While some voters seem indifferent to them, the controversial remarks by Samajwadi Party candidate Azam Khan against his rival Jaya Prada of the BJP, which led to the Election Commission banning him from campaigning for 48 hours, have made it to the poll messages of both sides. Jaya Prada, who has been at the receiving end of many similar verbal attacks by Khan, calls it “a fight to teach Azam Khan a lesson”.
As she sets off from Riverside Inn where she is camping for the day’s campaign, after a quick puja before a Ganesh idol, underneath a painted photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the 57-year-old says, “Azam must learn how to respect women. I am sure the people of Rampur will teach him that.”
The Modi painting is a recent acquisition, with Jaya Prada having joined the BJP just days before the election on April 23, following in the footsteps of political mentor Amar Singh. In the three polls she has fought from Rampur so far, the actor-turned-politician had been a Samajwadi Party candidate.
A little over 50 per cent of the electorate in Rampur, where elections are always heavily polarised, is Muslim. A Congress stronghold since 1952, it had been first won by the BJP in 1991. The Congress won it back in 1996, lost to the BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in 1998, and got it back via candidate Begum Noor Bano in 1999. In 2004 and 2009, Jaya Prada won it for the SP, while the Narendra Modi wave swept in Nepal Singh in 2014.
The Congress, which has fielded Sanjay Kapoor, is expected to cut into the BJP Hindu votes, making Jaya Prada’s job tougher.
But to both Azam Khan’s supporters and rivals, the caste mathematics means nothing before just his name — a reputation earned largely as the face of aggressive, often ugly, religion-based politics. Even when Jaya Prada was in the SP, Khan, who considers Rampur his domain, was accused of making several personal remarks against her.
Says BJP leader Chandramohan, the party in-charge of the district, “Elections in Rampur are about Azam Khan… It’s about Azam Khan jitao, or Azam Khan harao.”
Azam Khan’s son Abdullah Azam, in fact, asks whether the EC’s action against him — over a reference to Jaya Prada’s underwear — is motivated by the fact that Khan is a Muslim. Abdullah, an MLA, also accuses the EC of not following “rightful procedure”.
Jaya Prada says such remarks often made her consider quitting politics. “But Rampur gave me strength”, and adds that now, she also has the support of a “strong” party.
Many voters credit Jaya Prada with doing good work as a representative, as well as the BJP of doing so at the Centre. Nawal Kishore, a street vendor, says he got a toilet and LPG connection under the Modi government. “No government has cared for the poor like this.”
Congress candidate Kapoor, a former MLA from the area, is expected to cut into Jaya Prada’s votes. Azim Khan of the Congress says Kapoor has a clean image, is popular among youth and raises issues related to people. “Rahul Gandhi is the only leader talking about the farmers and poor,” he adds.
Nafiz Khan of the Congress’s UP Minority Cell claims around one lakh people in Rampur have lost jobs lost due to the closure of small industries doing wood and zardozi works. “That’s where Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY scheme would have relevance.”
At the SP office though, workers claim they too are only talking about “who has done work for Rampur”. “Whatever Rampur has was built by Azam Khan’s party”, Guddu Salmani says. “The voters here do not buy the rhetoric of the Prime Minister on Balakot (air strikes).”
About Khan’s remarks, a Muslim woman right outside the SP office, says, “I sincerely do not know what he said.”
Congress leader Begum Noor Bano, descendant of the erstwhile Nawabs of Rampur, whose family has sent nine MPs to Parliament, has seen all this play out many times before. She insists “people of Rampur do not approve of it (Khan’s politics)”, and that is why Khan’s recent outburst. “He is trying to get the Muslim votes… It’s easy to provoke negative forces to gain power, gaining power with positivity is difficult.”