Ahead of the 2014 general election, Imran Masood was arrested for hate speech after he threatened to “chop Narendra Modi into pieces”. He was the Congress’s candidate in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and the controversy contributed to his defeat by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Raghav Lakhanpal by around 65,000 votes.

Still, in the years since, Masood has only gained in influence. He was appointed the Congress’s vice president in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2017 Assembly election and now he has again secured the party’s ticket. That’s partly because of his background: he is the nephew of Rasheed Masood, five-term Congress MP from Saharanpur.

On the weekend, Masood hit the headlines again – not for something he’d done but because Uttar Pradesh Adityanath at an election rally described him as the son-in-law of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar.

This time, Masood is up against not only Lakhanpal but also Fazlur Rahman of the Bahujan Samaj Party. In fact, Mayawati’s decision to field a Muslim candidate has made it trickier for Masood, who was counting on the Muslim vote to challenge Lakhanpal. In 2014, the Bahujan Samaj Party had nominated Jagdish Rana and he won about 20% of the vote. Mayawati would be expecting Rahman to build on that by adding a chunk of the Muslim vote to the party’s core Dalit support.

If the Muslim vote is divided between Masood and Rahman, it would likely benefit the BJP. Muslims, however, are talking about “tactical voting” and, worryingly for Masood, many of them feel supporting the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance makes more sense since it seems in a stronger position than the Congress to defeat the BJP, which they insist is their main priority.

But Masood said he is confident about his prospects and will “manage everything” before polling day on April 11. In an interview with Scroll.in, he also talked about Mayawati’s alliance with Akhilesh Yadav, the Congress’s wooing of the Dalit youth leader Chandrashekhar Azad and the contest in Saharanpur. Excerpts:

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has called you the “son-in-law” of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and has claimed that you speak the langugage of the terror mastermind. Your reaction.

Every now and then, Yogiji shares such divine knowledge. He had earlier said that Hanuman was a Dalit, now he is relating me with someone. This reflect how the UP chief minister has no issues to talk about. He is just trying to mislead people with such comments. Instead of talking about the farm distress, rising unemployment and slumping economy, he is making these comments to divert the attention of the people from real issues that concern the common man.

How is the contest shaping up in Saharanpur?
I have worked hard and spent a lot of time with the people. The incumbent BJP MP is inaccessible and has no real connection with the people or their problems. Secondly, his own party’s workers are miffed with his style of working and many of them have joined us in the recent past. I believe I have a strong chance of winning.

How are you so confident given the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance has fielded a Muslim. A triangular fight is what even the BJP would prefer?
See, Mayawati is trying to benefit the BJP. The way she is challenging the Congress raises questions about her intention to defeat the BJP. There is no clarity about who she really wants to defeat. She keeps attacking the Congress and that also reflects in her choice of candidates in certain constituencies.

This alliance makes no difference to me, however. These people contesting against me have joined hands to defeat me earlier as well. Whenever I have contested, this alliance has always been there. It will have no impact whatsoever now. The BSP’s vote share is around 3 lakh while we have to go beyond 4.5 lakh. They will not get anywhere close to me but it is certain that they have created confusion among the voters. They are misleading the voters.

All anti-BJP forces should unite and we have been urging the Samajwadi Party and the BSP to ally with us but they don’t want it. If you don’t want an alliance with the Congress, do you want to have one with the BJP? Is there any alliance powerful enough to take on the BJP without the Congress.

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What do you make of the fact that the alliance has decided not to contest against the Congress in just two constituencies?
Their thinking creates a doubt about whether they are with the BJP or the Congress. Mayawati has supported the BJP three times in the past and there is no certainty she won’t do it again. If she goes with the BJP after the election, her voters would feel cheated because she is seeking the anti-BJP vote. She is trying to mislead the anti-BJP voters in fact because as far as I understand, her decisions will end up benefiting the BJP.

Some people in Saharanpur, especially Muslims, say they have given Imran Masood many chances and it’s time they voted strategically for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidate to defeat the BJP. In fact, some members of the Muslim community are even campaigning against you.
If you give an untrained man a car to drive, it will certainly lead to an accident. If I start a factory, I might incur huge losses because that isn’t what I do. The gentleman contesting against me [Fazlur Rahman] couldn’t even take on the local administration during the election for mayor. [It is widely alleged in Saharanpur that Rahman lost the 2017 mayoral election because the administration cast bogus votes for the BJP.] How can you expect someone like him to do politics in the future? Those who are campaigning against me should know that it would never work.

Imran Masood with his supporters. Photo via Twitter

While the Opposition claims its priority is to defeat the BJP, the Congress seems more concerned about reviving its own fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, which is said to be the reason for its failure to form an alliance. Do you think this is the right strategy?

Our party repeatedly tried to join forces to defeat the BJP but Mayawati’s stubbornness destroyed the political equation. The BJP was destined to be wiped out from Uttar Pradesh otherwise. If the BJP manages to win, Mayawatiji should be held responsible.

Rahul Gandhi says Priyanka Gandhi has been tasked with reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls. What kind of impact do you see her making?
Priyanka Gandhi will deliver even in this election. But if you look at our candidates, they are all capable of taking on the BJP, which remains our main enemy. Our fight is against the ideology represented by Narendra Modi. We are the followers of a certain ideology and we are not among those who would sacrifice it for petty gains.

How do you look at the political marginalisation of the Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh, especially after the BJP’s victory in 2014 and the 2017 Assembly election? How has this affected the community?
It is a great misfortune that this nation is being ruled with hatred. It is not possible to isolate a large section of the society. This country can only move forward with love. It is a great misfortune that the country is being divided through communalism and regionalism. It shouldn’t happen.

There is speculation in the media that the Congress is backing Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army Party. Is it true?
I have a great personal rapport with Chandrashekhar and my relationship with him will dominate the politics here in times to come.

Do you see him as the Dalit face of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh in the future?
I see Chandrashekhar as a leader of Dalits of this country. A new leadership of Dalits which is aggressive and has the will to change things is emerging. Chandrashekhar is one such leader.

Do you regret making those remarks against Modi in 2014 for which you were arrested?
Let bygones be bygones. There is no point discussing all those matters now.

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