“Na bhule hain, na bhulne denge (Neither will we forget nor let it be forgotten).”
“You are being beaten up in the name of things like love jihad and gau hatya. It’s time for you to unite. It’s a fight for your existence.”
“The real face of Samajwadi is exposed. Don’t go to them.”
THAT WAS Afzal Siddiqui, the young Muslim face of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, on the campaign trail in western UP, setting the stage for the assembly elections early next year. Recalling the riots of Muzaffarnagar, and the lynchings in Shamli and Dadri, the 28-year-old son of BSP heavyweight Naseemuddin Siddiqui says Muslims have not forgotten that the Samajwadi Party government presided over a series of communal incidents in the state.
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It’s not just SP — the rift within the party has gifted BSP a big opportunity — but Afzal has targeted the BJP, too.
During the 2012 assembly elections, Afzal was handpicked by the then chief minister Mayawati to take charge of her rallies. The party performed badly, but Afzal’s organising skills impressed the party chief so much that his rise from a law student in Noida to the big electoral stage has been swift.
This time, he is spearheading the BSP’s aggressive outreach to Muslims in six mandals — Agra, Aligarh, Meerut, Saharanpur, Moradabad and Bareilly — that together comprise around 140 or over one-third of UP’s assembly seats.
In this Muslim-dominated belt of western UP, the community vote goes up to 70 per cent on some seats. And it’s an area that the BSP is keen on tapping. The party has given over 125 tickets to Muslims this election, of which over 50 per cent are in western UP alone. For instance, of the eight BSP tickets handed out in Bijnor district, six went to Muslim candidates, the other two being reserved seats.
At Siddiqui’s sprawling bungalow in the Lucknow Cantonment area over the weekend, Afzal was huddled with his father, discussing strategies to woo voters from their community over lunch. They are interrupted only by his three-year-old son Umair, named after the closest companion of Prophet Muhammad.
Siddiqui’s strategists say that while Muslims have voted for Mayawati before, a major chunk has always gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s camp. The BSP knows that Muslims and Dalits, who comprise around 40 per cent of the total votes in the state, are the gamechangers — and that explains the focus on Muzaffarnagar and the “fake love of SP for Muslims”.
“The BSP sent five Muslim MPs from UP to the Lok Sabha in 2009. In 2014, there was not a single Muslim MP from the state. Do you want zero Muslim MLAs in the assembly next year?” Afzal asks during his rallies.
He reminds the gathering that while madrasa teachers received paid leave for Haj during Mayawati’s tenure, the facility was withdrawn during Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure at the helm. Political empowerment is possible only when they unite and support a political leader, he says. “Look at Christians and Sikhs,” says Afzal, adding that these minority communities were empowered because they had strong leaders.
Afzal, however, is careful while talking about issues such as the Muzaffarnagar riots, lest he be identified with other community leaders such as the AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi and SP’s Azam Khan. “We will always have to talk of uniting people. No inflammatory statements,” he tells his supporters.
With just a few months left for the big day, Afzal visits one mandal every day to hold public meetings — last week, he was in Saharanpur, Bijnor, Meerut and Ghaziabad.
And yet, just four years ago, Afzal was far from the melting pot of UP’s politics, even when his father remained the most trusted lieutenant of Mayawati for decades.
Sent to a boarding school in Dehradun after Class 5, he started a meat export business during his college days in Noida, even bagging a supply contract from the Army. Today, he runs slaughter houses in UP and Haryana, with his company opening its first retail shop in a Noida mall recently.
Over the years, Afzal has built a strong team of around 20 trusted men, friends from his Dehradun days, who help him in business, politics and even family affairs in Lucknow.
This group has also been involved in ramping up the BSP’s presence online. Largely absent on Twitter and Facebook until recently, the party now has around 100 members in every district whose only task is to manage social media.
Afzal, incidentally, contested and lost from Fatehpur in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but has since positioned himself as an organiser. And considering that the Muslim votebank might once again be the deciding factor for the Lucknow throne, the upcoming elections could be a milestone in his career.