Riding With the Rehmans

Aapne kabhi cheating nahi ki kya?”, asks Saleem Rehman with a chuckle after he asked to pass off his answers as those of his brother, BSP candidate for Saharanpur Haji Fazlur Rehman. Though said in jest, it seemed indicative of the broader fraternal dynamic where Fazlur Rehman is the official candidate but Saleem Rehman lurks as the puppeteer behind the scenes.

A stark contrast to Fazlur Rehman, who exudes a rather dignified air, Saleem Rehmans’ half solemn-half teasing demeanor  leaves you perpetually unsure whether he is serious or merely jesting. This doublespeak is an unassailable political asset – where Fazlur Rehman is bound by the rigidity of electoral rules, Saleem Rehman navigates the political landscape with ease, his words perpetually treading the thin line between proper and improper, moral and immoral, legal and illegal.

Saharanpur Lok Sabha constituency is set to go to polls in the first phase on 11 April; and campaigning, officially beginning two weeks prior to election day, has been in full swing. The political battleground is split three ways – between BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal, the sitting MP from Saharanpur, the Congress’s Imran Masood—nephew of five time Saharanpur MP Rasheed Masood—who lost to Lakhanpal by 65,000 votes in the 2014 general elections, and a relative newcomer to the political scene, Haji Fazlur Rehman, an influential businessman whose foray into politics began with the 2017 Nagar Nigam (Municipal Corporation) elections, where he lost to BJP’s Sanjeev Walia by 22,000 votes. Rehman, contesting on a BSP ticket, represents the grand alliance— mahagatbandhan—between BSP, SP and RLD in Uttar Pradesh. 

Though Rehman’s name is not as widely known, his nomination as part of the grand alliance has made him a formidable opponent. In a constituency with a large Muslim-Dalit population (42% Muslims and 22% Dalits), Rehmans’ candidacy on a BSP ticket seems strategically aimed at securing the minority vote. On one hand, he is projecting himself as a patron of Muslims; on the other,  his BSP backing ensures that the Dalit vote is squarely on his side. Additionally, OBCs—comprising Yadavs, Gujjars and Jats—seem to be tilting towards Rehman, given the backing he has received from the SP and the RLD. All in all, Fazlur Rehman is in an enviable position, standing at the epicenter of a varied but consolidated vote bank.

“Let me tell you the facts of this election”, says Saleem Rehman as we trail Fazlur Rehman’s car on the campaign trail. “The upper caste vote bank lies with the BJP. The Dalit vote bank is staunchly with the BSP. That leaves the OBCs and Muslims – they are the swing votes in this election”, he says. While the OBC vote is more or less assured, Rahman feels that the Muslim vote in Saharanpur could be divided, especially since both Congress and grand alliance candidates are Muslim. A vote split between the Congress and the grand alliance, he fears, will only work in the BJP’s favour.

At a rally outside senior SP leader Sahab Singh Saini’s house, a party worker reiterates the same concern to the 100 or so gathered men: “You have two Muslim candidates before you: One (Imran Masood) threatens to hit people with his shoe, the other (Fazlur Rehman) talks about development. One is merely 12th pass, the other is a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. So vote for Fazlur Rehman, and don’t let the Muslim vote get divided”. A similar refrain pervades most speeches, and is followed by scattered applause.

Fazlur Rehman makes no speech, and soon, we’re back in the car, this time with the candidate as well. Fazlur Rehman is silent when asked why he chose to fight the election, and once again Saleem dons the mantle of the candidate’s official spokesperson.  “See, our family is the biggest beef exporter in West UP. We’re also the highest tax payers in this part. So clearly we live a comfortable life. But Rehman ji is almost 68 years now. He feels like it’s time to give back to society”, says Saleem Rehman. “We spend 1 lakh rupees on charitable causes every day. In addition to this, all the widows in this city—Hindu and Muslim—get a monthly pension of 1000 rupees from our organization. We’re really trying to uplift those who need help, and politics means power – and power is necessary for this kind of upliftment”, he says.

Rehman, a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University’s 1972 batch, belongs to a family that is one of the largest beef exporters in the country. His official asset declaration form for the 2017 Nagar Nigam elections lists his combined wealth as upwards of 2 crores – with Rs 1,53,39,058 in moveable assets and Rs 93,61,100 in immoveable assets. “Par problem yeh hai ki log jante hai ki inke paas paisa hai. Toh har baar, humse paise nikalne ki koshish mein rehte hain”, says Saleem Rehman. “Election mehnga pad jata hai”, he says with a sigh. 

After a pause, he continues, “Recently, someone complained that we were distributing food to our people, and so we had to shut it down because it’s a violation of the model code of conduct.”The official expenditure limit for campaigning varies across states; in UP, it is 70 lakhs. But according to Saleem Rehman, this is not enough to cover the cost of organizing a successful campaign. Mobilizing voters, feeding them, even organising adequate media coverage can all add up to be expensive, he says.  

As we enter the last stretch of the campaign trail, Nangal village, which has a majority Dalit population, Fazlur Rehman sits up straight. As the car traverses the inroads of the village, he waves at the people gathered on both sides. It’s easy to see that the Dalit vote is on his side; but BSP patronage is not the only reason for this. Rehman is also endorsed by the local Bhim Army, a Dalit organization that shot to national prominence after the 2017 Thakur-Dalit riots in Saharanpur.

“We stand firmly with Fazlur Rehman”, says Bhim Army Saharanpur-in-charge Kamal Walia. “Businessman hain; hospitals main chanda dete hain; bahut ache insaan hain”, he says. But after a pause, adds, “Par samajik pakad nahi hai. Log unhe jaante hi nahi”.

As it gets hotter, the enthusiasm outside is perceptibly waning. As the speeches continue, a party functionary suddenly stops a speech midway to censure party workers for their lack of enthusiasm. “Saathiyon, I know all of you have been here for a while and are tired. But you can’t be so dead; Aur josh dikhaao. Aapke liye khana bhi lag raha hai, par tab tak jumke naare lagaao! Fazlur Rehman zindabad”. A feeble echo resounds from the audience: ‘Fazlur Rehman zindabad’.