There’s the BJP, there’s SP backed by the BSP, there’s the Congress. And yet, all the buzz in UP’s political circles before the high-profile Lok Sabha bypoll in Phulpur Sunday is about an independent candidate who’s not even on the campaign trail.
That’s because the late entry of Atiq Ahmed, a former MP and five-time MLA from Allahabad West, on the last day of nominations 14 days ago, is being seen by the SP as a ploy engineered by the BJP to polarise votes and upset calculations.
Facing over 40 of cases of murder, attempt to murder, criminal intimidation and assault, 55-year-old Ahmed is currently lodged in Deoria Jail for assaulting faculty members of an agricultural institute in Allahabad in 2016.
“Everyone knows Atiq Ahmed is contesting on the directions of the BJP. But this has got people more angry, all the minorities will vote for us,” claims SP Allahabad district president Krishna Murti.
The bypolls will be held on March 11 at Phulpur, vacated by Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, and Gorakhpur, the traditional constituency of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. On Sunday, the SP pulled off a surprise by announcing that it had the support of BSP. But on Monday, Ahmed’s entry remained the main topic of discussion among the predominantly Muslim weaving community in Allahabad’s Mau Aima.
Here, Ahmed’s 19-year-old son Umar and wife Shaista Parveen are frenetically campaigning in markets and mohallas to “fight BJP goons and crush Akhilesh Yadav’s arrogance by giving the Muslims of Phulpur their own voice”.
Addressing a gathering inside a market, Umar says, “My father always checked communal disturbances and that is why every government has kept him in jail because they want to divide while he unites. If he is set free, he will take your voice to Delhi and that is why they are troubling him, to suppress your voice… but for how long? It is time we raise our voice. We are secular by birth, as a community. We do not need to tag along any so-called secular party which is never by our side when we Muslims are in trouble. Where were these parties when slaughterhouses were closed, when Muslims were forced into unemployment?”
Mau Aima block is considered a key bellwether for voting patterns among the Muslim population of Allahabad district by local leaders. Muslims account for roughly 13 per cent of the voteshare in Phulpur constituency, parties say.
“Every community needs a leader, and our leader is Atiq Ahmed. He is there for us at all hours, just a phone call away. No matter which party forms the government, they don’t work for us. It is Ahmed who has stuck with us,” says Mohammad Aslam, a 56-year-old weaver.
Majid Ansari, another weaver, says “around 70 per cent” of the 14,000-strong weaver community favours Ahmed, having moved away from the initial choice of SP as a strong rival to the BJP.
“Ahmed has secured the walls of the graveyards for us, he has always been doing things for our community. The SP also worked for us, it built a sub-power station for our power looms before the BJP government came to power. But if this becomes a contest between the SP or any other party and Atiq Ahmed, we will vote for Ahmed,” says Ansari.
For the SP, hope flows from pockets such as Dubahi, a Muslim-dominated village around 20 km from the block centre, where Mohammed Zaid (22) and former pradhan Ram Seva (57) say their votes are reserved for Akhilesh Yadav. “The 700 Muslims here and the remaining 200 OBCs are voting for SP. Why will we waste a vote on an independent candidate?” asks Zaid.
But Ahmed’s entry will lower the SP’s count, admits a local party leader. “Now that Atiq is here, some Muslims will vote for him, and that will lower our count. What is suspicious in this whole matter is why Ahmed, a seasoned politician, filed his nominations on February 20, the last day,” says a zonal-level SP leader on condition of anonymity.
At the “public sabha” in Mau Aima, with Umar and Shaista looking on, a local supporter of Ahmed refutes allegations of an understanding with the BJP.
“The SP is falsely alleging that we are BJP agents who have come to divert its voters. Is this right? Mulayam Singh’s party spreads such rumours to win and then when we ask for our rights, they look the other way,” says the supporter.
In his speech, Umar pitches the battle as one against the BJP’s “communal politics”. “Mayawati has said votes should go to whoever defeats the BJP, and she cannot be clearer than this. I appeal to all my Dalit bothers to vote for us as well, let us put up a joint fight against the communal BJP,” says Umar.
Significantly, the BJP is now playing up Ahmed as its main rival in Phulpur. “The SP alliance is a failure. Had it not been so, he (Akhilesh) would not have taken Mayawati’s support. The candidate who is looking good to put up a strong fight against us is mafia don Atiq Ahmed. The SP is going to come third,” claims UP Health Minister Sidharth Nath Singh.
In 2004, Ahmed was the SP’s winning candidate for the Lok Sabha before the party distanced itself from him after Akhilesh took over. If Ahmed wins this time, his family says, the first priority would be to secure his release from prison.