and left to us we would not have allowed him to even come near the booth. But Mr. Lodhi said the person was an Azam supporter and is now with him. I feel Muslims are confusing us. He is putting on the BJP stole to get political patronage but won’t vote for us.”

A little later, Mr. Feroz ul Nabi alias Babloo bhai walks into the party office. Called to be part of the audience in a TV debate, he asks for the saffron stole. “It is there and do make sure to put on the skull cap. It will create quite a statement,” remarks a party worker. “Namaz topi? Don’t you think it would be too much.” grins Babloo bhai before walking away.

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