"They have nothing to show in terms of work, that's why they keep trying to divert public attention by attacking me," All India United Democratic Front leader Badruddin Ajmal told The Quint, in response to the attacks against him by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a section of the media.
Earlier this week, a video which was later found to be doctored, went viral showing Ajmal as saying that "India will become an Islamic nation".
The doctored video was shared by BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje, Assam BJP leader Pijush Hazarika, columnist Ratan Sharda, actor Paresh Rawal, journalists Deepak Chaurasia, Ashok Shrivastav, and Astha Kaushik, among others.
The video turned out to be a doctored version of a 2019 speech by Ajmal in Barpeta. Read The Quint’s report fact-checking the doctored video as well as laying down what Ajmal actually said.
Responding to the allegations, Ajmal said that these are "attempts to break the AIUDF-Congress alliance."
“This is a 100 percent fake video. Some elements with vested interests are trying to derail the Congress-AIUDF alliance. They will fail in their attempt. I am in touch with my lawyers. I will file a case against them,” he told the media.
Campaign Against Ajmal
Throughout the campaign for the ongoing Assembly elections, the BJP has been directing many of its attacks on Ajmal.
Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma called Ajmal an "enemy of Assam" and accused him of "taking money from foreign agencies".
He has also accused the Congress of "surrendering to Ajmal".
The BJP's game plan seems to be to create polarisation among Hindu voters and nullify the arithmetic advantage the Congress may have gained due to its alliance with the AIUDF.
“Let them keep talking about me. I don’t care. I’ll keep talking about jobs and price rise,” Ajmal told The Quint.
"The people of Assam aren't fools to fall for this," he added.
But it's not just the BJP. Even jailed activist and Raijor Dal leader Akhil Gogoi recently wrote a letter calling Ajmal "communal" and saying that AIUDF and BJP are "two sides of the same coin".
However, Sahitya Akademi award-winner Hiren Gohain resigned from the Raijor Dal in protest against Akhil Gogoi’s comment on Ajmal.
“I have my limitations where AIUDF is concerned, but I must say that their activities have not caused any huge damage in Assam,” Gohain had said.
The Importance of Being Ajmal
Born in Hojai in Central Assam, 71-year-old Ajmal is also an alumnus of Darul Uloom Deoband.
His father had moved to Mumbai in the 1950s and tried to enter the perfume industry. They started their first store in the 1960s and over the decades they became one of the biggest manufacturers of Ittar.
Ajmal also runs several charitable institutions across Assam.
He formed the AIUDF in 2005 and captured the imagination of Bengali-speaking as well as Goalpariya-speaking Muslims in Lower and Southern Assam.
In 2006, the party won 10 seats in the Assembly elections, which increased to 18 in 2011 but fell to 13 in in 2016. Ajmal himself won the Lok Sabha elections thrice from Dhubri in Lower Assam.
In the 2016 Assembly elections and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party lost some influence to the Congress.
The repeated othering of Bengali-speaking Muslims – often called Miya Muslims – by the BJP has compelled Ajmal to align with the Congress.
In 2016, the NDA won around 14 seats due to a split of votes between the AIUDF and the Congress. Taking a lesson from this, Ajmal declined to field candidates in several Lok Sabha seats in 2019, facilitating Congress victories in a seat like Nagaon, that the party had won only once between 1984 and 2014.
However, the failure of an understanding between the Congress and AIUDF led to the BJP winning Karimganj.
This created space for an alliance between the two parties. Congress insiders reveal that Ajmal has been a reasonable ally, open to negotiations.
“We understand that the AIUDF is an important party and deserves a certain number of seats. But they have been quite reasonable and always willing to see the larger picture,” an Assam Congress leader revealed.
The AIUDF has even conceded a seat like Naoboicha in Lakhimpur district, where it has a sitting MLA.
"It may be better for the alliance if the Congress contests from there. It's not just about this seat. In principle, we must prioritise what's better for the alliance," an AIUDF leader told The Quint.
However, for the Congress it has been a tough tightrope.
Even though it is clear that Ajmal didn't say anything anti-India as claimed by the right wing, it cannot be denied that aligning with the AIUDF has made the Congress vulnerable to attacks from the BJP besides also preventing an alliance with Assamese nationalist parties like Assam Jatiya Parishad and Akhil Gogoi's Raijor Dal.
On the other hand, it is equally true that had it not been for an alliance with Ajmal and the arithmetic that comes with it, the Congress may not have been able to give the BJP a tough fight in the elections.
The CVoter’s opinion poll conducted in January before the Congress-AIUDF alliance predicted 77 seas for the NDA and 40 for the Congress, a gap of 37 seats. According to CVoter, the gap reduced to 25 seats in February and just 10 seats in March.
The entry of newer allies with different bases such as the Bodoland People's Front in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas and the Autonomous State Demand Committee in Dima Hasao has helped broaden the appeal of the alliance and counter the perception that it's mainly based on consolidating Muslim votes.
However, as the elections approach, the attacks on Ajmal are only likely to increase.