Sharper than a serpent’s tooth

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Family trouble The cozy threesome has now been challenged by SP leader Azam Khan
Family trouble The cozy threesome has now been challenged by SP leader Azam Khan

FIFTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Azam Khan is fond of taking visitors on a round of his pet project: a sprawling university-to-be on the outskirts of his largely Muslim hometown of Rampur in west Uttar Pradesh. Few come away unimpressed by his hypnotic oratory in chaste Urdu. His opponents, though, accuse him of being an ultraorthodox demagogue. This week, however, Khan’s name was splashed across the national media for entirely different reasons.

Speaking to Muslim students in Lucknow on April 7, Rajya Sabha MP Amar Singh, who is widely seen as party president Mulayam Singh Yadav’s alter ego, ranted against Khan with evident bitterness. “Azam Khan has grown bigger than Mulayam Singh Yadav,” Singh thundered. “I will tolerate this up to a point and then say goodbye to Mulayam.”

Singh’s tirade could not be more ironic. Since 1995, when he surfaced by Yadav’s side and quickly became his close companion, Singh — a party general secretary just as Azam is — has been accused of building a profile larger than his boss’s. As he became Yadav’s point person for dealings with industrialists, Bollywood and wheelers-dealers, Singh’s unrivalled influence drove away at least two high-profile leaders from the party: Beni Prasad Verma, a grassroots leader who helped write the party’s strategic rise in the early 1990s, and film star-turned-politician, Raj Babbar.

But right through, Singh could not shake Azam Khan, a seven-term MLA and a charismatic leader who had founded the SP with Yadav in 1991 after they broke from former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. Old-timers say Khan was instrumental in moving Yadav towards hard-line pro-Muslim politics, which brought them rich dividends electorally. Every time the party took power in Uttar Pradesh, Khan landed key ministerial slots and positioned himself as Yadav’s number two.

The long running Singh-Khan rivalry has spilled out now over the nomination of Bollywood film star-turned-politician, Jayaprada, as SP’s candidate for the Rampur Lok Sabha seat. A protégé of Singh, Jayaprada phoned him to bitterly complain that Khan, an MLA from the Rampur Assembly seat, was sabotaging her bid to win the Lok Sabha seat for a straight second time. Alleging that “Azam is Mulayam’s weakness”, Singh stunningly disclosed on Tuesday that Yadav has told him that if he wants to continue in the SP, he must learn to “tolerate” Khan.

A party co-founder, Khan was key in moving Yadav to hard-line pro-Muslim politics

Predictably, an irritated Yadav called Singh and gave him a mouthful. Suitably chastened, Singh called a press conference in the evening and did a volte-face: “I can leave the world but not the SP.” The next day, Yadav told journalists: “Ours is a big family. Such things keep happening.”

But Khan is not letting go. He says by bringing up Jayaprada’s issue, Singh is trying to fudge the main one: the induction of former Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kalyan Singh in the SP. Kalyan Singh was UP Chief Minister when Hindu zealots razed the Babri mosque at Ayodhya in December 1992, and Khan is outraged at his induction into the party.

WITH JUST days for the Lok Sabha elections to begin, Yadav can scarcely push Khan around, as his party is already facing one of its most vulnerable moments in its existence of 18 years. The SP is desperate to fend off its biggest political challenge ever — from UP Chief Minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

In 2007, the BSP had shockingly dislodged the SP from power in the state, winning an absolute majority for the first time in India’s largest Assembly. Apart from the dalits who are Mayawati’s core constituents, the Hindu upper castes as well as Muslims — Yadav’s traditional voters — too had voted for the BSP in large numbers. There is no way Yadav would want a repeat of that performance in these Lok Sabha elections.

Yadav cannot push Khan around as he doesn’t want to lose Muslim votes to BSP

The SP has 31 MPs in the Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh to the BSP’s 19 from the same state. But the BSP was only two percent behind the SP in terms of vote share in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. This worries the SP enormously, and it does not want to lose the Muslim votes to Mayawati. Already, both the BSP and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress party are making overtures to Khan.

Khan’s 34-year political career is built entirely on Muslim politics. He started with the students’ union at the Aligarh Muslim University, and landed in jail during the Emergency. When the Babri mosque controversy erupted in the late 1980s, he helped found a pro-mosque Action Committee of hard-line Muslims.

How crucial Khan is for the SP was evident two years ago when more than 50 Uttar Pradesh ministers of the previous government turned up to watch Yadav, then Chief Minister, lay the foundation stone of Khan’s proposed university. If anything, Khan’s significance for the party has only moved north since then.

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