As the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) continue to spar in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the loudest to cheer is the ruling party. The Chief Minister (CM) of the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), Shivraj Singh Chouhan grabbed the moment to echo the SP’s line that ‘the Congress cannot be trusted’.

Chouhan mocked the I.N.D.I.A. alliance of 28 Opposition parties for uniting only out of fear of the popularity of the ruling party. Both the Congress and the SP are a part of the I.N.D.I.A. alliance that plans a united front against the ruling party in the Lok Sabha elections scheduled early next year.

However, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav is annoyed with the Congress these days over seat sharing in the poll bound state of MP where voting takes place on November 17. The SP had negotiated for at least six seats to contest the elections in MP but now will fight alone in 33 constituencies.

Although the main Opposition party in UP, the SP has a large following in MP’s Bundelkhand region on the border of UP. In the 2003 Assembly elections, the SP had won seven seats in MP.

While Akhilesh Yadav does not criticise the top leadership of the Congress by name, he is most annoyed with the UP Congress Committee president Ajay Rai whose main job is to revitalise his sleepy party.

Akhilesh Yadav had referred to Rai as a small timer whose views do not matter to him. Rai retaliated to Akhilesh Yadav’s taunt by folding his hands and publicly accepting that he is a nobody. “Call me by whatever name you like but please vote for the Congress,” Rai told press reporters.

Rai’s political career began as a member of the student wing of the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The SP is familiar with Rai who had actively participated in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

In 2009, the former five-time MLA from Varanasi had contested the Lok Sabha elections against senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi, as a SP candidate. Rai is considered a strong man in Eastern UP.

Before joining the SP, he was a minister in the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and BJP alliance government in UP. He quit the BJP in 2009 to join the SP.

Rai has been with the Congress since 2012. He had contested twice against Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi from Varanasi, in 2014 and 2019.

Rai’s photograph is now on a hoarding outside the Congress office along with an image of the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. While Gandhi is projected as the PM in 2024, Rai is shown as the lord of UP.

A poster was also put up outside the Lucknow office of the SP recently declaring Akhilesh Yadav as the future PM.

Rai meets Azam Khan

Rai has also annoyed the SP by trying to meet with senior SP leader Azam Khan in jail. Khan is a 10-time legislator from Rampur and together with his wife Tanzeen Fatima, and their son Abdullah Azam Khan has been convicted to seven years of imprisonment in an illegal birth certificate case from 2019.

More than six dozen cases have been filed against Khan on a range of charges, including cheating, land-grabbing, and criminal conspiracy.

Some accuse the SP of not standing by Khan enough, although Akhilesh Yadav has said that by hounding Khan, the ruling party is trying to intimidate a section of the society, hinting at Khan’s Muslim identity.

Akhilesh Yadav had tweeted that the targeting of the “honourable Azam Khan ji and his family is aimed at scaring a section of the society. The public is witnessing and understanding the game being played.

“Some selfish people do not want the people who promote education to remain active in the society. Many doors of justice are opened against this political conspiracy. Oppressors should remember, there is a public court against injustice.”

When Rai had tried to meet Khan in the Sitapur district jail, the latter had refused saying that he prefers to meet only family members. Rai clarified that the Congress delegation wanted to meet Khan on humanitarian grounds and share his pain at a time when his entire family is behind bars.

However, a SP leader said that by reaching out to Khan, Rai was only trying to impress the Muslim voter in favour of the Congress.

Remembering Begum Akhtar

Once upon time there was a girl child. who had lost a twin sister, and was not sure of who her father was. Born in 1914, the girl had tasted pain and rejection early in life.

Not many opportunities had existed at that time for women to earn a living. The girl child’s single mother taught her to sing. The girl had poured into her songs all her pain, and grew up to become a famous tawaif (courtesan) of Faizabad. Soon her fame as the queen of ghazals had spread far and near.

“‘Ishq mein ghairat-e jazbaat ne roney na diya, warna kya baat thi kis baat ne roney na diya…(out of consideration for the dignity of emotion love did not allow me to shed tears…)”.

According to the late historian Saleem Kidwai who grew up in the same neighbourhood in Lucknow as the vocalist, the tawaif was an economically independent woman. It is true that Akhtari Bai was perhaps the most glamorous and wealthy woman of Lucknow of the 1930s.

But fame and fortune were not enough for Akhtari. She had yearned to be socially accepted as a respectful member of high society. Her dream came true when Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, a leading lawyer married Akhtari and elevated her social status from Bai to that of a Begum.

Besides, times were changing and the advent of the radio had brought an end to the live singing and dancing performances by women. Begum Akhtar had acted in films, and she recorded songs endlessly on the radio. She was the toast of not only Lucknow but of the country till her death on October 30 in 1974.

By clearing up Begum Akhtar’s burial site lost for decades in the thicket of a mango orchard on the outskirts of Lucknow’s Thakurganj neighbourhood, her loved ones have made sure that the nightingale is not forgotten.

The Sadbhavana Trust and Sanatkada had initiated the restoration of Begum Akhtar’s tomb about a decade ago that now found shelter under a marble canopy. Regular musical soirees are hosted by Sanatkada throughout the year under Lucknow Bioscope, the cultural arm of the weaves and crafts store in Lucknow.

This year classical vocalist Amrita Chatterjee was chosen to pay a musical tribute to Begum Akhtar who passed away 49 years ago.