This is no ordinary election. It is an election of qayadat (leadership), wajood (identity) and waqar (self respect),” says Imran Masood, his voice hoarse, as he balances himself on the roof of a white Scorpio in village Harora, about 12 km out of Saharanpur town. The one-time MLA and nagarpalika chairman is the Congress candidate for this Lok Sabha election who has just hit the headlines because of his alleged hate speech against Narendra Modi.
He has been caught on tape purportedly telling an election meeting that Modi would have been “chopped in tiny pieces” if he dared to do a Gujarat (riots) in Uttar Pradesh. In a video, Masood appears to be saying, in the context of the Gujarat riots, that only 4 per cent of Gujarat’s population was Muslim while here (in Saharanpur) Muslims were 42 per cent and they would teach Modi a lesson (“hum ladenge jo thhok ke jawab dena jaane”), and “boti kaat denge chhoti chhoti” (chop him into tiny pieces).
Masood wears the new notoriety casually, with pride even. “It is an old CD, from at least six months ago”, he claims, speaking to The Indian Express as he now faces an FIR and questions from the Election Commission. “I had said ‘kutti kat dena’ which in these parts means to teach a lesson…It was a wrong choice of words, I agree.” And then, aggressively again: “But will Modi say sorry for Gujarat? Only then will I apologise”.
It has always been a personalised election in Saharanpur, where Imran’s uncle, Rasheed Masood, won the Lok Sabha seat as many as five times — he is currently in jail after being indicted by a CBI court for his involvement in a medical admission scam while he was a health minister in the V.P. Singh government.
The Masood family is seen to have a powerful hold on the substantial “Muslim vote”, about 41.5 per cent of the total electorate in Saharanpur, regardless of the party Rasheed Masood happens to be in.
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But, many say, seldom has an election been as vicious and polarised as this one in Saharanpur. Rasheed Masood was careful to project a secular image and made it work for him too. In a political barter of sorts, he supported non-Muslim leaders for the Assembly polls in exchange for their and their community’s support for him for the parliamentary elections.
It meant that even as Rasheed Masood virtually monopolised Saharanpur’s Lok Sabha seat, non-Muslim MLAs were elected from its five general assembly seats over the last three decades — with only four exceptions.
This time, however, Modi’s candidature for PM has dramatically altered the structure and tenor of the contest. It has put the BJP “in the fight” in Saharanpur, like in many of the seats in Western UP, after years on the sidelines. The last time the BJP won the Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat was in 1996-1998. In 2009, the BJP candidate came close to losing his deposit.
Now, a never-before fight for the “Hindu” vote has combined with an unprecedented jostling for the “Muslim” vote, and the polarization has overtaken the give-and-take of an older time. Add to that a do-or-die fight for Rasheed Masood’s legacy — on the eve of this election, the Masood family split, with Rasheed Masood’s son, Shazan, taking on cousin Imran on an SP ticket — and this battle for Saharanpur is brutal indeed.
Any hope Saharanpur might have had for a gentler election, let alone one fought on development or issues, is buried. “Yes, the roads are terrible in Saharanpur, there is very little industry and electricity and clean drinking water is scarce in many areas. But this election, nobody will talk about these things. This poll is only about Imran versus Modi”, says Imran Masood, exultantly.
In a one-on-one bout, filled with allegation, rumour and innuendo, and with nearby Muzaffarnagar yet to recover from having erupted in communal violence nearly seven months ago, the hate speech controversy may make news in Delhi. In the brutal battle for Saharanpur, it could be only a blip.
It can even be turned into a badge of honour.
“I am not one to be scared of Modi. He is trying to scare me”, says Imran at his second stop in Harora village, again perched atop the SUV, addressing a nearly all-Muslim audience. “You know that if anything should happen to you, I will stand in front of you with a lathi (stick), bear the brunt. Don’t let your vote be divided. What use is your vote if you cannot defeat the one you don’t want and can’t elect the one that you do?”
On the same day, in Dhyana village, near Deoband, the BJP’s candidate, Raghav Lakhanpal looks suave, but plays a scripted role. Addressing a small crowd in a village clearing, his speech punctuated with slogans that proclaim “Chappa, chappa, bha-ja-pa”, he asks pointedly: “Why should this government focus on making boundary walls for kabristans (graveyards)? Who is looting them? Will the dead run away? One community’s girls are given a scholarship when they pass class 10, while girls of other communities don’t get the same benefit.”
And then, to cheers from the crowd: “One candidate, I will not take his name, is like a mosquito. You know mosquitos are to be swatted. He tried to become a geedar (jackal), spoke against Modi. But in a jungle, if the jackal says he will eat up the lion, is it possible? The lion will take care of the jackal”.