RAMPUR: Of all the smaller towns in Rohilkhand, Rampur alone wears a spic-and-span look with wide, clean roads and beautiful parks that are giving rise to envy in the residents of neighbouring towns.

All this is said to be the work of Samajwadi Party co-founder, strongman and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s right hand, the controversial Mohammad Azam Khan who was urban development minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh.

Khan, who represented Rampur in the UP assembly since 1989 including in the 2017 BJP sweep, has decided this time to run for the Lok Sabha as a candidate of the SP-BSP-RLD alliance, though he has several times aired his allergy towards the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Since the days of Jayaprakash Narayan he has been the face of rebellion against the family of the erstwhile Nawab of Rampur, whose actions in recent years have often helped the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Opposing him is film actress Jaya Prada whom Azam Khan helped win the Rampur Lok Sabha seat in 2004. Over the years relations between the two soured as Prada was the protégée of one-time SP leader Amar Singh, and exchanges between them have now become acrimonious.

This time round Prada has joined the BJP, which narrowly won Rampur in 2014 thanks to the split in Samajwadi votes, many of which went to the nawab scion Kazim Ali Khan. Kazim Ali has switched the princely family’s loyalties meanwhile to the BSP, after he was expelled from the Congress after cross voting in the Rajya Sabha elections.

Although Azam Khan and Jaya Prada are the two most prominent candidates from the constituency, the Congress is hoping to upset their apple cart by banking on the wave of anger and dissatisfaction against the Modi government. It has put up Sanjay Kapoor from Rampur, less known but a familiar figure in the region.

Like Khan the 56-year-old Kapoor has his roots in the region, having twice been a Congress member of the UP assembly from Bilaspur, which is a segment of the Rampur Lok Sabha constituency. He is a farmer and enjoys a relatively clean image, with a virtually zero criminal background.

The defence of secularism and promoting development are the twin planks of the Congress campaign. Kapoor places both the BJP and the SP in the same boat as far as communalism is concerned, describing them as two faces of a single coin.

The Rampur Lok Sabha seat has about 50 percent Muslims overall, and the town itself has a population 70 percent Muslim.

Azam Khan’s stamp is unmistakable in Rampur town. The street leading up to his house may not be wide but it is clean. It’s a hive of activity as the leader departs for a tour of his constituency in a big black SUV. Sitting next to the driver, Khan stops and rolls down his window to talk to a supporter. But now the contest is for Parliament, and it remains to be seen if he can whip up the same kind of support outside town.

Meanwhile, workers are busy putting finishing touches to the brand new Congress office. Party workers are everywhere, from the largish courtyard to the two big rooms in the front of the building.

Sanjay Kapoor, the candidate who is also the Congress secretary in charge of Madhya Pradesh, agrees to an interview and leads me to one of the two rooms. It is early evening and tea and snacks are being distributed.

Will the contest for the Rampur Lok Sabha seat be a straight fight or a three-cornered one?

The fight is between secularism and communalism. On one side are communal parties and on the other there are those who uphold the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (mores).

Here in the Congress office you can see people belonging to different religious faiths. The Congress party has always believed in carrying everyone along with it, and I am its faithful soldier.

The party has nominated me from here and I strongly believe that the people want a change in view of the atmosphere in the country created by the prime minister.

Five years back he raised the people’s hopes by selling them the dream of Achche Din (happy days) – he promised two crore jobs for the youth every year, to bring back black money, to put 15 lakh rupees in everyone’s account, a pension of Rs. 25,000 for everyone, a sound GST, a reduction in diesel and petrol prices, and a farm loan waiver.

I believe that he has not delivered on any of his promises. And anyone who questions him is labelled an anti-national. Only those who praise him qualify as nationalists.

I am convinced that the people want a change, and am confident that there will be a change and a UPA government will be formed under Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress will win the Rampur seat. On one hand there is the BJP which talks about one religious community while on the other hand there is the SP which talks about another religious community. But the Congress is a party that belongs to all communities, and all communities in Rampur will make sure the Congress wins.

But won’t the Congress cut into the votes of the SP-BSP alliance candidate Azam Khan, who is also considered secular, and thereby benefit the BJP?

See.. whenever the Samajwadi Party has been strong, the BJP has also been strengthened.. they are two sides of the same coin. When one side talks about one community, the other side talks about the other. It is only the Congress which talks of secularism.

The SP and BSP have both formed governments with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh Yadav has even said in Parliament that Mr Modi will come back as prime minister. No one is sure what they say and what they do.

In the Congress on the other hand there is no difference between what it says and what it does. We implement our promises. Rahul Gandhi promised, at a rally at Mandsaur last June during the Madhya Pradesh election campaign, that if the Congress came to power it would waive off farmers’ loans. It implemented this promise within 10 days.

How is your campaign going in Rampur?

My campaign has begun. We are getting the support of people who want to strengthen the Congress. They are convinced it is only the Congress that can save the country and protect democracy. The atmosphere created by the NDA government is bad for democracy.

Congress star campaigners like Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Navjot Singh Sidhu are visiting western Uttar Pradesh. Are they expected here as well?

These star campaigners will all visit Rampur. We are in touch with other campaigners and Hardik Patel is also expected to come.

Are you planning to highlight any special issues affecting this town?

We will raise issues like unemployment among the youth. Unemployed youth are forced to drive e-rickshaws to earn a livelihood. Traders are facing problems. There is no industry in Rampur. Farmers are suffering. People are emigrating from here in search of employment. Poor people are unhappy. That is why our leader Rahul Gandhi’s promise of Rs.72,000 every year to the poorest 250 million people will benefit the people.

What will you do to improve employment?

My objectives have always been to promote development and peace. I take everyone along with me. If I am elected and the new government is formed, I will work to establish industries over here so that employment opportunities increase.

What steps will you take to increase the income of farmers in this area?

Here the farmers growing sugarcane are facing major problems, as they are not getting the proper fair and remunerative price (FRP) for their produce. Farmers were hoping for a waiver of loans but have been given only one lakh rupees – and even this money has been not been distributed uniformly. The problem for cane farmers is that the FRP is less than the cost of growing sugarcane. The FRP should be increased.

But isn’t the FRP linked to the market price of sugar? Sugar factory owners say that they too are suffering due to low sugar prices and cannot therefore cannot afford to pay higher prices to farmers.

Yes, but the government spends money on so many things yet is unwilling to spend money on farmers who produce food for the country. The farmers can easily be given a subsidy or a bonus.

Are you happy with the education and health facilities in this area?

No. There no engineering college here. Students have to go out to Bareilly and Delhi for admissions.

But there is a university in Rampur: the Mohammad Ali Jauhar University established in the time of Azam Khan.

Yes, but it is not being run in the proper way.