New Delhi: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s pronounced support for Gorakhpur doctor Kafeel Khan is part of a larger strategy by the Congress party to position itself as a ‘bankable’ option for the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming elections.
The senior Congress leader’s team has run campaigns demanding Khan’s release, and moved him to Rajasthan after his release from jail last week, assuring him and his family of safety under the Congress government in that state.
The Congress had earlier launched a 15-day campaign across several districts of UP, demanding Khan’s release. The campaign included signature drives, hunger strikes, visits to dargahs and blood donation camps in the doctor’s name.
Priyanka had also publicly spoken up against Khan’s continued arrest in July, when she wrote to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath demanding ‘justice’ for the paediatrician.
Khan was released from the Mathura district jail late Tuesday night, after having been arrested on 29 January for an alleged inflammatory speech made in an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest at the Aligarh Muslim University last December. A few days later, he was charged under the stringent National Security Act, but the Allahabad High Court has deemed his arrest “illegal” and based on a selective reading of his speech.
Leaders and political analysts say that the Congress’ move to align itself with a Muslim figure — perceived to be at odds with the Adityanath-led state machinery — is an attempt to tap into the “distanced” Muslim voters in UP.
Strategy driven by Priyanka
UP Congress Minority Cell chief Shahnawaz Alam said the party’s support and aid to Kafeel Khan has “all been done under the directions of Priyanka Gandhi”.
“But he isn’t a lone figure who is being targeted by the Adityanath government. Muslim activists and thinkers across the state are being put in jail,” Alam said. “With the CAA-NRC brought in place, the fundamentals of the Constitution that safeguard Muslims are under threat. This is why it became important for us to raise this issue.”
While the next UP assembly elections will be held in 2022, bypolls for at least eight vacant seats in the state are expected to take place later this year.
In the aftermath of the killings that took place after the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in December, Priyanka undertook multiple visits to various UP districts to meet the families of the deceased. In January, she again met the jailed anti-CAA protests in the state to express her solidarity with them.
“She has led from the front in UP, whether it is the CAA-NRC issue or standing up for people’s rights during the Sonbhadra massacre,” Ajay Kumar Lallu, president of UP Congress told ThePrint.
Hoping to replace SP and BSP
Political analysts say this is a ‘bold’ move by Priyanka to capture the vacuum that may have emerged in UP vis-a-vis Muslim leadership.
“With this move, the Congress is trying to garner support of Muslims who have largely deserted the party for three decades now. The one major exception was the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, where a significant portion of Muslims deserted Samajwadi Party for Congress, after Mulayam Singh had joined forces with hindutva icon Kalyan Singh. This was also the last time the Congress put up a good performance in UP, winning 21 seats,” Asim Ali, research associate at Centre for Policy Research, told ThePrint.
Yadav had said he welcomes the move “that strengthens the country’s integrity” but added that the decision in a democracy must be made by consensus, not by force.
The BSP also helped the central government pass the Triple Talaq bill in the parliament, by abstaining from voting.
Ali said the Congress “might be hoping to present itself as the number 2 option in the state for Muslims, given that BSP has aligned itself with the BJP on a number of issues”.
Congress believes Muslims will switch over
The Congress, however, believes it can effectively convince Muslims who are SP-loyalists, to switch over.
“SP isn’t speaking up for their own jailed leader, so how can they be expected to speak up for the ordinary Muslims being targeted,” a UP Congress leader said, referring to jailed senior SP leader Azam Khan. “Both SP and BSP have just abandoned the Muslims, and the community is fully aware of that,” the leader added.
Khan, the Rampur MP, has been under arrest since February after being booked in multiple cases, including one related to forgery of documents.
His brother-in-law Zameer Ahmed Khan had in March claimed that the Rampur MP is upset with the party’s top brass for not speaking up for him.
Congress will make no headway: SP & BSP
Both SP and BSP have, however, dismissed the Congress’ efforts as being “ineffective”.
SP leader Uday Veer Singh said the party is confident the Congress would not be able to dent its Muslim voter base.
“All secular, like-minded parties raised the issue of Kafeel Khan. We raised it in Parliament as well,” Singh said. “But the Congress is trying to present it as a Hindu-Muslim issue when it is actually an issue of Yogi Adityanath misusing power to target a doctor.”
“Kafeel wasn’t first arrested for anti-CAA protests, but over the BRD hospital issue,” Singh added.
Singh was referring to Khan’s arrest in August 2017 for alleged corruption leading to the death of 70 children due to encephalitis at Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College. He was released on bail in April 2018. A departmental inquiry commissioned by the Yogi Adityanath government cleared him of the charges in September 2019.
BSP leader and spokesperson Sudhindra Bhadoria said the Muslims of UP “haven’t forgotten the Hashimpura massacre or demolition of Babri Masjid when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the PM”.
“There is an organic solidarity between Muslims and Dalits as both are marginalised sections of society. Both have voted for BSP in the past and will continue to do so,” Bhadoria said.
Congress has to do more work: Analyst
Analysts also say the Congress has much work to do in this regard, and that ‘infrequent and symbolic’ gestures such as supporting Kafeel Khan won’t make much of an impact in terms of electoral gains.
“People see the work done on the ground, which must be done consistently over a long period of time. That will require sustained efforts by the party, which is missing for now,” said A.K. Verma, director of Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur.
“It will take a lot more to revive the party, and tap into any community’s voter base,” he added.