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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

How Awami Front fell flat in UP

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

Lucknow: Politics is not what is seen and felt but what is achieved… But, what if an effort does not lead to even power-sharing but a big zero? Perhaps this is how the experiment of the Awami Front (AF) in Uttar Pradesh may be explained.

Saleem Peerzada Dr Ali ameer DrMKSherwani

Saleem Peerzada

Dr Ali Ameer

Dr MK Sherwani

AF was a conglomerate of six verbally active Muslim political parties in UP, the state where 22 percent of all Muslims of India live. The harsh reality is that none of these six outfits has any real influence on Muslim voters. This forced them to come closer before the last elections. All of them are crippled on the financial front, aged leadership devoid of any real grassroots base. Yet, there seemed light at the end of the tunnel and AF cobbled its alliance exactly one year prior to the general elections last April.

AF, therefore, was a unique example of unlike birds with unlike features flying together. As expected, sooner rather than later it fell flat on its face, disintegrated, disoriented and dislodged.

The front was formed at the initiative of the recently formed Indian Muslim Political Conference (IMPC) headed by Saleem Peerzada and his lieutenant Ali Ameer. The organisation owes its existence to a stream of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) legacy. Both of them are Aligarians and Ali Ameer has also been a former AMU student union president. Later the IMPC formed it’s own political outfit as Parcham Party of India ( on 13 April 2003.

Indian National League (INL), whose national general secretary Mohammad Sulaiman had lost in the assembly elections by a margin of just 85 votes from Arya Nagar, Kanpur in 1989 and was imprisoned for 15 months under National Security Act after the March 2001 Kanpur riots, did not make demands and put its whole weight behind AF, but, National Loktantrik Party (NLP) under Masood Ahmad and Arshad Khan were reluctant from the very beginning. This was despite the NLP ideologue Advocate Sartaj Jilani’s participation in all the previous sessions. Jilani denies the NPL “ideologue” tag but hardly suppresses his smile when referred to as such. "We will put our own flag and banner and not that of the AF during our electoral campaigns," Masood insisted. Masood has once been a member of the state legislative assembly (MLA) from the Bahujan Samaj Party before he was expelled. He mouths his rustic expletives even from public platforms. Arshad Khan ridiculed AF partners as “typically English-speaking, weightless intellectuals.”

The All India Muslim Forum (AIMF) under law professor MK Sherwani, a zamindar, became famous in 1994 and has thereafter, been on the streets of Lucknow religiously. The outfit’s former president Mohammad Nihaluddin leaving for a teaching post in an African country has seriously hampered its growth. "We have been at loggerheads with Hindu fascism in Lucknow, against AB Vajpayee, the three-times member of parliament from the city, fighting pitched battles with the police, facing frequent lathicharges, even bullets, and braving legal cases against our cadres. Yet I was amazed that Peerzada would question me about our outfit’s progress report and I would just smile at his naivety," said MK Sherwani.

Another important constituent was Muslim Majlis (MM), founded by Dr AJ Faridi in 1968. It has a great past having won eight assembly seats in alliance with Chaudhry Charan Singh and then nine seats along with two MPs in Janta Dal government in 1977. But, as fate would have it, MM today is reduced to a nondescript single-room office with no one in sight except for Taufiq Jafri, the one-time personal secretary to Dr Faridi. Khalid Sabir returned after years in England to take up the MM's reins. MM continued to be a part of AF until the joint press conference in Lucknow where Peerzada took centre-stage, while Sabir was relegated to a seat at the extreme left. "After the press conference, they got into an eight-seater vehicle like school boys and I was made to occupy the rearmost place again. Despite my pacifism, I found that AF was lacking the basic cohesive force," stated Sabir.

Momin Conference (MC), another partner in AF, draws it’s strength from the carpet industry and is financially viable. Once the trade fairs around the world are over, there needs to be some Muslim politics too in the silly season. Hence, Naimullah Ansari, the eldest, donned the presidentship of AF and the second eldest, Khalid Sabir, discovered that their personal chemistry was in alignment.
The apparent bonhomie of AF continued until 2 February 2004 when Salman Khurshid, the Congress Muslim face, unexpectedly broke it to the media that AF was extending all-out support to the Congress!

