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Political ploys in the heart of UP

By Jyoti Malhotra
April 14, 2009 17:19 IST
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The bridge over the Ganga at Badaiyon in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, that still doubles up both as rail track and motorable road, witnessed the westward migration of thousands of Muslims from eastern and central UP, via Bareilly, Mathura and Khokhrapar on the present Rajasthan border, to Pakistan in 1947.

The bridge itself is a metaphor of our times, not only because it was the scene of Hindu-Muslim riots when the country was being partitioned, family by family and village by village, nor because the only oarsmen who man the boats on the mighty Ganga below are Muslim.

Thing is, on both sides of the river, in every kasba, village, town and tehsil for several kms beyond, Muslims and Hindus live cheek by jowl with each other, breathing, eating, sleeping -- and these days, cutting the golden harvest, all ripe and ready, together. How could this civilisational rite of passage have been any different in 1947? And yet, Jinnah succeeded in enticing men, women and children, like an enigmatic pied piper, out of this fertile land and into the bowels of another, to be forever condemned with slur words like 'mohajir'. The shame of the eternal refugee. Outsider.

These days, news from Pakistan barely filters into the collective subconscious of these parts, although the public flogging of the 17-year-old girl by the Taliban in the Swat valley has made it to towns like Rampur. In the villages, the harvest must be cut by the end of the month and so there's very little time to read the newspaper, listen to speeches by political party candidates or to watch, the dance of the ungainly Sarus crane on the other side of the river, "Ganga ke us paar."

And yet, hundreds abandon the fields for a few minutes when the candidate comes calling, unable to resist the magnetic pull of the democratic exercise. In Bareilly constituency, six-time BJP Member of Parliament Santosh Gangwar is greeted by his Shia constituents with the cry, "Jai Shia Ram," both an acceptance and a blessing for the good work he has done across the religious spectrum.

In neighbouring Badaiyon, which Congress party MP Saleem Shervani has represented five times (both from the Congress and Samajwadi parties), farmers allow him to take the credit for the Manmohan Singh-led government's massive loan waiver, nearly Rs 75,000 crores, that has allowed scores of men to return home with their honour and dignity restored.

That's not the only reason why 2009 is all set to be special. Another is that the significant Muslim electorate, at least one-third in most constituencies in this Rohillkhand region -- named in honour of the Rohilla kings who ruled here in the 18th century -- has decided to vote tactically, constituency by constituency, allying with one party or another to defeat the common enemy, the BJP.

In Pilibhit, in the eye of the storm these days, courtesy the hate speeches by Varun Gandhi, a score of Muslim 'pradhans' met last weekend to stiffen the spine of BSP candidate Budh Sen Verma, who is still trying hard to prevent his 2.5 lakh core Dalit vote from drifting into Varun's all-enveloping Hindu arms. This has left the Samajwadi Party candidate Hafiz Riyaz Ahmed rather grumpy over the turn of events, especially since he stood a good chance to win before all hell broke loose over Varun's anti-Muslim remarks.

Further south in Rampur, a virtual insurrection is brewing in the ranks of the Samajwadi Party against its own candidate, Bollywood beauty and native of Andhra Pradesh Jaya Prada. Turns out that Rampur's king-maker and long-time baiter of the local Nawab family, Azam Khan, is in a cinch with party general secretary Amar Singh for SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's affections. Azam Khan, who has a tight control over the 52 per cent Muslim electorate by virtue of having been MLA seven times, is now considering shifting allegiance to Congress MP and the widow of Rampur's former nawab, Begun Noor Bano.

Back in Badaiyon, Shervani is tying up with a local party made up of Most Backward Castes like the Moriyas, Shakhs, Khushwahas and the Sainis, called the Mahan Dal, in the hope that he will be able to offset the likely loss of the 350,000 Yadav vote to Mulayam's nephew and SP candidate Dharmendra Yadav. In return for support in Badaiyon and elsewhere, the Congress party has 'left' Kannauj, Aonla, Mainpuri and Etawah constituencies for the 'Mahan Dal' to fight.

In Moradabad, the Congress is hoping that Mohammad Azharuddin's cricketing overtures will make the difference between winning and defeat in this communally-sensitive constituency. Meanwhile in Amroha, SP candidate Mehboob Ali is being tipped to win over BSP candidate Maudood Madani of the Darul-Uloom Deoband, because as the local MLA he knows everyone already.

As Rashid, an Amroha local, said, "What is the point of voting for Madani? We're not going to call Deoband each time we need something. On the other hand, if Mehboob Ali wins, he is always at hand. If he isn't, there is always his wife Sakina Begun to help us. And if she isn't, then her brother will come to our aid."

In Rohillkhand at least, people have survived the centuries with canny grace. If 1947 was an aberration that twisted the life-blood out of history, the mix-and-match heartiness of the 2009 election immeasurably reinforces the region's diversity.

Meanwhile, the old bridge over the Ganga in Badaiyon constituency is soon going to have company, with the construction of two new bridges, separately for rail and road. In the timelessness of the countryside, here's an impeccable advertisement for both progress and change.

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Jyoti Malhotra