Abu Asim Azmi, state president of the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Maharashtra, has been a controversial figure. A successful businessman from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Azmi entered politics after a year in jail for alleged involvement in the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai. He joined the Samajwadi Party and served as member of the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh between 2002 and 2008. In 2009, he was elected to the Maharashtra legislative assembly from Mankhurd and Bhiwandi constituencies and chose to give up Bhiwandi. According to official records he is the richest elected representative in the Maharashtra assembly with assets worth Rs126 crore. The 58-year-old politician spoke to dna on Thursday about the image of the SP and its prospects in the Lok Sabha elections.
The Samajwadi party is perceived as a party of the Muslims. In Maharashtra, the party's base has narrowed to the North Indian Muslims. Why haven't you tried to change this image and engage with the majority community as well?
We are not a party of Muslims. There are leaders like Vilas Kharat who also hold posts in the party and the party's national leader is Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Muslim community has expressed more faith in the Hindu leadership. More than a decade ago, I opposed the demolition of a temple in Malad and got a court stay order. This is maintained. In 2008, I had sought special permission to visit Nashik, which witnessed violence against North Indians instigated by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). I provided Rs5 lakh for the family of the Marathi boy who died in the violence. The media never highlights these initiatives.
You are a Deobandi Muslim and considered as an outsider. Is this the reason the party has failed to attract Muslims of other sects and people of other communities?
This is not true. Our leader Maulana Atahar and many others are from the Barelvi sect. Worship and politics are two different things. I have been living in the state for many decades. I am not an outsider.
The Samajwadi Party has not created a base outside the metro region even after 20 years, whereas younger parties like the NCP and the MNS have grown faster. Why?
Firstly, the MNS and the NCP are not political parties. They are groups of opportunistic politicians who broke away from the Shiv Sena, the Congress and Samajwadi Party. Yes, we have not been able to grow much because political activists have become greedy. They want power and money quickly. Ideology has lost meaning.
If leaders like Nawab Malik and Bashir Patel had not left you, would the SP have been in a better position in the state today?
They left the party because of their greed. Such people wouldn't be helpful to the party in the long run.
Don't you think that the party has lost face and its base on account of the riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013?
The Muzaffarnagar riots will remain a taint on the party. But I maintain that it was an administrative failure and not the failure of the Akhilesh government. The riot was provoked by the RSS, the BJP and the BSP that sought to malign the SP's image for electoral gain.
Akhilesh Yadav failed to handle the situation even after the riots. Mulayam labeled the people in camps as activists from other parties. A babu dismissed the deaths of children saying "no one really dies from the cold". This insensitivity was magnified when the party organised the Safai Mahotsav.
The state government acted promptly and did everything to normalize the situation. It provided financial help to the families of victims. I visited the camps. Some greedy people tried to collect Rs5 lakh by making false claims. It was also made out that some children had died in the camps for this very purpose.
You have fielded a tainted candidate in Kashi Pasi and a controversial actor Kamaal R Khan in the Lok Sabha elections. The message going out is that the SP is not serious and lacks strong candidates.
Other parties have also given tickets to people facing criminal cases so don't single us out. We hope Kamaal can win the seat.
The SP in Maharashtra is described as a one-man party. Now your son is planning to contest the Lok Sabha election. Does this not make the business of the SP in the state a family affair just like at the national level?
The manner in which people are switching parties, I think it's better to field your kin. You can trust them more. Even if they try to defect you can dissuade them.
Will you and your son Farhan contest the Lok Sabha election?
Wait a few days for the answer.
Is it true that you are working on a project in Mumbai Central together with Raj Thackeray?
I have never met Raj Thackeray in my life. I have several projects, so I can't remember the names of all the partners in these projects. They are Marathi people, but no, I have nothing to do with Raj Thackeray.
Have you learned Marathi?
No. I could not.