Madhya Pradesh Assembly Polls: The Muslim resurfaces in BJP

MuslimsArif Baig on campaign in Bhopal North, a Muslim-dominated constituency. (IE Photo)

The BJP's lone Muslim face in the Madhya Pradesh elections makes it a point to stress his religious credentials while questioning those of his Congress rival, also a Muslim.

Arif Baig, 78, has practically been pulled out of retirement to contest Bhopal North, a difficult seat that has voted Congress for years. Baig, a former union minister with an erratic electoral record, one that shows several losses alongside victories, faces a formidable opponent in Arif Aqueel, 63, who is the state's only Muslim MLA and has won the seat five times.

"The Congress has always scared you in the BJP's name to ensure you remain trapped. You don't have to be afraid of anyone else but Allah," he tells the small crowds along the way as his vehicle negotiates the bylanes of the Muslim-dominated constituency in old Bhopal. Speaking in chaste Urdu, Baig does not shy away from alleging that Aqueel, his rival, "has nothing to do with the mosque".

Bhopal North has been "adopted" by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who likes to flaunt his secularism. The BJP had allocated each difficult seat to a senior leader and Bhopal North had come Chouhan's way. The chief minister initially appeared prepared to take up the challenge of wresting the seat from the Congress. When he shifted his focus elsewhere, the party decided to give Baig the ticket. It is after nearly 15 years that the party has fielded a Muslim candidate in MP.

Baig has changed parties and seats several times in his five-decade career. The peak came in 1977 when, as a Janata Party candidate in the Lok Sabha election to the Bhopal seat, he routed Shankar Dayal Sharma, then a Congress candidate and later India's President.

His aides try to make sure no one forgets it. "He is the same man who defeated Shankar Dayal Sharma," they announce repeatedly, but this finds resonance only with older voters. "Earlier generations of your families voted for him. When you vote for him, you will be voting for a cabinet minister,'' Baig's minders claim, before the candidate picks up the microphone.

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