It is 7.30 pm and a small crowd has gathered at an intersection of roads in the Muslim-dominated colony of Ghair Miyan Khan in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur city.
Amid drumbeats, children dance in front of a horse-driven buggy decked up with light bulbs and flowers. Minutes later, a cavalcade with BJP flags arrives and out comes the BJP candidate for the Rampur Assembly bypoll, Akash Saxena. As BJP workers shout customary political slogans, he sits on the buggy that snakes through the labyrinthine colony to reach a small open space where a crowd of about 100 people await his speech.
Before Saxena addresses the crowd, the names of around a dozen people are announced from the dais, all of them Muslims who have joined the BJP. In his speech, Saxena appeals to Muslims in the area to vote for the BJP as he wants to tell Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath that the party had won with the support of Muslims.
A few kilometres away, an hour later, the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) tallest leader in the region, Azam Khan, arrives in a similar cavalcade along with party candidate Asim Raza at Nalla Paar, another Muslim-dominated colony. A far larger crowd has gathered here. After multiple leaders, including Raza, seek votes in the name of Khan, the former Rampur MP and MLA makes a very emotional speech reminding the people of the alleged injustices done to him and the humiliation he had to face at the hands of the state administration daily.
With Muslims making up 65 per cent of the constituency, both the BJP and the SP have pulled out all stops to reach out to them. The ruling party has already sent several top leaders such as Brajesh Thakur, Danish Azad Ansari, and Deputy CM Keshav Maurya to hold public meetings while CM Yogi Aditynath is to arrive in the city on December 2.
The SP has not only lined up its own leaders — former CM and party president Akhilesh Yadav will hold a rally on December 1 — but leaders of ally Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Bhim Army are already campaigning in the city. There are so many rallies that the loudspeakers at one event can be heard at another.
However, the electoral pitch of both sides markedly differ. While the BJP has been harping on how only the double-engine, Yogi-Modi combine can bring development to the city, the SP is talking about Azam Khan’s legacy and Muslim prestige and dignity.
Wary of the hold that Azam Khan has over the constituency — he has won it 10 times — Saxena never fails to underline in his speeches that it is not the veteran leader who is contesting but Raza, and says people must think twice whether they want to vote for the SP candidate.
“This is a direct contest with Asim Raza. The SP has given such a candidate that no one knows him personally. Whereas, I promise you that you make a call to me when you are in trouble and I will reach you half a minute before the PCR van,” he tells the crowd at Ghair Miyan Khan.
Conversely, Asim Raza has announced that he is not the candidate. “I am a candidate because of legal compulsions. But, in spirit, it is Azam Khan who is fighting. I am sure you will vote for him,” he says at the Nalla Paar rally.
BJP leaders have avoided making speeches with communal overtones and consistently emphasised “sabka saath, sabka vikas (united, development for all)” and how government schemes have reached all irrespective of caste, creed and community.
“You have given him (Azam Khan) 50 years, give me 50 months,” Saxena says at a rally. “Leave aside caste and religion. I want to tell Yogi ji that I have won with the support of Muslims. Ha se Hindu aur Ma se Musalman. Ye dono mil kar banta hai Hum. Aur jab dono mil jaate hain to usay koi hara nahi sakta (When Hindus and Muslims unite, no one can defeat them).”
In his speeches, Azam Khan berates the crowd for “suffering humiliation silently” and of being “scared of an oppressive administration” and not revolting through votes. His speeches are almost cinematic, infused with tons of melodrama, tear-jerking narration, sarcasm, and calls to pride and legacy.
At the Nalla Paar public meeting, when a young man is seen smiling as Khan talks about the indignity suffered by Muslims, he turns to him — but actually addresses the crowd — and says, “You are laughing. How much will you laugh at yourself? Everybody is already laughing at you. The world is spitting on us. Laugh. Keep laughing. Who can be more shameless than us? I marvel at your health that you have the capacity to laugh even after suffering so much humiliation.”
He talks at length about alleged police oppression of people and flag marches by the armed forces through the city to scare them. “Who are you trying to scare? Us? We are already very scared. Our loudspeakers have been taken down, the veils have been yanked off our faces, pens have been snatched from our hands, our mosques have no fervour anymore, and the devotees have disappeared from the Idgah. Our leaders even asked us to offer the Eid namaz at home. What else do you want from us? There is a heart and a spirit left. If you want that too, then I hand over the people of Rampur to you. Do what you like, what can they even do?”
Khan also makes an emotional pitch about how he and his son were jailed and his family harassed because the administration hated him for all the love that the people of Rampur showered on him all these years. “I am a thief … of chicken … of goat… of buffaloes… of books… I pray to God that he begets as many as such children who steal these things, but build a university,” he says about himself amid rousing applause from the crowds.
The SP leader asks the crowd not to repeat the mistake of the parliamentary bypoll that the SP lost to the BJP. Khan tells the crowd they either chose the cool climes of Nainital or their spines froze seeing the police baton and they did not come out to vote during the Lok Sabha bypoll. He warns them that if they do not vote, the police will eventually come for them just as they did for him. He reminds them that if he loses, there will be no one to raise a voice for them.
At the end of his speech, many people seemed overwhelmed with emotion and the crowd almost erupts in unison saying that the city belongs to Azam Khan and so do the people.
No impact of Pasmanda issue
The two parties are also working hard at the organisational level. At the SP office in the heart of the city, Azam Khan holds meetings to ensure workers go door to door and ensure that a maximum number of people come out to vote.
“We just have to make sure our voters vote. You can’t beat Azam Khan in Rampur if voters come out,” says an SP leader.
At the BJP campaign office, running out of Akash Saxena’s residence in Jwala Nagar, a Hindu-dominated colony on the outskirts of the historic city, there is a map. It has close to 30 pins on the southern part of the map that largely covers the rural areas in the constituency. These pins indicate the number of public meetings scheduled in those areas. The pins on the northern part of the map, that is the city, are almost half. The city is 75 per cent Muslim.
“We have to just consolidate the Hindu votes and get enough votes from Muslims to get over the line in this bipolar contest,” explains a BJP worker.
With the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) not contesting, the BJP is confident of getting the six per cent Dalit votes in the constituency. In addition, it hopes that all the Muslim leaders, including Azam Khan’s former confidant Fasahat Ali Khan and his long-time rival Nawab Kazim Ali, who have either joined or supported the BJP will get their own votes.
But SP leaders claim many Hindu leaders opposed to Saxena have come closer to the Azam camp. “They will offset the gains that these Muslim leaders make for the BJP,” says an RLD leader campaigning for the SP.
SP leaders also dismiss the BJP’s pitch for Pasmanda Muslims. “There are hardly any Pasmandas in Rampur. This is a city of Pathans and Sayyads,” says a leader.
It is a point the ruling party concedes. “Pasmanda is a national issue for the party. It has no impact here. Pathans alone make up 80 per cent of all Muslims here. But you must understand that until recently, we couldn’t even hold a public meeting in the main city. Today we are holding roadshows and rallies. Things are changing. Muslims are still not very comfortable with us. But we are telling them if you can’t bring yourself to press the lotus button on the EVM, just stay away from the polling booth,” a BJP worker says.