A bicycle is never just a bicycle in UP.
We met recently a businessman peddling cycles who hasn’t been able to resist the magnetic lure of rajneeti. It’s a lucrative sport after all. And if you ace it, it’s the only sport in the world where you get to make up your own rules as you go along. Sign all kinds of executive orders that take your fancy, if you please.
So allow us to introduce you to Bazmi Siddiqui, in the business of bicycles in Faizabad. He’s not with the Samajwadi Party though – an outfit that recently fought tooth and nail for that very symbol – he’s a man of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has been for over a decade and counting, and has now been chosen as the BSP candidate from one of the most-watched constituencies this election season, Ayodhya.
Elections are a mood you can taste and smell, it envelops us all as we sit in the BSP office, waiting for our man to arrive. His media-in-charge is fawning to the point of absurd, a character in a play, as he ushers the “media” in, placating everyone to bide their waiting time with endless rounds of chai and snacks.
Siddiqui’s been running behind his jan sampark schedule we know; we learn that he’s at the hospital today “getting an ultrasound”, which has caused further delay. Party workers begin to throng the premises and gossip flies about as notes are exchanged and the tension mounts. Four hours of this and he turns up, short of apologies and complete with namastes and pathani suits. The mystery of the medical emergency gets resolved early on in our meeting, “Oh, it’s because I’ve been drinking water in these SC bastis! See, at home, I only drink RO water. But, what to do? When you’re meeting people, you have no option. You cannot offend the constituency.” The professional hazards led to a stomach infection, and we pore over the prescription of antibiotics together, a bill that has amounted to “INR 3,000!”, he’ll have us know.
A businessman at heart, Siddiqui has had an eye on and for profits and losses all his life. His first brush with politics coincided with dhandha – running a cycle store in Faizabad, Siddiqui landed the contract of distributing cycles to school-going girls, an initiative that was the brainchild of Behenji herself. The story of his BSP association began from there and he’s been a loyalist of the party ever since. Looking down upon the “dalbadlu netas” who change parties as per convenience only too often, Siddiqui emphasizes on staying with Mayawati “marte dum tak”. The reasons he cites mostly tow the party line, how the SP actively encourages gundaraj, how the BJP fans communalism, and how the BSP years in UP were among the most peaceful ones in the history of the state. “You can fact-check it,” he says, as a dare. Among the usual development points of proper roads and better facilities, Siddiqui is also quick to assert women’s issues as a UP and hence election mudda – a truth stranger than fiction because Siddiqui himself has faced rape charges. He dismisses it, no trace of irony, with the explanation of it all being a “saazish” against him, seeped in politics and nothing else, like everything else. His hangers-on at the office had gone so far as to label the woman an “awaara aurat” for whom this is apparently a quick money-making means. Siddiqui waves away the charges (that go back to 2014), and speaks instead about how women have felt safe when BSP has been in power, how the women inside the party vouch for this as well.
This is the first time the BSP has fielded a Muslim candidate in a city that is synonymous with communal tension. The strategy is straightforward: Ayodhya has a sizable Muslim population, a significant portion of which lives in its rural pockets. The sitting SP MLA, Pavan Pande is an unpopular figure in these parts, remaining invisible through his tenure and even when he’s around, more concerned with life in the city limits. There is much dissonance around the chosen BJP candidate, Ved Prakash Gupta, who isn’t popular with the current MP, Laloo Singh; seen as something of an ‘outsider’ in fact. BSP’s eye on the Muslim vote in this troubled constituency is a smart move, too-slowly being articulated (and shown, by the somewhat filmy hand shake with the Quami Ekta Dal) by the party leader, now that she has finally seemed to emerge from a slumber most uncharacteristic of a chunavi dangal fever.
All in all, Siddiqui has a fair shot and he knows it. “Communal riots have happened whenever BSP’s not been in power. And even if there aren’t, these RSS guys spread rumours that there are communal riots in Ayodhya”, he says, with a practised disgust. The truth, he says is a picture-perfect postcard of harmony, “There are 10,000 Muslims who live close to the Ayodhya temple – right next to it. And they are all happy.” The puncture in the narrative occurs when these other parties cause mayhem, he insists. All in the name of votes, “That’s when Ayodhya burns.”