BHOPAL: For almost three decades, politics in Old Bhopal has centred around one man—Arif Aqueel.
It has happened several times that BJP won all the seats in Bhopal, except Arif Aqueel’s constituency—Bhopal North & saved Congress’ prestige in the State capital.
In the last Assembly, Aqueel was the sole Muslim member among 230 MLAs– ironically, in a state that has over 50 lakh Muslims.
Always dressed in crumpled kurta and wearing his trademark ‘chappals’, the seemingly down to earth politician, has never lost the seat since 1990, except in 1993 when BJP’s Ramesh Chandra Sharma defeated him.
However, since then, he has been unbeatable–winning it every time, from 1998. In the last election, the task to wrest the seat was given (by party leadership) to none other than chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
A former state minister, he is among the rare Muslim leaders of Congress who have been consistently winning from a state capital in North-Central India. BJP has tried all tactics–veteran leader and former Union minister Arif Baig was fielded by the BJP in 2013 but he lost.
Earlier, strong local leaders of BJP including Rameshwar Sharma and Alok Sharma have also lost to Aqueel. In this election, BJP has fielded a woman candidate. Fatima Siddiqui, daughter of late Rasool Ahmad Siddiqui (a former state minister), hoping that she may draw women voters, youth and those who are probably bored or fed up with Aqueel’s long innings.
Aqueel started his political career from Saifia College as a student politician in the decade of seventies. A fiery young leader, he contested as an independent candidate & defeated Rasool Ahmad Siddiqui.
Since then, his hold continues on the constituency. Even after delimitation when character of the constituency changed, this didn’t affect him much. Trading community in Chowk, the heart of Walled City, too support him as there are not ‘financial demands or pressure for donations’ when he is the legislator, unlike certain leaders who may or may not win but keep pressing the traders for money.
There is criticism too that despite his long innings in politics, the pace of development hasn’t picked up in Walled City, that offices were shifted from here to new part of city and heritage structures have been razed and he didn’t speak much.
Often his politics has surprised even his rivals. He had brought a private bill in Assembly on the issue of cow protection and demanded what the state government was doing to ban trade of bones and fat of cows.
Aqueel was never ambitious beyond local politics—didn’t try to seek Rajya Sabha nomination or contest Lok Sabha. Many in Bhopal claim that he doesn’t like any other Muslim leader to emerge, even on other seats of the State capital.
There are two other seats in Bhopal viz. Bhopal Central and Narela that have 40-50% Muslim voters. But both BJP and Congress have not fielded Muslim candidates from Narela, while Arif Masood who lost once, has been given ticket from Bhopal Central once again.
Aqueel had first become MLA, defeating Rasool Ahmad Siddiqui, in 1990. Now, 28 years later, he faces Siddiqui’s daughter. After filing his papers, Aqueel told media that he was sure of his victory. Regarding lack of development in his constituency, he said that it was because ruling party was not interested in it.
His opponent Fatima Siddiqui, says that BJP was committed for development and blamed the legislator for the lack of development. In her speeches, she reminds people how her father—late Rasool Ahmad Siddiqui had brought development and got jobs to people when he was the MLA and minister.