Guwahati, Assam – India’s just concluded national elections saw the rise of a new political family led by an Islamic cleric and businessman, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, in the northeastern state of Assam.
Ajmal, 64, a prominent Islamic cleric who founded the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in 2005, has dismissed suggestions that his party is pro-Muslim and polarising voters on communal lines.
The AIUDF has decided to support the government led by Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Dubbed a “perfume baron” because of the multinational family business that he controls, Ajmal has taken the AIUDF to new heights by winning three seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament.
“In the first elections we contested in 2006, we had put up 73 candidates, 34 of whom were non-Muslims,” Ajmal insists to prove his party is secular.
“At the Lok Sabha polls this time, we had nominated six non-Muslims out of the 11 seats we fought.”
I am not a Muslim and I can only say history will give the verdict the Ajmals have always been secular and compassionate towards people of all faith
An unorthodox personality who is both a successful businessman and a Muslim cleric, Ajmal sports a flowing beard and skull cap and can often be seen clad in a white kurta pyjama blessing devotees who see him as a pir – an Islamic religious master.
He 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, and now heads a unit in Assam of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind – a leading Muslim organisation in India.
However, the cleric also heads a diversified conglomerate which has interests in textiles, real estate, leather, healthcare, education and a perfume business headquartered in Dubai.
The group’s fragrances can be found on sale in luxury outlets across the Middle East and beyond, from Russia to Singapore.
His party, the AIUDF, has grown rapidly and tasted political success soon after its formation, with Ajmal and his younger brother Sirajuddin – also a director in the Ajmal Group – among 10 winning candidates in its debut elections to the Assam state assembly in 2006.
In 2009, the party contested elections to the Lok Sabha with Ajmal winning the seat of Dhubri, located close to the Bangladesh border, to become a member of parliament.
At the Assam assembly polls in 2011, the AIUDF improved its tally to 18, and in the recent Indian national elections it gained three Lok Sabha seats.
Ajmal retained his Dhubri seat, his brother Sirajuddin won Barpeta, and party nominee Radheshyam Biswas, a Hindu, emerged victorious in Karimganj.
“There has been a 300 percent increase in our strength in parliament,” Ajmal said, emphasising his party’s rapid success.
Our people have elected us to Parliament to raise their interests. We can do so only if we have a good working relation with the ruling party, in this case the Modi Government. We shall give the BJP-led Government issue-based support
Observers suggest Ajmal is establishing a new political dynasty in the country with three members of the family now lawmakers – and the media speculating whether all of his seven children will enter politics.
One son, Maulana Abdul Rehman Ajmal, sits in the Assam assembly in the seat his father vacated after becoming an MP in 2009, and another son, Maulana Abdul Rahim Ajmal, is set to contest the assembly seat in central Assam that his uncle Sirajuddin will vacate.
However, Ajmal plays down the family connections.
“It is true three members of my family are active in politics, but as a party we have to take into account the winnability factor … only if our candidates win can we serve the people,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t know what the future holds, but as a father, I cannot force any of my children to join politics. They would choose their own profession.”
The businessman insists the AIUDF is not a pro-Muslim party that is polarising voters and points out that of its 18 current state assembly legislators, two are Hindus.
The party’s working president, Aditya Langthasha, a physician, added: “I am not a Muslim and I can only say history will give the verdict that the Ajmals have always been secular and compassionate towards people of all faiths.”
|Brothers Badruddin (R) and Sirajudin Ajmal (L) [Biju Boro/Al Jazeera]
Nonetheless, it is clear that the AIUDF has managed to win mostly in areas with a sizeable Muslim population: in the parliamentary constituencies of Dhubri and Barpeta, for example, Muslims make up 70 and 60 per cent of voters respectively.
By splitting the Muslim vote, the party is thought to have impacted heavily in Assam on the Congress party, which suffered a heavy defeat in the recent elections.
A common perception in Assam that the AIUDF’s support base, Bengali-speaking Muslims, are all illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a charge that is groundless but made by rivals for political gain, has added to the party’s challenges.
“This charge or perception is something the AIUDF will perhaps have to live with for some time,” said sociologist ANS Ahmed.
However, the real key to the AIUDF’s success may be the Ajmal family’s pragmatic approach to life – something they inherited from Badruddin’s father Haji Ajmal Ali, a farmer from the remote village of Hojai who founded the Ajmal Group – and a commitment to serve.
“The turning point came around year 2000 when Assam was hit by devastating floods. I toured the affected areas and slept on boats for many nights,” Badruddin Ajmal said.
“The poverty of our people renewed my resolve to serve them. My party, the AIUDF, is just a medium of this service that I owe my people.”
That pragmatic approach extends to politics and the Ajmal brothers have decided to support the new central government led by Modi.
“Our people have elected us to parliament to raise their interests,” Sirajuddin Ajmal told Al Jazeera.
“We can do so only if we have a good working relation with the ruling party, in this case the Modi government. We shall give the BJP-led government issue-based support.”
Political rivals acknowledge that the AIUDF is going to be a long-term player in Assam.
“Many wanted to dismiss Ajmal and his party saying they are a one-election wonder,” said Kirip Chaliha, a senior Assam Congress leader.
“But by the manner in which the party is consolidating itself, I can say it is here to stay.”
The Ajmals are now thinking big. “Mission 40 is our target for the state elections in 2016 – we want to win 40 of Assam’s 126 assembly seats,” Badruddin Ajmal said.