A Perfume Baron Sniffs His Chances
IN THE 2006 Assembly poll in Assam, a new political force emerged: Badruddin Ajmal, then 56. He was elected from two constituencies — south Salmara and Jamunamukh — with a huge margin. His party, the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), won as many as 10 seats.
Soon, the regional party acquired national ambitions. Renamed the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), it became the main opposition party in Assam after winning 18 seats in the 2011 Assembly polls. Its founder-president Ajmal, born in Gopalnagar, Nagaon district, has never looked back after forming the minority political outfit. He has a master’s in Islamic theology and Arabic from Darul Uloom, Deoband, and continues to be a member of its executive council (Majlis-e-Shoora). His successful attar (perfume) empire flourishes on exports to the Middle East. He also runs a charity, Markazul Ma’arif.
This Bangla-speaking MP from Dhubri in lower Assam, the lone Lok Sabha member for his party, won the seat by defeating sitting MP Anowar Hussain of the Congress. Brandishing the sword of minority politics, he not only poses a big challenge to the ruling Congress in Assam but has also tasted blood in Kerala and is set to play a role in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls.
“We have a good support base there but will not contest any seat. We are in touch with national parties and might campaign for them as well,” Ajmal revealed to TEHELKA on the sidelines of a party rally in Dudhnoi in Goalpara district. He has been adroit at performing this balancing act since 2005.
Post independence, the Congress always won polls in Assam based on its support among the tea tribes and the minorities. With the AGP shrilly anti-foreigner and the BJP seeking refugee status for Banglaspeaking Hindus, Ajmal positioned himself as the guardian of minorities. For three decades, he was known to be a ‘close aide’ of the Congress, at least in political circles.
“Ajmal’s primary idiom is religion,” explains Subir Bhaumik, a Guwahati-based political analyst. “He seeks to take away Muslim support from the national and regional parties, accusing them of using the Muslim only as a vote bank. He seeks to give the minority ajhanda (flag) and a jamaat (party) of its own.”
Reports from UP say the AIUDF has set tough conditions for a possible electoral pact with the Congress
In 2011, the AIUDF supported the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala. The League increased its tally from eight to 20. No wonder, it has been emboldened to throw its hat in the UP ring. Explains Aminul Islam, a general secretary of the AIUDF, “We have received a lot of requests from other minority parties from UP, some newly formed. They want the AIUDF to lead a united front of smaller parties. UP has 56 Muslim MLAs. A huge section of them wants AIUDF presence. Our party will take a call on this.”
Critics of Ajmal’s brand of minority politics abound. “When AIUDF in its election manifesto says that it wants land for char dwellers (sand islands occupied by mostly illegal migrants, particularly on the Brahmaputra), it is clear whom it is helping. It is cheap vote bank politics,” criticises senior AGP leader Atul Bora.
Even in his own community, there has been rancour. The Jamait-Ulema-e-Hind, which he used to woo Muslim migrants, expelled Ajmal ahead of the 2011 Assam polls on charges of using the organisation for political gain. But at the grassroots, he has loyal followers. “There has been no development of the minorities in Assam under the Congress. If he is asking for votes for the development of Muslims, then there is no harm,” says Razak Ali, a farmer.
BUT POLITICS is not such a simple game. Congress insiders have confirmed to TEHELKA that the party did receive a proposal from Ajmal to form an alliance in UP. “In politics, there is no permanent friend or foe,” senior AIUDF leader Sirajuddin Ajmal told reporters in Guwahati. “So we can enter into an alliance to ensure the interests of the minorities are protected.” On its part, the Congress high command has been keen on an alliance right from 2006, but Tarun Gogoi and Muslims in the Assam Congress oppose the idea.
Reports from UP say the AIUDF has set tough conditions for a possible electoral alliance with the Congress. The AIUDF wants Chief Minister Gogoi and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain to be removed and the harassment of Bengali Muslims settled in Assam to be stopped.
“Since the quashing of the Illegal Migrants Act, the police is harassing innocents by accusing them of being foreigners. Once arrested, the onus lies on them to prove that they are Indian nationals,” says Ajmal. “Even a former MLA was arrested.”
“It is true that I enjoy a good personal rapport with many senior central Congress leaders, but I have not approached them, neither have they,” he says, responding to media reports of a ‘secret tie-up’ with the Congress. “There is no question of an alliance; from 2005 we have been struggling for the rights of the poor, backward class and minorities in Assam. We have supported policies of the UPA at the Centre and not the Congress party in particular.”
With influence in Meerut, Saharanpur and Moradabad, the AIUDF might have a role to play in UP if an understanding is reached with the Congress. Doing so, however, will mean that Ajmal might lose his char supporters, who may not understand his motives in tying up with the enemy in another state. It is a tightrope that he has to walk carefully — that of balancing a set support base with a prospective one.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.