Congress spins a yarn, woos Muslim weavers

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Varanasi/Azamgarh | Updated: Feb 9 2012, 05:40am hrs
Just before the electoral code of conduct came into force in Uttar Pradesh, All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Rahul Gandhi visited a colony of weavers in Varanasi.

A bunkar (weavers) package was soon announced by the Centre, which included a loan waiver, interest rate subvention and vague talk about cutting duties on raw yarn.

The strands of silk woven into exquisite banarasi saris were to be the means through which the Congress, relegated to the fourth position among political parties in the state for nearly two decades, was supposed to tie up the votes of the numerically strong, but economically weak, Muslim Ansari community. They form nearly 15% of the Muslim community in districts like Tanda, Badohi, Etawah, Gonda and Azamgarh.

With this, and the announcement that the Congress was in favour of a 4.5% reservation for the OBC Minorities, Gandhi also signaled that he was stealing a page or two from Nitish Kumars successful strategy in Bihar, of driving a wedge between backward and forward Muslims. The hold that Mulayam Singhs Samajwadi Party and Mayawatis BSP (in the last election) seemed to have on the en bloc Muslim vote would have to be broken.

In the bylanes of Pili Kothi area of Varanasi, Haji Abdul Hamid Ansari, an elderly and educated member of the Ansari community in the city, says that UP is ready to do a Bihar. We have been asking for a package for a long time, and it is a fact that 20 years ago, under Congress rule, our products had a ready market through over 500 UP Handloom stores, eight of which were in Delhi itself. These are now defunct. We have asked for duty cuts on imported yarn, and some of our demands have been met. Does any other party have these ideas he says.

Sardar Maqbool Hassan, who heads an informal guild of these weavers in the area nods approvingly. Weve dealt with Azam Khan (of the Samajwadi Party) when he was a minister, to him, we may be Muslims; we are also Ansaris, says Hassan with not a little bitterness.

He has personally gone and met several weaver groups in Jaunpur, Azamgarh, Badohi and Tanda to ask that the Congress be given a chance. While the package itself has not kicked in yet, because of the code of conduct for the elections, weavers are hopeful that a loan waiver and a waiver of electricity bills on power looms will be granted and give much relief to an industry facing closure.

I have personally handed over a list of 6,500 connections where weve asked for a waiver on bills, amounting to R77 crore. If farmers can be given waivers amounting to R70,000 crore, why not us says Haji Abdul Hamid.

While the weavers are quite willing to play ball, even they admit that it is difficult to say which way the vote of the community at large will go. Nowadays, people are silent on who they vote for. People will make up their minds, two days before the vote, says Iqbal Ahmad Ansari.

Varanasi is still waiting for an emotional issue to hit before it makes up its mind. Not so in Azamgarh, where the ghost of the Batla house encounter and its subsequent fall out still looms large. Dr Javed Akhtar, president of the Association for Welfare medical, educational legal assistance (AWMELA) in Azamgarh says Congress and Samajwadi Party will both pay for their attitude over the Batla House encounter.

We want justice, and the Congress is guilty of doublespeak. Samajwadi Party, too, did not do anything to help us, when the UPA was dependent on their support for survival in 2008-2009, says Akhtar. Aasim Sahab, a family member of one of the affected by the encounter, feels that the question of dividing the Muslim vote does not arise. This is a question of justice, not material gain, he says.

n (Tomorrow : Why Cong needs to quash rumours of

a post poll tie-up with SP)