The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is a little more than 10 years old, almost the time the agar (Aquilaria agallocha) tree takes to yield agar oil after infection by a fungus. It’s all about patience.
But 66-year-old Badruddin Ajmal, patriarch of India’s richest agar oil exporting family and chief of AIUDF, seems to be in a hurry – to be the kingmaker in the tug-of-war between the ruling Congress and challenger BJP to form the next government.
Both contenders for the chief minister’s chair – incumbent Tarun Gogoi seeking a fourth term and state BJP chief Sarbananda Sonowal – have a hand in creating Ajmal the politician in 2005.
In July that year, Sonowal’s petition saw the Supreme Court scrap an allegedly pro-migrants act that hampered their detection and deportation. Ajmal floated AIUDF, called Assam UDF then, a month later to bat for migrants who carried the “Bangladeshi stigma”.
He was angrier with the Congress and Gogoi’s “indifference” to the junking of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 than with Sonowal.
The AIUDF announced its arrival by winning 10 seats in the 2006 assembly elections. As Ajmal’s graph rose and Muslim-dominated areas gravitated towards AIUDF, Gogoi underplayed his potency.
“Who is Ajmal?” Gogoi famously asked before the 2011 assembly polls. The anti-Ajmal stand helped Congress win 78 of the 126 seats.
It also showed AIUDF was no one-poll wonder, like its predecessor United Minorities Front that was born in 1985 as the settlers’ answer to the sons-of-the-soil’s Asom Gana Parishad. The AIUDF won 18 seats in 2011, expanded its footprint in subsequent rural polls and even penetrated the tribal Bodoland Territorial Council.
But AIUDF has had several reverses in the past few years; some senior leaders left while two MLAs joined the Congress accusing Ajmal of putting his family before the party. His younger brother Sirajuddin is a Lok Sabha member, and two sons are MLAs.
Ajmal, MP from Dhubri parliamentary seat, is contesting the South Salmara seat now held by son Abdur Rehman.
Whether or not Ajmal becomes the kingmaker, he has kept everyone guessing about his strategy this time. He has been central to the Congress and BJP’s bid to come across as more nationalist than the other to cater to the indigenous voters.
The two parties have accused each other of having struck a secret deal with Ajmal. That, in a way, has underlined Ajmal’s importance in the politics of Assam.
He has grown in stature internationally too. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan had featured him in the 2015-16 list of “World’s 500 most influential Muslims”.
One of India’s richest politicians, Ajmal is a Fazil-e-Deoband, equivalent to a masters degree in Islamic Theology and Arabic, from Darul Uloom Deoband in Uttar Pradesh. He is also a member of Darul Uloom Deoband’s advisory board.