"We were conducting our consultative conclave at Allahabad when Khalid Sabir suddenly left and then rejoined the meeting and the next day photographs were splashed claiming MM and MC support to the Congress," says Peerzada. Interestingly, this was the first alliance the Congress has had even prior to any co-ordination with DMK in Tamil Nadu. The elections were held in five phases throughout April last.

The move led to a virtual chaos as all the AF components went hay wire. IMPC, INL, MM and MC all tried to outdo each other into convincing Congress of their weight and usefulness. Shrewd Congress just made them hear the whistle but the train never arrived. 

Salman Khurshid, in his personal handwriting, offered five seats (UP has 82 parliamentary seats) and in the end squeezed it to just one — Bijnaur (reserved) seat to MC and when Naimullah filed his nomination, he discovered that the Congress too was fielding its own candidate from the same constituency! Height of duplicity, indeed. Peerzada and Sulaiman cooled their heels and did not leap into the fray with any of their own candidates.

The scene at NLP was hot as expected as it fielded its candidates in almost all seats. This was prior to getting any green signal from the Congress. Arshad Khan from Khalilabad and Masood Ahmad from Moradabad failed miserably and Baleshwar, a muscleman from Padrauna, won the parliamentary seat on NLP ticket. The paradox is that both Masood and Arshad expelled each other from the party and announced that the other was not its candidate. All this courtesy the Congress which too had fielded candidates and wanted NLP to withdraw candidate in Congress’ favour. Another irony: NLP’s lone MP and MLA are both non-Muslims.

AIMF is the only outfit not toeing any political party for alliance. "Today, Peerzada and Sabir are accusing each other but they were both hobnobbing with the Congress in secret," said MK Sherwani. AIMF fielded its candidate Mohammad Salahuddin against AB Vajpayee but there was a surprise. Indian Union Muslim League (UP) came up with Sheikh Aziz Dyre, a Bombay blast 1993-accused. Both Salahuddin and Dyre won a few thousand votes and in the process helped Vajpayee win comfortably, by a margin of over 0.2 million votes.

"We are not to be remote controlled by IUML in Kerala as it is UP where most of the Muslims live," said Mohammad Waseem, IUML president, once a Congressman. IUML in Kerala has a history of having at least one MP, and sometimes more, and around 20 MLAs in the state assembly.

Saleem Peerzada on his part came down to Lucknow from Aligarh to support Ram Jethmalani and much to the latter’s embarrassment described his fight as “symbolic” while addressing a press conference sitting next to him. Jethmalani finished fourth and was the last to save his deposits. 

The elections over, Muslims won 11 seats in UP, with slim margins in nine constituencies out of 36 from all over the nation and now the by-elections in 12 constituencies in UP have been announced for October 13.

After attaining power at Centre, the Congress now changed colours. In complete departure from its earlier stand, it has come up with a new formula: it had promised MM that even if it could not go together in parliamentary polls it would be a partner in the assembly elections.

The Congress, it seems, is talking in many voices. Pervez Hashmi, now a Congress MLA from Okhla (Delhi) after deserting Janta Dal, held a secret meeting with Khalid Sabir and DP Bora, chairman of the UP Congress Programme Implementation Committee, in which he offered a Congress ticket to Sabir to fight assembly elections from the Allahabad West constituency. This left Khalid Sabir stunned and furious. The meeting took place on 26 August 2004. "I cannot divulge the contents of the confidential talks," said DP Bora when asked.

"I think the cheat in Congress has now come full-circle holding secularism to ransom. They sought our support throughout UP elections and now they want us to melt into the Congress," said Sabir before leaving for Allahabad to try his luck as an MM candidate. MK Sherwani and Khan Mohammad Atif Khan, a former MLA, have pledged their support if he so wishes.

"Look, Congress is desperately trying to cling to any straw but we would not fall into it's trap. Let it come to our doorstep. As Congress knows very well that out of 403 constituencies in UP, Muslims can swing fortunes on their own in over 120. It is also true that because of Congress policies most of them have been declared “reserved” (for SC-ST or women) in stark violation of the Peoples Representation Act," said MK Sherwani. Lets see how Congress fares this time round. October 13 is not far away.

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