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.

Besides attacking the Congress and his rival, Baig extols the virtues of education and tells Muslims how they can better their lot by sending their sons and daughters to school. He stresses communal harmony with slogans such as "Hamara nara bhai chara" and "Hum sab ek hai".

"Where were you all these years?" shouts an angry, elderly man claiming that he had chased Baig since his 1977 victory but could never meet him. Social activist Abdul Jabbar says that Baig had not engaged with local issues for nearly two decades.

Baig had drifted out of public focus following a poor run in his later elections, for various parties. He had begun his political career with the Socialist Party and joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1973 before defeating S D Sharma in 1977 as a Janata Party candidate. In 1989, he won the Betul Lok Sabha election for the BJP; in 1996, he joined the Congress after the BJP denied him the Lok Sabha ticket. He returned to the BJP fold in 2003. Over the years, he has contested from Indore, Betul, Bhopal and Khandwa, losing frequently and becoming less and less active — until now.

His Congress rival calls him Dharati Pakad for having changed parties and constituencies. Unlike Baig, who has resurfaced after a long time, Aqueel is known among the needy as someone who comes to their aid when they need him. Aqueel calls the BJP communal and often takes a strident anti-RSS stand. Known for using rough language, he is confident Baig will lose his deposit.

Chouhan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee's photographs dominate Baig's campaign material. Chouhan, who often dons the skull cap and throws iftar parties, has a wide acceptance among Muslim voters, who get uncomfortable when asked about the possible impact Narendra Modi will have on the Madhya Pradesh elections.

"We are happy with Chouhan and his policies," says Mohammed Firdosh, who runs a chicken outlet near Peergate locality.

"Muslims have seen 10 years of BJP rule in the state. There's no discrimination and everyone gets the same facilities," says Mohammed Akram, who lives near Chowki Imambada locality.

Saleem Qureshi, chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Urdu Academy, says more than 100 Muslims are representing the BJP in urban bodies across the state. A few have been appointed on boards and corporations.

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