On Sunday, most ATMs in Moradabad city were shuttered. At the few that were open, the security guards waved from a distance, indicating there was no cash. “I have been looking for cash across the city,” one local resident remarked before driving off on his motorbike in search of money.
Moradabad, and the neighbouring districts of Amroha, Sambhal, Rampur, Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, go to polls in the second phase on 15 February. In the run-up to the election, the paucity of cash is causing unease among the people, leading to anger against the BJP.
“The jewellers and traders may tell you that they have no issues with the BJP, but in reality they are very angry,” says Harpreet, who runs a jewellery store in Rampur, not far from the iconic Raza Library in the old quarters of the walled city. “We have suffered a lot,” he adds, explaining how the business first suffered due to the one per cent excise duty levied by the state government and then as a result of demonetisation.
Iqbal Khan, a Rampur-based merchant dealing in the exquisite Zari embroidered cloth, has similar woes to share. “Due to demonetisation, we did not get our payments on time and thus could not pay the craftsmen. Most factories are shut since,” Iqbal claims.
The BJP is not a major player in this Muslim dominated constituency. The contest is primarily between the ruling Samajwadi Party's Azam Khan, the sitting MLA who fancies himself as the leader of the state's Muslims and frequently makes headlines for outrageous remarks, and the BSP candidate Dr Tanweer Khan.
“There is no doubt he has worked a lot,” Harpreet says, referring to Azam. “There is 24-hour power supply; the city has better roads.” This opinion is shared by some of his customers. “He has given rickshaws to the poor, and others are benefitting from the pension scheme, the housing scheme for the poor,” says Rafiq Ahmad, one of the customers.
Azam Khan, however, hasn't done much about improving employment opportunities. There's also resentment among a section of the people who speak of “fear” and the “unpredictability of his actions”. His badmouthing of the Nawab family – former MP Noor Bano and her son Kazim Ali Khan, the sitting MLA from Swar Tanda, who are the descendants of Rampur's erstwhile rulers – too hasn't gone down well with some people here.
So, when Kazim – who is being challenged by Azam Khan's son Abdullah Azam of the SP – sought to degrade Azam Khan by saying that his father used to work in the stables of the Nawabs, a section of the crowd cheered him. “Hamza, with that speech, removed fear from the minds of the people of Rampur,” a local resident told Catch.
Azam Khan's dislike for the Nawab family apparently runs so deep that as UP's urban development minister, instead of restoring the many Nawab-era gates of the city, he had them pulled down and replaced with new ones bearing his name. “He is the new Nawab of Rampur,” says a senior politician of western UP.
Azam Khan's pet project, the Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar University, situated on the periphery of the city, has changed the map of Rampur. Khan has appointed himself its lifelong chancellor.
“Azam Khan has renamed all roads, brought down all monuments. Please keep asking for directions as you move ahead,” a resident remarked when this reporter asked him for the way to Azam Khan's residence. “All good roads lead to the university. And approach to the university is the only part of the city which gets the minister's attention.”
Some people are angry with Azam Khan because they lost businesses in the anti-encroachment drive ordered by him. This section of the electorate is rooting for the BSP candidate to finally defeat the long-serving MLA. But that looks unlikely. As Hafeez Khan, who fixes cycles near the city's Jama Masjid, put it, “We will lose all the comforts that have come to Rampur because Azam Khan is a powerful minister. Rampur will lose all the perks if the city elects some other candidate,” Hafeez says as a BJP motorcycle rally makes its way through the narrow lanes of the market, shouting slogans such as “Har vote pe likh do naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram.”
“We are going to the people and telling them about issues like palayan and how uniting against the oppression of Azam Khan will give us more power,” says Suresh Singh, a Hindu Jagran Manch activist who has come to Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Tanda, in Swar Tanda constituency, to hear the central minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who is campaigning for the BJP candidate Lakshmi Saini.
It's a more interesting contest in Swar Tanda, between Abdullah Azam and Kazim Ali. With two Muslims in the fray, the BJP is hoping for a division of Muslim votes to gain from.
Like his father, Abdullah Azam is taking the Nawabs head on. “Nawabs are responsible for the low literacy rate in Rampur,” he claims, citing a farman from the Nawab era which, he claims, banned education beyond the eighth standard. “This is why we started the university,” he adds.
Young and articulate, Abdullah Azam studied civil engineering and served as the CEO of the university set up by his father before joining politics. Like the Nawabs, he is dismissive of the AIMIM's Asaduddin Owaisi. “What's the name of that party. I cannot even recollect it properly,” he says, adding, “Why does Owaisi only chose places which have a heavy Muslim concentration? Why can't he contest from a seat which has just five per cent Muslims?”
As for Imam Abdullah Bukhari of Delhi's Jama Masjid, who recently batted for the BSP, he says, “He has announced support for all parties from time to time. When people change their stance, they lose relevance.”
The younger Azam faces a tough contest from Kazim Ali, the four-time MLA, who is contesting on a BSP ticket this time. Kazim Ali, unlike Azam Khan, has a more inclusive image. “He doesn't badmouth people like Azam Khan, he treats everyone with respect and is mostly available,” Rafiq Ansari, a resident of Swar says. And with the BSP's votebank seemingly coming back to the party after abandoning it in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Kazim seems comfortable. “This constituency also has some Turk Muslim votes, and they don't like Azam Khan,” says Rafiq. Azam Khan has so far come only thrice to address public meetings for his son, including the recent Akhilesh Yadav rally, although his supporters are working overtime to ensure Azam junior's victory.
The rally, where the chief minister announced that he would adopt Swar Tanda constituency, has raised the hopes of the residents. Some hope that if they elect Abdullah Azam, the town may see development. “People of Swar want it to become like Rampur,” says Tasleem Ahmad, a timber merchant, explaining why he will vote for Azam.