A perfume baron with signature outlets and distribution centres in more than 30 countries around the world, from Russia to Singapore, is waiting in the wings in Assam, hoping to become kingmaker when the state Assembly election results are declared on 19 May. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, president of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party that draws its main support from the areas inhabited by Muslim settlers, has been going around saying openly he would play ‘kingmaker’ and that no party can form the next government in Assam without the AIUDF’s backing.
“I obviously won’t ask ‘who is Badruddin’ anymore. The AIUDF today is the second largest party in the Assam Assembly with 18 seats (in the 126-member House),” Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who is leading the Congress campaign, said. Gogoi had taunted the Maulana ahead of the 2006 State election by indicating he was not aware of who Badruddin was. Congress is maintaining a calculated silence on possible equations with the AIUDF, like a post-poll alliance, but Maulana Ajmal has no qualms about indicating his party could form the new government with the Congress.
First, the Maulana surprised everyone by saying his party would be contesting 60 plus seats and urged Muslims across Assam to vote for the Congress in the rest of the seats. Then, he accused the BJP of being a ‘communal party’, leaving no one in doubt that when he says no one can form the next government in Assam without the AIUDF’s support, he means the Congress. In fact, the Maulana proposed the idea of a Bihar-type ‘grand alliance’ in Assam and requested Nitish Kumar to take the initiative. That did not materialise because Muslim leaders and candidates in the Congress as well as in the AIUDF were reluctant to give up constituencies they were nurturing. Besides, in the wake of the BJP’s blistering attack on the AIUDF, accusing it of being a party that thrives on the ‘Bangladeshi migrant’ vote-bank, the Congress too developed cold feet for a pre-poll alliance.
Ajmal, who studied at the famous Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic school in Uttar Pradesh, where he earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in Arabic and theology, formed the AIUDF in 2005. It bagged ten seats in its maiden poll venture in 2006 and increased its tally to 18 in 2011, more than the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which was in power twice. In 2009, the party contested elections to the Lok Sabha with Ajmal winning the seat of Dhubri, located close to the Bangladesh border. The AIUDF, however, surprised everyone in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when it bagged three of the State’s 14 seats, coming at par with the Congress. The BJP won seven seats. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal became a key player in the state’s politics, a development that worried the BJP, and, of course, the Congress.
Maulana Ajmal actually wears four different hats — a business tycoon, a political leader, a social worker who runs educational foundations and possibly Asia’s largest charity hospital in his central Assam hometown Hojai, and a Muslim cleric in his capacity as the Assam state president of a faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading Muslim organisation in India. One fact that escapes attention, of course, is that Maulana Ajmal is the head of India’s youngest ‘political dynasty’. He and his younger sibling Sirajuddin are Lok Sabha MPs while his (Maulana Ajmal’s) two sons — Maulana Abdul Rehman Ajmal and Maulana Abdul Rahim Ajmal—are MLAs.
This time, however, the Maulana has asked his older son Abdul Rehman to stay out and is himself contesting the State Assembly polls. The reason is not far to seek and is linked to his ‘kingmaker’ dream. He has himself exposed his plan when he said, “I have left my role as MP behind and contesting the State elections because to run a government, the AIUDF will need someone capable.” If Maulana Ajmal is to remain in state politics in the days ahead, it is almost certain he would quit the Lok Sabha and field his older son from the Dhubri parliamentary seat in the by-election that could follow.
The BJP, bent on grabbing power this time, has made the AIUDF its key target of attack saying if the party were to share power, the identity of Assam’s indigenous people would be at stake. This clearly means that the AIUDF’s opponents are aware of the party’s potential to bag many seats and its ability to damage their prospects in several other seats. Muslims comprise 34 per cent of Assam’s population, but the AIUDF commands the loyalty of mostly the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers in western, northern and central Assam. The AIUDF, one can say, could influence the poll results in about 40 seats. This makes it a party to reckon with.
(Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based political commentator and television talk show host.)