Azam Khan is no ordinary politician. He is a Member of Parliament from Rampur constituency of Uttar Pradesh, has been elected to the state assembly nine times, and has held many powerful portfolios in the government under both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav. For as long as one can remember, Azam Khan has been one of the most powerful leaders of the Samajwadi Party. But the persona of Azam Khan is more than the sum of his parts.
And he is a politician the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) loves to hate.
During the 2017 UP assembly election, there was a whisper campaign by the BJP followers in western UP that went like this – if Muslims can have their own Azam Khan, why can’t Hindus have their own Yogi?
The irony is that Azam Khan is not a skull-cap wearing Muslim leader like Asaduddin Owaisi. For the BJP, that is an inconvenient truth. It cannot box him, much as it would like to. Which explains why Azam Khan finds himself today in all kinds of troubles.
Who is Azam Khan?
The most cited piece of information about the Samajwadi Party leader who doesn’t shy away from speaking up his mind would be the long list of cases filed against him. There are at least 72 cases that Azam Khan is facing under the Yogi Adityanath regime. These include allegations of stealing a buffalo, goats, books, and electricity among others. There are some serious charges too like grabbing land defined as ‘enemy property’ to include it as part of his university named after Ali Jauhar, a freedom fighter and erstwhile president of the Congress party. There is every possibility that Azam Khan could be arrested any time.
Samajwadi Party has rejected all these charges, calling them ‘political vendetta’. Akhilesh Yadav has announced in a public meeting in Rampur that when his party returns to power, all these cases will be withdrawn. Azam Khan has said that the state of affairs is such that “I do not remember how many cases have been filed against me and where”.
But it’s not just the cases that Azam Khan has to deal with under an unrelenting regime. In the last session of the Lok Sabha, the MP almost lost his membership over a comment described as “sexist”. Azam Khan had to apologise twice in the House, after the BJP MP against whom the expunged remarks were reportedly directed refused to accept it the first time.
But if Azam Khan’s remarks carry the potential to take from him his membership of the House, then it doesn’t mean that a BJP leader (MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar) charge sheeted and in jail for allegedly raping a minor girl would lose his membership too. Nor does it mean that a former Union minister (Chinmayanand) twice accused of rape would face any difficulty in evading arrest. No, BJP leader Chinmayanand can not only have the Yogi government file a petition to withdraw the rape case, but his supporters can also threaten of ‘Hindu rebellion’ if any rape case gets registered against him. There is a difference being an Azam Khan.
So, what is so special about the son of Mumtaz Khan, who used to run a typing institute in the city of Rampur and is the founder and chancellor of a university? Why does the BJP hate him so much, or invoke his name in every election?
Being Azam Khan
The BJP hates Azam Khan not because he is a Muslim. After all, there are so many other Muslim leaders – Asaduddin Owaisi, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Badruddin Ajmal, Salman Khurshid, all of whom are popular and have a considerable support base. But the BJP has never tried to destroy them the way it has gone after Azam Khan, who has always been a target of the saffron party.
The political targeting has led Azam Khan to say that he was “the BJP’s item girl”. “They contest all the elections on my name,” Khan had said last year.
There can be two possible explanations.
Azam Khan does not have an image of ‘a leader of the Muslim community’. He is no Asaduddin Owaisi, the Hyderabad MP and president of AIMIM. Although Azam Khan wins his elections from a constituency that has around 50 per cent Muslim voters, he still carries the image of a secular leader and not of a conservative. He has distanced himself from religion-based politics and has never been at the forefront of the movement for the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which has been led by leaders like advocate Zafaryab Jilani (the convener of Babri Masjid Action Committee) and former MP late Syed Shahabuddin before him.
When Owaisi had tried to enter the political arena of Uttar Pradesh, Azam Khan had a clear message for him: Owaisi should eat Lucknowi Biryani and then leave the state.
The secular image of a strong Muslim leader in a crucial state like Uttar Pradesh does not fit well in the BJP’s scheme of things. The fact that Azam Khan does not speak the language of a leader like Owaisi – who raises issues of mob lynching and atrocities against the minority community – means that he doesn’t help the BJP’s brand of politics, which is all about creating a Hindu-Muslim binary. Azam Khan doesn’t suit the BJP well because he reportedly snubs Muslims if there’s any indication of someone trying to create rift on the basis of religion in his pocket borough of Rampur.
Another reason why Azam Khan finds himself being a permanent target of the BJP might have something to do with his political legacy. In Rampur, his principal adversary used to be the Nawab family, which he has successfully ended the rein of. Azam Khan, a plebeian, managed to snatch Rampur from the erstwhile royal family. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Nawab Kazim Ali Khan contested on a Congress ticket and polled only 16 per cent votes. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress did not give ticket to the Nawab clan while Azam Khan, contesting for the Samajwadi Party, defeated his BJP rival Jaya Prada by a margin of more than one lakh votes. Azam Khan’s victory not only defied the Modi juggernaut but also ended the hegemony of the Nawabs and of the Congress in Rampur, something that political Analyst Mahendra Yadav attests.
His principal political opponent being a Nawab meant Azam Khan would never raise issues concerning the Muslim community like another Muslim leader would. His support base consists largely of Hindus, and this has a bearing on his public speeches as well as on his politics overall.
Not good for BJP’s politics
Azam khan’s brush with politics started at an early age with his election as the general secretary of Aligarh Muslim University in the 1970s. He later went to jail for opposing the Emergency. There, he was put in solitary confinement for months before being granted B class status.
Azam Khan carries the image of a dabang politician. He is disliked by the bureaucrats for his go-getter attitude. He has made Rampur one of the best managed and most beautiful cities in Uttar Pradesh. During the Samajwadi Party’s rule, he had fixed the rate of consultancy fee that a doctor in Rampur can charge. Even the meat shops were allowed to sell meat at a fixed price. Not for nothing he has been dubbed as ‘Ramur Ke Sarkar.’
For the BJP, there are sufficient reasons that make Azam Khan a threat to its politics in Uttar Pradesh – just as there are enough reasons for the party to hate him and do everything to completely destroy his political legacy.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.