Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Malegaon’s new Front shows up old parties

Mateen Hafeez I TNN

The unexpected success of a loose, threemonth-old coalition supported by religious and community leaders in Malegaon’s civic polls has exposed the disenchantment with mainstream parties like the Congress and veteran socialist Nihal Ahmed’s Janata Dal (Secular).

The people’s mandate to the Indian Muslim Congress Party (IMCP) comes at a time when the established parties have betrayed the faith of an electorate looking for solutions to systemic problems such as unemployment, a spiralling electricity crisis, lack of educational opportunities and decrepit civic infrastructure.

The Third Front led by the textile township’s most prominent religious leader, Mufti Mohammed Ismail, had contested the election with development and education as its primary planks and emerged as the single largest party with 28 out of the 72 seats.

On the other hand, Nihal Ahmed, a trade unionist who rose to become Malegaon’s most enduring political figure, has ended up suffering one of his worst political debacles in an over 50-year career. The onetime minister in the Maharashtra Cabinet has found his outfit’s tally reduced from 35 seats in 2002 to 12 in the latest municipal polls. His son was among those who lost the poll.

The other big loser is the Samajwadi Party whose tally has gone down from 12 seats in 2002 to one in the present House.

Even the Congress has been at the receiving end of the Malegaon voter’s wrath though the party’s tally has risen from seven in the last House to 15 now. The township’s reigning MLA, Sheikh Rashid, had managed to get his son Asif Sheikh installed as mayor the last time through blatant opportunism and by persuading rival corporators to support the Congress candidate in exchange for favours. However, despite such strategic moves, the party has not emerged as a dominant force in one of Maharashtra’s biggest Muslim-majority enclaves.

“The residents of Malegaon have been divided and exploited by these veteran politicians. Everyone promises better facilities but see how many public toilets Malegaon has. Look at the plight of the civic schools. There is not a single technical, engineering or medical college in Malegaon. Hundreds of our students have to go to Mumbai or Pune for further studies. We wanted to change this, and we couldn’t have done it unless we had power in our hands,’’ says 50-year-old Mufti Ismail.

The Mufti, who has led the congregation for the Eid-ul-fitr and Eid-ul-azha namaaz at the historic Camp ground in the town for the last one decade, was the rallying force behind the movement. Born and raised in a weaver’s family in the township, he’s long been familiar with its problems.

Yet, the Third Front’s rise has been nothing short of amazing. Community leaders and maulanas banded in the months ahead of the polls and discussed the need for an effective political alternative to govern the town. Disillusionment was especially strong in the wake of the serial blasts in 2006.

To start with, announcements were made in various mohallas to nominate the right candidates. Interestingly, the Third Front’s office-bearers played no role in this process; instead they asked residents of every constituency to select an “educated, honest and social person’’ untainted by a criminal record.

The only hiccup was when the Front’s leaders realised they were not recognised as a political party nor had they been allotted a symbol. They then approached their counterparts in an Ahmednagarbased outfit called the Indian Muslims’ Congress Party and managed to get permission to adopt their name and symbol just 15 days prior to the polls. Besides, there was an unambiguous consensus at work: caste, religion and intra-community disputes were to play no role in selecting a candidate. Most of the nominees were thus people with at least some academic qualification— a welcome change given Malegaon’s colourful history of illiterate, criminal and scam-tainted corporators. “We have got the sort of candidates we wanted. Now, in case a corporator does not work, we will hold a dharna outside his residence to make him fulfil his promises. And if he refuses, we will have no option but to oust him from the party,’’ Mufti Ismail said.

Hopefully, the Mufti and his followers, with the help of a few Independent corporators, will get the roads, parks and playgrounds they aspire for.

Malegaon, a powerloom township in northern Maharashtra, has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. Communal tension, sectarian violence, seizure of firearms and ammunition, and a series of bomb blasts. In a population of six lakh, Muslims are in a majority of 65%. The rest are Hindu Marwaris, Jains and Sindhis, who traditionally vote for the BJP-Sena. This year, for instance, the Sena has bagged seven seats while the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has captured two seats.

The conflict between powerloom labourers and their employers was the central theme in various elections until recently and allowed veteran socialist Nihal Ahmed ample scope to hold centrestage. Now, however, residents are keen to see a makeover of the town and find a solution for long-standing problems such as bad roads, power shortage, poor healthcare—Malegoan does not have a single civil hospital—and lack of adequate educational opportunities. TNN

(The Times of India, May 30, 2007)

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