The Man Who Wanted To Be King

Politics

The Man Who Wanted To Be King

Illustration: Saachi/Arré

J

amila Begum ran through a school field clutching a plastic bottle half-filled with water. She was desperately pushing through a bone-crushing crowd of hundreds of people ahead of her, knowing that election rallies in Dhubri district’s Chapar, about 200 kilometres west of Guwahati, were never easy. Like several of the other folks gathered there, Jamila had no intention of listening to the political rhetoric being aired over the extremely loud and crackly loudspeakers. All she wanted was “duwa” from a legendary cleric, now a newly minted politician, contesting in Assam’s assembly polls for the first time.

Jostling her way through, Jamila was finally able to see the grey-bearded cleric dressed in a skull cap, loose white kurta pyjama, and a traditional Assamese gamosa on his shoulders. She passed on her bottle to him, her eyes brimming with hope. He blew into the bottle, chanted a few prayers, and transformed the liquid inside to “healing water”. Jamila wasted no time in rushing back home and making her ailing son Rajibul, bedridden for 10 days, drink the water. Within 24 hours, Rajibul, limped up from his cot, confirming his mother’s belief in the God-man.

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That was 2006 and the God-man turned politician was perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, the talk of the town. Ajmal, who had launched Assam United Democratic Front only six months prior, had acquired the “healing touch halo” – and had marked an astonishing victory for the party by bagging 10 seats in the 126-member state legislative assembly during their maiden outing.

Ajmal’s meteoric rise in those early years left his constituency and objective observers alike surprised. Many flattering labels like “kingmaker” had been attached to his hallowed name. Now, as Assam’s election pageant has acquired colour and momentum once again, nearly a decade after his party was launched, Ajmal and his halo both seem to be on the wane.

This 10th year, many believe, will mark his fall. Just as epic as his rise has been.

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Last year, at a public meeting in Dhing in Central Assam’s Nagaon district, Ajmal asked the gathering, “Who is Tarun Gogoi?” Nagaon is Ajmal’s home turf and most likely his source of bluster. His home town Hojai, has a population of 40,000, yet he is the centre of gravity. Posters and hoardings, schools, colleges, hospitals, madrassas, bear the family name. The landmark of the town is the huge Ajmal estate that houses his palatial residence, with a carport that can accommodate 20 vehicles, a pond to supply fish to the household, and a sprawling lawn.

“If a ‘chaiwala’ can become a prime minister, why can’t a perfume baron who has businesses in 27 countries, be a kingmaker,”

As Ajmal took on Gogoi, the crowd roared along with him, well aware of the origin of the jibe. In 2006, when Ajmal had launched AUDF, Gogoi had dismissed him with a summary, “Who is Ajmal?” The upstart politician has retorted to that question with every subsequent election. In the 2011 state assembly polls, AUDF won 18 seats, to become the main opposition party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Ajmal and team won three seats, equalling the score with Gogoi’s Congress.

“If a ‘chaiwala’ can become a prime minister, why can’t a perfume baron who has businesses in 27 countries, be a kingmaker,” Ajmal had asked in an interview last month. His confidence came from canny poll arithmetic: Ajmal tapped the pulse of the largely poor and uneducated Bengali Muslim community in lower and central Assam, a significant force in the state’s elections.

For the BJP, this community is as good as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh: They have openly labelled them as “infiltrators” knowing that infiltration has always been a hot-button issue in the state. In 1985, the All Assam Students’ Union had led a movement against undocumented immigrants in the state. That had resulted in the historic Assam Accord, which declared that only people settled in the state before March 25, 1971, would be considered legal citizens. The BJP’s campaign has coasted along on this sentiment even 30 years later, although unsurprisingly, Hindu immigrants from across the border don’t fit the definition of infiltrators.

In this environment, Ajmal became a beacon of hope for the Bengali Muslim community. Ajmal’s entire campaign has been to consolidate the Muslim vote after the BJP and its alliance partners launched an anti-illegal immigrant tirade. Since Independence, the state’s Muslims had traditionally voted for the Congress until Ajmal took away the Bengali Muslim vote bank. Over the years, they realised that the Congress was merely using them as a vote bank without doing much to improve their condition. But with Ajmal, one of their own, they felt they had a serious shot at representation.

Ajmal is shrewd enough to know this. He has already proven his astute business sense with his wildly successful and diverse Ajmal Group of Companies that includes everything from fragrances and fashion to real estate and biotech. To counter his business image and amplify the glow of his halo, he has also borrowed near-divine status by associating with social organisations and non-government bodies. All in all, Ajmal is a success story in political packaging with all the right ingredients.

The question is – will the voter buy it?

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In the last few months, events in Assam have taken a curious turn for Ajmal. In a bid to counter the north-eastern state’s polarised political climate, he called for the state’s minorities to unite at an election rally in January. That move landed with an effect opposite to what the AIUDF might have hoped for. The only people that it managed to unite were the party’s rivals.

Every political faction in the state – BJP, Congress, with which there were murmurs of an alliance, and even other Assamese Muslim organisations – came down heavily on Ajmal on the back of that statement, accusing him of giving the elections a communal tint. For the BJP, Ajmal remains a “Bangladeshi agent”; for other parties and upper-class voters, he is a “dramebaaz”.

Suspicions that Ajmal might be in bed with the enemy, have further worn off some of his sheen. There are murmurs that a huge chunk of the Muslim vote might return to the Congress fold. In a desperate bid to arrest that, Ajmal toured the entire lower Assam belt a few weeks ago, but he has already begun losing some of his ardent supporters.

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