Bengaluru: Roshan Baig, the Congress MLA from Karnataka courting headlines for publicly slamming the state party brass, started his affair with politics as a supporter of the party in the days of late prime minister Indira Gandhi.
As a grassroots worker of the Congress, he distributed handbills and pasted posters of the party, and it’s a stint he’s proud of to this day.
“Despite not having a single rupee in our pocket, we would shout slogans such as ‘aadhi roti khayenge, Indiraji ko layenge [will live on half a chapati, but vote Indira Gandhi to office]’ and receive Congress leaders,” Baig told ThePrint. “I have worked hard to come up.”
However, it wasn’t the Congress that afforded him his maiden stint in public office. Now a seven-time legislator, Baig contested his maiden assembly election in 1985 as a candidate of the erstwhile Janata Dal after the Congress denied him a ticket. He won the election and was made a minister by then Karnataka chief minister J.H. Patel.
It was in 1999, when the Janata Dal split to form H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), and subsequently the Janata Dal (United), that Baig’s electoral brush with the Congress began.
Owns a newspaper, education trust
Baig’s affidavit for the 2018 Karnataka identifies him as a social worker, but he has been running a newspaper, Siasat, for 25 years — an endeavour, he told ThePrint, meant to “open up the minds of the Muslim community”.
He also runs a private educational institution, the Bismillah Education Trust. According to the affidavit, his income for 2016-17 stood at Rs 1.15 crore.
The MLA, 65, is known to be well-connected with Congress leaders in the national capital, including party president Rahul Gandhi.
His constituency, Shivajinagar, is dominated by Hindus, and his long association with the seat has earned him a solid rapport across communities.
“I have served several years in the assembly,” he said, speaking to ThePrint after rebelling against state party leaders earlier this week. “I wanted to serve from Delhi [Lok Sabha] too, but that has not happened.”
Being denied a ticket for the Lok Sabha election is believed to be one of the factors that caused Baig to go public with his “grievances” against state leaders of the Congress, primarily former chief minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka party chief Dinesh Gundu Rao.
Among other things, Baig has held them responsible for weakening the party’s prospects in the 2018 Karnataka assembly election as well as this year’s Lok Sabha polls, for which exit polls have not given the Congress much to be excited about in the state.
He has courted controversy before as well, when he was forced to resign from the S.M. Krishna-led state cabinet (1999-2004) when his brother emerged as an accused in the Telgi fake stamp paper case. But he bounced back, serving in every cabinet until the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress alliance took office last year.
Over his tenure in politics, Baig has sought to maintain a secular tag and admonishes anybody who attempts to brand him communal. He takes pride in the fact that he “successfully kept” provocative Islamist preachers like Zakir Naik out of Karnataka.
One of his prime peeves in the ongoing rebellion has been what he sees as the low representation of minorities in the Congress’ Lok Sabha list for Karnataka.
He also felt sidelined after Zameer Ahmed, a former rebel member of the JD(S), joined the Congress and was made a minister, a senior leader of the party told ThePrint.
Political analyst Bhaskar Rao agreed. Baig, he said, was an influential leader of the Congress on a par with Mallikarjun Kharge, R.V. Deshpande and D.K. Shivakumar.
“After the demise of former Union minister C.K. Jaffer Sharief, Baig wanted to emerge as the number one leader of the Muslim community,” Rao added.
“That did not materialise with the entry of Zameer Ahmed Khan. Baig felt ignored, and Zameer becoming a minister was a major setback for him,” he added.
The Congress, he said, could not make light of Baig’s rebellion as he had done so by projecting himself as the “saviour of the minorities”.
“If the party decides to suspend him, it would hurt the already troubled image of the Congress,” he added.
This is, perhaps, why the Congress brass acknowledged Baig’s rebellion with a statement that signalled more hurt than anger.
Kharge said the Muslim leader had good contacts with the Congress leadership and could have “expressed his anguish before the party leadership and ironed out issues”.