FORMER MP BARQ REMAINS A FAVOURITE; TALK OF OWAISI CONTESTING FROM THE PREDOMINANTLY MUSLIM CONSTITUENCY
M Anas | Caravan Daily
SAMBHAL (Uttar Pradesh) — Sambhal is a western Uttar Pradesh town known for its history and religious significance. Once the capital of Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan and home to a Babri mosque, the city claims to have around 64 ‘teerth sthans’ (pilgrimage sites) for Hindus. People of the area also believe that the Kalki avatar of Lord Vishnu will descend in this city. But as the 2019 Elections approach, the city has become the favourite destination of wannabe legislators. Political hustle and bustle is once again at the centre-stage.
The Sambhal town, along with Rampur, boasts the largest number of Muslims votes in a single constituency in the entire state. Out of a population of 17 lakh voters, around 45-50% happen to be Muslims. It is also considered one of the safest seats for secular parties like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Although the BJP was able to snatch the seat by around 5,000 votes, it was the thinnest victory margin in the 2014 polls. Besides Muslims, the constituency boasts 3.5 lakh Jatav votes, one lakh Yadavs and the rest are Other SCs, Other Backward Castes and upper caste Hindu like Brahmin and Rajput.
With the 2019 election dates likely to be announced in late February, the city is abuzz with political activity and speculation about the potential candidates. Every nook and corner of the city has been witnessing the gathering of people discussing politics.
In the Deepa Sarai neighbourhood, Saad Usmani, a journalist with Punjab Kesri daily and known for his sharp political understanding says that after the announcement of the SP-BSP alliance, the election has taken an interesting turn.
“Given the community and caste equation in the city, the ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) candidate may sail through easily. But there is a rider attached to this possibility. There must be a judicious selection of the candidate. Otherwise, the equation may tilt once again in favour of the BJP,” said Usmani.
Usmani adds that chances are that city strongman, Dr Shafiqur Rehman Barq, will be awarded the SP-BSP alliance’s ticket. “In case he is ignored, he may be fielded either by the Congress or Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). He may even contest as an independent. Since he has a devoted following among local Muslims, he will manage to land himself a major chunk of Muslim votes. In such a scenario, the BJP will emerge a clear beneficiary riding on the division of secular votes,” argues Usmani.
A few metres away from Usmani’s home is the residence of Dr Barq. He is the oldest Muslim politician in India. Popular in the city, he commands a fanatic following. His followers, many of them coming from rural areas, greeted this correspondent at his residence. “Dr Barq is the most appropriate choice for the SP-BSP alliance and we hope both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati will not ignore him. He is honest, pro-poor and is free of the taint of corruption,” said Razi Hussain, a young supporter of Barq.
Barq, who won as a BSP candidate in 2009, is popular among the upper caste ‘Turk’ Muslims, who comprise the majority. He had launched sharp attacks against the Akhilesh Yadav government for its inept handling of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that killed more than 62 people, the majority of them Muslims, and displaced tens of thousands of families who still live in relief camps. But now he defends the SP and tells his voters that preventing Narendra Modi from becoming the Prime Minister again is his primary ambition.
“The SP government was not responsible for the riots. The communal forces organised the massacre to polarise the voters ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The need of the hour is to stop the BJP and Modi from coming to power at the Centre again,” Barq told the Caravan Daily.
Barq is a two-time parliamentarian from this under-developed district in western UP. Many of his voters say that he has a habit of disappearing after winning in elections. “He has been active in politics since 1967 and winning the Assembly or parliamentary elections frequently. But I don’t remember him contributing anything significant to the development of the area. Worse, he has patronised criminals,” alleged Mohammed Anwar, a teacher from Barq’s locality.
When this correspondent asked Barq about this, he said that he had helped build several schools and colleges in the area and that he also has a plan to build a university in his hometown.
“Even though he ignores them, people will still vote for him. The ignorant locals see him with as a symbol of the Muslim identity. Even his refusal to sing ‘Vande Mataram’ in Parliament is considered an achievement. Plus, there is no fair record holder among his rivals,” said Farogh Alam, a teacher and activist.
Meanwhile, sources within the Samajwadi Party said that the SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has refused the party ticket to Dr Barq. “And reports are that someone from the Yadav family like Ram Gopal Yadav or Dimple Yadav may be fielded by the party,” they told the Caravan Daily.
In the past, SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and his cousin Ram Gopal Yadav have represented the area in Parliament three times.
As locals weigh the chances of Barq, there are also rumours in the city that AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi may contest from Sambhal. “Our party unit has sent this proposal to Owaisi saheb to contest from here. If not Owaisi himself, then the party may also field Dr Barq,” said Mohammed Aslam, an AIMIM supporter.
But Saad Usmani rubbishes reports of Owaisi contesting from Sambhal. He said that Rafat Ali, the local unit chief of AIMIM, will most likely be the AIMIM candidate from the city.
Nawab Iqbal Mehmood is the Samajwadi Party MLA from the city. He vehemently opposes Barq. When asked by this correspondent who may be fielded by the party from the city, he said that the picture is not clear yet and that he himself is in the contention. “I am bidding for my own candidature. I have been a four-time MLA and best know the problems of my city. People like Dr Barq have never been loyal to the party. In 2017 Assembly polls, his grandson contested on AIMIM ticket against the SP. How can they claim their candidacy now?” Iqbal told the Caravan Daily. He also discounted the possibility that Prof Ram Gopal Yadav, the uncle of Akhilesh Yadav, may contest from the city.
People in the city say that in case Dr Barq is denied ticket and the SP fields either a Yadav or Mehmood, Dr Barq will join the fray as an independent. “In such a scenario, the BJP will be a natural beneficiary. Dr Barq has a fixed following. They will definitely vote for him. All those votes otherwise would belong to the ‘mahagathbandhan’ candidate, whoever he or she may be,” said Bhishm Singh Deval, the bureau chief of Hindustan newspaper.
Vimlesh Kumari, a young Congress politician from the city, provides another perspective to the poll dynamics in the constituency. She says that though the SP-BSP alliance aims to bring Jatavs and Yadavs together, it is not happening. “You can see the announcement of the Jatav-Yadav alliance in cities like Lucknow and Delhi, but on the ground (in villages) they are still poles apart,” said Kumari. In her opinion, if the Congress fields a strong candidate from the city, the seat will go to Congress.