Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath began his 2019 Lok Sabha campaign from Saharanpur on March 24 after paying his respects at the Shakhumbari Temple here. This was the venue from where he also began his 2017 Assembly election campaign, which saw the BJP win 325 of the state’s 403 seats.

Saharanpur is of significance even to the grand alliance of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal. The alliance has picked Deoband in Saharanpur to launch its joint election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, and will hold its first joint rally here on April 7.

Muslims constitute 42% of the total population of Saharanpur. This Lok Sabha constituency shot into the national limelight during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when Congress candidate Imran Masood threatened to chop Narendra Modi into pieces. What followed was a deeply polarised election. Backed by the majority Hindu community, the BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal defeated Masood by around 65,000 votes. Five years later, Masood and Lakhanpal are ready for yet another face-off.

But there is a third candidate who is in the reckoning this time, and he has possibly made the contest trickier. The seat belongs to the Bahujan Samaj Party as part of the agreement between the grand alliance partners, and Mayawati has decided to field popular leader Fazlur Rahman from here. Many believe this could lead to a split in the Muslim vote, making it easy for Lakhanpal to win again.

Saharanpur goes to the polls in the first phase, on April 11.

Both are popular Muslim leaders

“Masood works for the community but Rahman has the numbers,” said Khalid Hasan, who lives in Saharanpur town. “My heart says Masood but my mind wants Rahman since he has the support of the Jatavs. It is certainly a tough call but l hear Muslims going for tactical voting which gives Rahman an advantage.”

Though Rahman is also a popular Muslim leader, Masood is considered to be more popular of the two.

Arrested for his comments against Modi in 2014, Masood had the sympathy factor working for him, which saw Muslims throw their weight behind him in that election. But Masood lost. This has led to doubts among the minority community about his prospects in the upcoming elections.

Though Masood is still considered to be the undisputed leader of Muslims in the region, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Jatav vote share has forced the minority community to rethink about who is better equipped to defeat the BJP.

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On March 19, at the Islamic school Darul Uloom Deoband, Maviya Ali, a former Congress MLA, who joined the Samajwadi Party in 2017, was surrounded by supporters waiting for him to issue instructions for the day.

“Today, the fight is for protecting secularism and defeating BJP’s politics of hatred,” said Ali. “I have great respect for Masood but he too should realise that the Opposition leaders would survive only if the Constitution survives. Masood is still young and we can help him win in 2024. If BJP wins in 2019, Muslims and Dalits will suffer the most. It is time to sacrifice for larger good than harbouring personal ambitions.”

Masood’s caste might work against him, feel several members of the Muslim community. Teli, Gadda and Qureshi castes are the most dominant castes among Muslims here. These castes are throwing their weight behind Rahman claiming that the Qazis, the caste Masood belongs to, have not allowed other Muslims to flourish politically in Saharanpur, say community members.

Masood comes from a family that has had an iron grip on Muslim politics in this area. His uncle Rasheed Masood is a five-time MP from Saharanpur. The two, however, had a fallout in 2012 over ticket distribution. Eventually Imran Masood contested on the Congress ticket while Rasheed Masood’s son Shadan Masood got the Samajwadi Party ticket. When Imran Masood lost by a slim margin, he blamed Shadan Masood for the loss.

Masood vs Rahman

In Rampur Maniharan, which is part of Saharanpur district and is one of the five Assembly constituencies of Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat, Haji Mansoor Ali was busy discussing the elections with the Bahujan Samaj Party city president Nitin Gautam on March 19.

“Imran Masood has made deliberate attempts to defeat Teli and Qureshi candidates in local body polls,” he said. “It is time for a payback. He anyway cannot win only with Muslim support. He needs the additional vote share, which he does not have.”

Ali added that Imran Masood had been given enough chances in the past. He said Rahman had the support of the Jatavs too and is in a far stronger position numerically. “So, why should we waste our vote on him [Imran Masood]?” he asked.

Ali said he and other members of the community are canvassing with Muslim families in Saharanpur order to make them understand that they will help the BJP win if they voted for Imran Masood. “It is time for Muslims to vote tactically to ensure the BJP does not win from Saharanpur,” said Ali. “It is time to support the mahagathbandhan.”

Rampur Maniharan is a Scheduled Caste reserved Assembly constituency and a Bahujan Samaj Party bastion. Nitin Gautam is confident that Jatavs will vote for the party’s candidate.

Citing data from the last election, he pointed that out that despite the Modi wave and polarisation in 2014, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate still managed to secure nearly 20% of the vote share. The BJP bagged nearly 40% of the vote share, while the Congress got 34.14%.

“We are in an even better position than 2014 especially after what happened in Shabbirpur,” said Gautam.

In 2017, members of the Dalit community objected to a procession to mark Maharana Pratap Jayanti, which angered the upper-caste Thakurs, sparking off violent clashes between the two communities.

“Dalits are now working towards defeating the BJP and so are Muslims,” said Gautam. “If Muslims don’t vote for Rahman, they are the ones at loss.”

According to him, Dalits have been fighting the BJP and the Congress for decades and will continue to do so. “However, time is running out for Muslims and they should realise that,” said Gautam.

‘Confident of victory’

Imran Masood is confident about his victory, however, and said that he will take care of all the differences within his community.

He has accused Mayawati of confusing anti-BJP voters.

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

Imran Masood is also optimistic because he has made peace with his estranged uncle Rasheed Masood. “We are together now which will help me win,” he said.

What the BJP thinks

The BJP’s local leaders are confident of Lakhanpal’s victory, certain that the Muslim vote will split. However, some workers are questioning the party’s decision to give Lakhanpal the ticket again. They feel he does not have a connect with voters. “In these five years, Lakhanpal has been missing from the constituency,” said a local BJP worker who did not want to be identified.

Another local BJP leader smelt a conspiracy. “Punjabis, who hold prominent positions in the Saharanpur unit of the saffron party, are scheming against Lakhanpal,” he claimed. The leader, however, said that people will be voting for Modi more than Lakhanpal.

The common perception in Saharanpur is that general category Hindus, including Other Backward Classes, and a section of Dalits will vote for the BJP, which gives it an edge over its rivals.

The BJP’s Deoband MLA Brijesh Singh is certain that his party will win not just Saharanpur but the state’s 79 other Lok Sabha seats.

According to him, these elections are more about Narendra Modi’s second tenure as prime minister than local candidates. Citing the success of schemes launched by the Modi government, he claimed people across castes will vote for the BJP.

“Every family has a house, gas connection, a toilet and farmers are also benefiting from several other schemes launched by the government,” he said. “Modi’s personality will overpower any issue or even the alliance. People like his working style and the vision he has for India. Right thinking people will vote for Modi.”

But Singh agreed if Muslims back Rahman, it will be a close contest.