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In Rampur, it is the battle of the Begums

By Jyoti Malhotra in Rampur, UP
Last updated on: April 07, 2009 16:24 IST
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Jaya PradaUnder a small canopy that protects her and her tiny audience of about 200 people from the vagaries of the late morning sun in Agapur village in Rampur, Begum Noor Bano, wife of the former Nawab of Rampur, is listing the achievements of 'her' Congress-led government in Delhi. The loan waiver is on top of the charts (of which Rampur has got as much as Rs 100 crores), followed by a road-building scheme in the prime minister's name as well as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which promises 100 job days annually to every adult in the country.

Then, as she wraps her white, chiffon sari tightly against herself -- the Begum is totally dressed in white, down to her white sandals and her full-sleeve sari blouse, the colour of a widow's mourning only relieved by the red sacred thread tied around her wrist -- Noor Bano cannot resist thrusting the knife into the back of her absent opponent: Jaya Prada, Bollywood actor and native of Andhra Pradesh, as well as the sitting member of Parliament of the Samajwadi Party for the last five years.

"I am from Rampur, I have not come from outside. I am one of you and I will stay here in your midst till my dying day. I know that there are greater forces at work in this election, but I can promise you that if you vote for me, I will never forsake you," Noor Bano says.

The meeting is wrapped up quickly, just as two policemen, saluting smartly, descend upon the departing crowd to ask them and her if she has violated the time limit set by the local representative of the Election Commission to hold the meeting. She hasn't, so she prepares to drive away in her air-conditioned jeep. But not before an old woman, thin as a stick and toothless, blocks the way, telling the carefully coiffed Begum that she won't vote for her until she is "able to sanction a road to her village that has been promised to us in the last election, but has still not even begun."

But where is Jaya Prada, who won the election and presumably promised the road? She's not in her own party office or at home, an aide manning the phone pointing out importantly that right now she is campaigning elsewhere in the country, not in Rampur, "because her party needs her, you see."

The truth, as always, is a little bit more complicated than that. In the Samajwadi Party office, whose candidate she is, Jaya Prada's name is greeted first by a stony silence and then by several angry outbursts. Turns out that Jaya has not paid her political dues to Azam Khan, the local Samajwadi party boss-cum-minder, on whose repeated urging Muslim-majority Rampur had turned out in strength in the 2004 elections.

"We are really upset that Jaya has not shown her face in the constituency, except once during Eid, and that she has little regard for Azam Khan" says Misruddin Khan, a party worker, adding, "it now seems that she is part of a plot unleashed by (SP general secretary) Amar Singh to keep Azam Khan away from the top leadership of the party."

In this 2009 election, the whole is hardly a sum of its parts. In Delhi, if the big picture is still unclear and given to a combination of crystal ball-gazing and number-crunching by party strategists, on the ground it is given to the interplay of revenge and glamour as well as the desperate need to belong in your own home.

In Rampur, one of India's 30 Muslim-majority constituencies, Begum Noor Bano is the head of the formerly princely state, who is fighting to win back her prestige not only with her own people who deserted her for a Bollywood star in 2004, but also re-establish her position in the heart of the Congress sanctum sanctorum in Delhi.

If the Begum can deliver Rampur and even have an impact on the neighbouring constituencies of Moradabad and Bareilly (from where the cricket player Azharuddin and Praveen Aaron are Congress contenders, respectively), then she will surely be part of the Congress dream that seeks to remake itself in a state from which it has been largely deleted in the last two decades or so.

This is why Azam Khan is a king-maker of sorts in Rampur. He has been MLA seven times, was part of the Babri Masjid Action Committee during the Ayodhya crisis in the early 90s and since, as a close compatriot of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has been the arbiter of the whopping 52 per cent of the Muslim vote in a constituency of about 13.5 lakh people.

Azam Khan is now furious that general secretary Amar Singh has replaced him in Mulayam Singh's affections. This was already evident in 2004 when Jaya Prada, a complete outsider who barely spoke or understood the chaste Hindi that is common to these parts, was fielded from Rampur over Azam Khan's head.

At the time, Azam Khan's supporters said, he fell in line, hoping that Mulayam would realise the folly of his ways and realise the kind of destruction that Amar Singh was wreaking on the party. Turned out, Azam Khan's supporters added, the foisting of Jaya Prada upon Rampur was only the beginning.

"Amar Singh Mulayam Singh par poori tarah se chhah gaye hain, yeh samajh mein nahin aata kyon, (Amar Singh has total influence on Mulayam Singh, we cannot understand why)," says Misruddin Khan. "Amar Singh kis zehen ke hain pataa nahin, jis parivaar par haath dalte hain, bas kathinaiyaan shuru ho jaati hain, jaise ki Sanju Dutt or uske pehle Bachhan parivar (We don't understand the working of Amar Singh's mind, whoever he blesses turns out to become a problem, whether Sanjay Dutt or the Bachhan family).

Jaya Prada is part of the same Amar Singh game, says Haq Rampuri, a local poet and businessman. "We will make Jaya Prada lose, we will work very hard to make her lose badly in these elections," he adds.

None of Azam Khan's supporters are openly willing to talk about the alternative. If not Jaya Prada, then who will they support? Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the BJP is out of the question, they say, because he belongs to the BJP which was instrumental in destroying the Babri Masjid in 1992, while Ghanshyam Singh Lodhi of the BSP is hardly a reckoner. That leaves Noor Bano of the Congress party.

"Whoever Azam Khan gives his blessing to, he or she is our candidate," says Javed, a third supporter, "If it's Noor Bano, then it is the Congress' luck. But what we want most of all is that Mulayam Singh should change the candidate. He must replace Jaya Prada with anyone else, even if it is a Hindu."

The fury in the room is palpable by now. "Mulayam Singh better be careful," says Ruhi Khan, who brings out a small-time newspaper herself. "Agar yeh chalta rahe, hum unki aisi dhoti phaarenge, unko silaane Azam Khan ke paas Rampur aana padega. (If this goes on, we will tear his dhoti so badly, he will have to come all the way to Rampur to have it sewn by Azam Khan.)

In Rampur's battle of the Begums, Azam Khan's anger against his own party chief may just turn out to be Noor Bano's gain.

Image: Jaya Prada | Photograph: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

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Jyoti Malhotra in Rampur, UP