Sitting in his stationery shop in the market around Shahbad Gate in Rampur, Mohammed Shahrod, 25, articulates the agony of many a young man in the city.
“Rampur is a historic city… Azam Khan is as old as the city itself. He has given us a lot – from roads and bridges, to a university. But you can’t eat roads. People are now looking for jobs. There are no factories here, no economy. Our businesses are small. We need someone who can generate some work. The BJP is promising this, and we want to try it at least once,” he says.
About six kilometres away, at a tea shop in Shutarkhana, Mohd Haneef, 65, discusses with his friends how Muslims are not as troubled under the Modi-Yogi regime as is made out to be. “You are getting free ration, gas cylinders and housing. Only those doing wrong are going to jail. You can’t complain about that. But yes, there is a distance between hearts. Our loudspeakers (from mosques) were removed. They were put back ahead of the elections. We know they will be removed again after the polls,” he says.
There is a yearning for change among Muslims in Rampur, but it sits rather uncomfortably with the alternative available: the BJP.
The Rampur Assembly constituency is scheduled to go to polls on December 5 in a by-election that was necessitated after its sitting MLA and SP stalwart, Azam Khan, was disqualified following his conviction in a hate speech case.
Yet, unusually for a bypoll, the contest has generated considerable interest given the high stakes involved for both sides – the BJP and SP. While the BJP is hoping to make inroads into yet another SP bastion, for Azam Khan, this is a fight for his prestige and legacy. At 65 per cent of the electorate, Muslims are the deciding factor for any party.
The BJP’s whirlwind campaign – holding rallies with top leaders and ministers in attendance – has generated a strong buzz and given the party an unprecedented visibility in the region. So much so that its promises of development and double-engine growth seem to sit well with even young Muslims.
However, this embracing of an uncomfortable alternative is not without a sense of resignation and anxiety. “Jiski lathi, uski bhains” – a reference to the might and clout of the BJP – is a common refrain even among those wanting to give the party a chance.
“The BJP is in power at the Centre and in the state. It has also demonstrated it is not going to lose in the near future. The problem in voting for Azam Khan is that he will not be able to get any work done as his party is not in power. The BJP may also single out Rampur since all other areas around it are with the party. Maybe if the BJP wins here, it will do something for the area?” wonders Shahrod. “Also, the moment the SP wins here, there are chances the administration might find some way to get this candidate disqualified too. Are we going to keep voting all year round?”
These are questions that the BJP too has pushed in its campaign in the city. At a recent public rally in the Muslim-dominated colony of Ghair Miyan Khan, BJP candidate Akash Saxena thundered, “Will the people of Rampur always sit in the Opposition? Decide whether you want to be there or with the government. Every vote cast for the SP is going in a ditch.”
Even in the rural belts of the constituency, this sentiment is common among Muslims who are willing to see the BJP as an option.
“Earlier we used to vote for Azam Khan. But now Netaji (SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav) is dead and Azam Khan is facing jail. Aligning with those in power is important,” says Nazim Miyan, an e-rickshaw operator from Kalyanpur village in the constituency.
Then there are those like Nawab Ali, 50, a roadside seller of embroidered clothes in the city, who have benefited from central government schemes.
“I am a poor man and the free ration that the government has been giving has helped me a lot. I did not have a cylinder until recently. During the pandemic I got three cylinders free of cost,” he says, brushing aside hateful comments targeted at the community by some in the BJP as “political compulsions”.
But a somewhat pervasive feature of these polls is also a sense of anxiety.
Wazir Abbasi, who runs a gas stove repair shop in the city’s Abdullah Ganj market, has not decided his vote yet. However, looking at the 100-odd policemen parading through the market at its peak business hour, at 7 pm, he says with a smirk, “This is a regular feature now. God knows what purpose this serves apart from scaring people. They are telling us, vote for us or this will continue.”
He, however, agrees that people feel a sense of fatigue about Azam Khan and want change.
At Shahbad Gate, Wasim Aijaz, a chemist in the city, too talks about this cloud that hangs low, over much of Rampur’s Muslim neighbourhoods. “I don’t know whether I will vote. There is so much police presence and fear in the city. I may use the day to go to Nainital with my family. I don’t want to be harassed while going to the polling booth,” he says.
At Shutarkhana, Mohammed Arif Qureshi, owner of a small dhaba selling non-vegetarian food, is rooting for the BJP – even if out of compulsion.
“Earlier, police would shut our shops during Hindu festivals. But after the BJP candidate came to power in the Lok Sabha bypolls, the harassment stopped. Now I run my business even during Navratra. We have to earn a living. Aligning with power helps,” he says.
Amir Ahmed, a shopkeeper in the city, echoes Qureshi even as he berates Azam Khan for “doing nothing” for Rampur.
“When Ghanshyam Lodhi (BJP candidate in the Lok Sabha bypolls) was campaigning, we made him promise that he would get these excessive questioning and challaning of our vehicles stopped. When he won, he indeed got it stopped. This shows he has power,” he says.
At Fazulla Nagar village in the constituency, people talk of alleged police excesses over the past few months.
“A meat seller in the village was raided for allegedly selling beef. Nothing was proved but he had pay to get out of the police net. A boy ran away with a Hindu girl and the police locked up his entire family for no fault of theirs. A sand contractor from the village has had his five vehicles seized by the police for alleged illegal trade of sand. People who are suffering feel all this will stop if they align with the BJP,” says a villager.
They also talk about how Anwar, an aide of Azam Khan’s son Abdullah, has been jailed in a case of gambling, virtually incapacitating the SP campaign in the village.
“Ye election dande ke zor pe hai,” says another villager who is rooting for SP.
Despite this open acknowledgment of the BJP’s clout, Azam Khan’s sway over his loyal voters cannot be brushed aside. They talk about the “injustice” done to Azam Khan by the BJP, which has the government, police, and even the courts on its side.
At Ali Nagar village in the constituency, Bhura Alvi says no Muslim in his right mind will vote for the BJP no matter how many overtures the party makes. “In the past eight years that they have been in power, they have done nothing for Rampur. The road to my village is still full of potholes. They just keep doing Hindu-Muslim,” he says.
Jawed Hussain from the same village says while the BJP is more visible, “most Muslims have SP in their heart”.
Manzoor Ali, a local BJP leader, says it is not easy to convince Muslims to vote for the BJP.
“They don’t like the party. Not more than 25% from the village will vote for the BJP, but that’s an improvement. Even this is happening only because it is a bypoll and the BJP is in power. If this had been an Assembly election, not a single vote would go to the BJP,” he says.
At nearby Roshanbagh village, youngsters discuss how Azam Khan has, with his emotional speeches and viral videos of him crying, managed to pull back voters tilting towards the BJP. “There is a wave of sympathy rising for him though people feel he could have done more,” says a youngster.