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Newsmaker | Azam Khan walks out of jail, into everyone’s most-watched list

Imprisoned for the past two years, Azam Khan remained very much a part of the political discourse, especially since the recent Uttar Pradesh results, and the choices he makes now will shape Opposition politics in the coming days in the state.

Written by Asad Rehman | Lucknow |
Updated: May 20, 2022 6:58:02 pm
Samajwadi party leader Azam Khan coming out from Sitapur jail. Pragatisheel Samaj Party chief Shivpal Singh Yadav also seen in picture. (Express photo)

As he walked out of jail on Friday, all eyes were on senior Samajwadi Party leader and Rampur MLA Azam Khan. Imprisoned for the past two years, Azam Khan remained very much a part of the political discourse, especially since the recent Uttar Pradesh results, and the choices he makes now will shape Opposition politics in the coming days in the state.

The results may have proven how overblown the ambitions of SP chief Akhilesh Yadav were, but Azam Khan had passed the political test with flying colours. Contesting from behind the bars, the 73-year-old had won pocket borough Rampur by 55,141 votes, defeating both the Congress’s Nawab Kazim Ali Khan (a long-time rival from the Rampur royal family) and the BJP’s Akash Saxena (a complainant in several cases against Azam and his family members).

Even Azam’s son Abdullah, released just days to go for elections, won his seat Suar, by a handsome margin of 61,103 votes.

Since the elections, the Azam camp has let it be known that the senior leader is not happy with Akhilesh’s stewardship of the SP. One of the closest aides of SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, Azam – his team said – felt he had been abandoned by the party during his incarceration. In a more incisive charge, they suggested that it was part of the SP’s gradual distancing from Muslims.

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Many within the party, however, say the differences between Azam and Akhilesh stem from something smaller – the Rampur Lok Sabha seat, which was vacated by Azam after he was elected as MLA. SP leaders say Azam wanted the SP to nominate someone from his family for the constituency, while Akhilesh floated the idea of picking someone else.

While both Azam and son Abdullah are already MLAs, his wife Tanzeen Fatima has been an MLA and Rajya Sabha member in the past.

What has queered the pitch for Akhilesh is the open support to Azam by his estranged uncle and Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party chief Shivpal Yadav. The latter was present when Azam walked out of jail on Friday. The two claim to have bonded over Akhilesh’s “disrespect” towards seniors in the party.

Earlier, after meeting Azam in jail, Shivpal had accused Akhilesh of “not taking up the jailed SP leader Azam Khan’s cause”. This had prompted Akhilesh to send SP MLA Ravidas Mehrotra to try to visit Azam in jail, with Azam excusing himself claiming he was ill. Recently, Shivpal told The Indian Express in an interview that he would decide on forming a front with Azam after he comes out of jail.

Akhilesh too sent an indication that his mind was made when, on May 13, he visited SP workers held in Azamgarh Jail but didn’t make a detour to Sitapur, where Azam was imprisoned. On Friday, no senior SP leader was present to welcome Azam home, with Akhilesh only posting a tweet: “I have full faith that he (Azam Khan) will be acquitted in all cases. Lies has moments, not centuries.”

However, an angry Azam is not good news for Akhilesh. Azam’s popularity among Muslims in the state, whose vote the SP counts on, is unquestioned. He has been elected MLA 10 times and, despite best efforts by the BJP, he and family members have continuously won Rampur.

But to keep Azam with the SP, without bending too much, will require some deft handling on Akhilesh’s part.

Other parties are already moving in, seeing their chance. On May 12, Azam Khan got support from an unexpected quarter, in the shape of BSP chief Mayawati, who said his continued confinement amounted to “strangling of justice” by the BJP government in the state.

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The Congress has also extended support to Azam, with senior party leader Pramod Krishnam first meeting him in jail and then his family in Rampur on April 28.

BJP leader from Kaiserganj (Bahraich district) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh set tongues wagging when he too joined the appreciative audience around Azam. Singh called him a “mass leader” and expressed his desire to meet him. The BJP though distanced itself from Singh’s remark, calling it “personal”.

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