Caught in friendly fire

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Amid intense drama, the Samajwadi Party got rid of its Muslim face. Is Azam Khan the latest casualty in the party’s changing gameplan, asks Anil Tripathi

A SHINING CHAMPION of the socialist movement has been undone by insidious corporate influence. Azam Khan made a foray into the badlands of the political world in 1977, and dedicated 25 of his 60 long years to the Samajwadi Party (SP). Born in a middle class family in Rampur, Azam Khan was the Muslim face of the Samajwadi Party and the person who established Mulayam Singh as the champion of Muslim interests; ultimately, it was his own party that delivered him the bitter and unexpected fruit of his labour. Today, however, business interests have trumped the honesty and sincerity that have been Khan’s hallmark. He was humiliated and thrown out of the very party he had helped build.

After cutting his teeth on student politics at Aligarh Muslim University, Mohammed Azam Khan joined the Muslim Majlis. His fiery temper and bold mien ensured a constant place in newspaper headlines. His prime asset, honesty, and his ability to connect with the masses have been his key appeals. He shot to political prominence after the communal riots in Moradabad in 1980, and soon became known as one of the foremost Muslim leaders of Uttar Pradesh.

When the Janata Dal was formed in 1989, leaders such as the late VP Singh and Chaudhry Devi Lal looked to Azam Khan for help in taking on the Congress. It was at this juncture that he met and grew close to Mulayam Singh. After the Janata Dal split, Azam Khan joined ranks with Mulayam, going on to become one of the founders of the SP. Azam Khan came to be known as the leader of the Babri Masjid Action Committee and soon outstripped the myriad other Muslim leaders in UP. Mulayam remained Chief Minister of UP during the Janata Dal government because of VP Singh, but it was Azam Khan who gave Mulayam his prominence among Muslims. It was the first part of Mulayam’s two-pronged approach. The second was his replication of Chaudhry Charan Singh’s strategy of promoting young leaders as the real backbone of the SP. A combination of these forces set the party on the road to much-yearned-for power.

The good times Mulayam Singh (left) and Azam Khan in Lucknow
Photo: Ajay Singh

Some years later, Mulayam Singh started to associate with Amar Singh, and voices of dissent — sometimes muted and sometimes strident — began to be heard within the party. This dissent did reach Mulayam’s ears, but Amar Singh remained unimpeachable in his eyes. Soon, democratic leaders began a steady exodus from the party. Many of them still hold Amar Singh responsible for the decay of the party. As for Azam Khan, he did not object to Amar Singh as much as he did to Amar’s way of functioning. This product of the socialist movement could not tolerate that Amar Singh, a person arguably unconnected with the masses, could take important decisions in party affairs.

Party president Mulayam Singh made Azam Khan the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, but their friendship had begun to wear. Azam believed Mulayam did not do anything for Muslims and did not empower him with a meaty role in decision-making. Speaking to TEHELKA before polling in UP, he said, “Netaji is not willing to listen to anyone, what can I do?”

After the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) defeated the SP and came to power in UP, Mulayam felt that it was imperative to stop the fragmentation of votes of the backward castes, primarily the Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodhs, Shakyas and Nishads. He believed that if these castes united and aligned themselves with a single party, the combine would be large enough to win any election even if the dalits (BSP’s vote bank) and Muslims (Congress’s traditional vote bank) did not pitch in. The SP, in a way, was trying to reposition itself — a new caste engineering in which Amar Singh, general secretary of the party, had a leading role. “Whoever has made Mulayam Yadav take this decision is a conspirator, an enemy, characterless and a dalal (broker),” fumes Azam Khan.

Azam believed Mulayam didn’t give him a meaty role in decision-making

IT WAS believed widely that Azam Khan was angry because Jaya Prada was given the party ticket for Rampur, where he was an MP. That Azam’s protests about Jaya Prada were ignored by the party is actually proof of the angst that came much before. The Jaya Prada episode itself proved politically fatal for Azam Khan. Jaya Prada alleged that Azam Khan and his supporters were involved in “cheap campaigning” and had distributed CDs and posters with her nude photos to “sully her image”. Azam Khan brushed the allegations off, calling it “political drama”.

Hot and cold Jaya Prada (right) and Azam Khan in a rally in Rampur in 2004
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Rampur is the only constituency in UP which has more than 50 percent Muslims. Instead of settling for a Muslim candidate who would bring a fraction of the Muslim vote, the SP fielded Jaya Prada, a Hindu, to swing the Hindu vote en masse.

The Muslims votes were divided between Congress candidate Begum Noor Bano and BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Local political observers believe that Azam’s stiff resistance to the Bollywood actor’s candidature further polarised the Hindu voters in Jaya Prada’s support. As the only Hindu candidate in Rampur, coupled with the backing of Kalyan Singh’s Lodh vote bank, Jaya Prada scraped past Bano, and won.

The SP is trying to reposition itself with a new engineering that unites backward castes

Meanwhile, the SP, driven by factional infighting, has become a political force based on corporate patronage and the short-lived glamour of Bollywood film stars. Consequently, the character of the party changed — the socialists left or were shown out. A party that was at home in the fields and villages of the UP immersed itself in five-star hotels making strategic political decisions even at the cost of old stalwarts like Azam Khan.

After his ouster from the party, a desolate Azam Khan appealed to the SP to reconsider the six-year expulsion order “in the interest of the party”. His humiliation, some say, has eroded Muslim trust in the party. Every one of the SP’s 10 Lok Sabha Muslim candidates lost. The SP, however, has a new caste gameplan, one that does not include its old vote bank of Muslims, and has thereby ended its innings with its most familiar Muslim face.

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