On the face of it, Malerkotla is a decrepit, dusty town surrounded by fields of cauliflower, mustard and wheat. Seen from the power seat in Chandigarh, 123 km away, it is Punjab’s only Muslim-dominated assembly constituency witnessing a battle of the begums. They say it is actually a turf war between the begums’ husbands, both IPS officers, one retired the other serving, but neither of whom is from Malerkotla. A three-hour drive through the blinding fog from the seat of power to the battlefield, however, reveals a clearer picture.
At ground zero, the fight for Malerkotla is between a confident yet anxious Razia Sultana, 45, of the Congress, a two-time MLA taking her third shot at power, and former Punjab DGP (prisons) Mohammad Izhar Alam, 62, a shrewd strategist managing the campaign for his wife and Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP nominee Farzana Nissara Khatoon, 58. Alam made Malerkotla his home two years ago after retirement when he became the Punjab Wakf Board chairman. He would have got the SAD ticket but for Sikh hardliners who raked up his controversial tenure during the days of militancy.
Though Razia has a pillar of support in her husband, Mohammad Mustafa, who is an additional director general in police (human rights) and her poll strategist for which he is on leave since December 1, 2011, she has come into her own having learnt the ropes by remaining the constituency’s MLA for the past 10 years. The lack of development in her constituency, however, overshadows her popularity. “I fought against my party leadership for my people during my first term,” she says of her relations with then chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh (2002-07). The two share cordial ties now. “I am like his chotti behen. I have invited him over for achari gosht and biryani and he has promised to come.” She was re-elected MLA in 2007 but says the SAD-BJP government ignored Malerkotla because she was from the Congress. “They promised funds but didn’t deliver. They even discontinued schemes for Muslim women and other development works I had initiated earlier,” she claims.
The voters of Malerkotla, about 40% of them Muslim, are a disillusioned lot for not much has changed for them. “We were poor and will remain poor whoever comes and goes. It is our lot,” said an elderly woman of Ahankheri village soon after Razia completed a 45-minute extempore speech.
The area remains a picture of neglect with lack of infrastructure, garbage dumped at every corner and no promise for the youth. In contrast, both the Razia and Alam camps are located on the town’s outskirts, in opposite directions. The former has a swanky bungalow in the midst of fields a kilometre off the Khanna-Malerkotla road and the latter owns a three-floor house that resembles a Punjab Police garrison on the Ludhiana bypass. There is an air of festivity amid uncertainty in the elegantly done-up Razia household, while the nervousness is palpable in the well-guarded Alam camp.
Cop takes on cop
The writing is literally on the town’s walls, where posters of Razia outnumber that of her rivals, both Alam and Khatoon. Razia may appear more popular but she is not promising anything new. Both candidates have the same priority: ‘gundagardi ka khatma’ — to rid Malerkotla of lawlessness, particularly extortion, drug abuse and land grabbing. As expected, both camps of police officials blame each other for perpetrating the crimes.
“No crime can flourish without police connivance. Razia is perhaps the only candidate in the country who has named goons in her fight for law and order,” says her husband Mustafa. “I am not scared of anyone. I am a soldier’s daughter and a police officer’s wife,” chips in Razia.
“I am here to end the misuse of police uniform,” counters Alam, who hails from Bihar and was a Punjab cadre IPS officer and has served as a DIG in Kashmir besides quelling the post-Babri riots in Delhi. Amid the rows of trophies in his living room, it is difficult to miss the photo of a beaming SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal. As Alam’s begum roughs it out campaigning in Faridpur Kalan, 5 km away, he tucks in rice and chicken curry for lunch while listening to briefings of aides.
Though Khatoon entered the fray a few days ago, Alam says, “She was convinced two years ago that she would have to contest these elections. She is not shy. She is a graduate in political science from Agra and is a traditional housewife. Muslim women are not as social. She wears a burqa in Agra, not here.”
Poor track record
Most women in the town are confined to houses and are engaged in embroidery and brass badge making in the urban areas, while they are the backbone in rural households. They have had a woman representing them for 10 years but empowerment is still a far cry. The town has no government senior secondary school for girls though there are private institutions for them. “A nursing college and a degree college for women are promised in the Congress manifesto this time. The party plans to set up five medical colleges in the state of which one will be in Malerkotla,” says Razia, who is a matriculate from the town.
Razia’s rival Alam is quick to recount the number of institutions he has set up for education and health after taking over as the Punjab Wakf Board chairman in January 2010. “In 2008-09, when Razia was the chairperson of the Wakf board, the income was Rs 4.63 crore as against the fixed expenditure of Rs 9 crore. In 2010-11, we earned Rs 19.3 crore. We used the funds to set up two schools, a college and a hospital.”
Breaking the barrier
For the SAD-BJP campaign, Farzana Nissara Khatoon relies on her aides, who clear the way amid sloganeering and introduce her to puzzled villagers. Attired in a simple bottle-green salwar kameez with her head covered, she sports a saffron siropa greeting prospective voters with an ‘adab’, ‘namaste’ or ‘sat sri akal’ as the case may be. On the campaign trail for the first time, Khatoon is soft-spoken but quick to take the cue as she reminds people, “Vote takdi de kamal nu hi pao.” She smiles when a question is put to her. “Mr Alam will answer your queries,” her aide conveys on her behalf.
On the other hand, Razia Sultana lives up to the title of a begum. Attired in a maroon woollen kurta, raw silk salwar and beige shawl with orange and pink stripes, Razia is a picture of elegance as her white Land Cruiser, snails through the congested lanes of Malerkotla. Her gait is confident as she completes formalities at the SDM’s office and she is humility personified when she attends a condolence meeting in Jamalpura and interacts with the elderly. “Hausla rakho,” is her refrain.
The bespectacled Razia is a stickler for detail as she points to the Congress balloon in the sky and tells the driver that she wants it spray-painted in the party’s colours instead of white. She blushes as they drive past a large poster of her in the market. She looks younger in person, and fitter for a gruelling campaign.