An unrepentant Azam Khan, Uttar Pradesh's loud-mouth urban development minister, continues to justify his acerbic speeches and acid-laced comments on political opponents and has now - with the party's ostensible backing - decided to turn the heat on the Election Commission (EC), accusing it of being "prejudiced towards Muslims".
And the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) seems to be not only ignoring the indiscreet comments of its minister but has also decided to throw its weight behind Khan. The strategy for the embattled party, that is battling negative media perceptions because of its leaders' utterances, seems to be two-pronged, political niceties and decorum be damned. The first being to play the victim card in front of the electorate and second to polarize the electorate on communal lines and accuse the poll panel as being a "stooge of the Congress".
Knowing pretty well that it is facing a tough battle for the minority votes, a senior leader confided the party was working on this two-pronged strategy. The first glimpse of this came Friday as senior SP leader and Rajya Sabha member Naresh Agarwal accused the EC of being prejudiced against the minority leaders of his party.
"Azam Khan pe jaari bandi ye dikha rahi hai ki Election Commission ka Musalmanon ke prati kya rawaiyya hai" (EC's continued gag order on Azam Khan reflects how the poll panel is biased against Muslims)," the leader said, not wishing to be named as it was a sensitive issue for the party and he was not authorised to speak to the media. The usually mellowed down spokesman of the party also donned an aggressive mantle Friday when he accused the poll panel of "behaving in a way unbecoming of a constitutional authority".
"This is unfair as the commission is not behaving as a constitutional authority which is fair to all," the state's prison minister said.
Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav have also thrown their lot behind the minister and decided to allow his letters to be read at their rallies. Yadav senior says the EC has behaved in the most unpardonable manner and the lifting of embargo on BJP general secretary Amit Shah has further infuriated the party.
Leading the charge that he was being unfairly treated for being a Muslim leader is Azam Khan himself. The furious minister once again targeted the EC Friday and said lifting of ban on Shah has made it amply clear that he was the epicentre of all hatred largely because he was vocal about what he felt and also because he was fighting for the Muslim cause.
Refusing to apologise for his earlier hate speeches or the subsequent attacks on the EC, Khan said people saying sorry are generally criminals. BJP leaders say they are not concerned with what Azam Khan is saying or strategising but admit that the more the minority card is played, the more the party benefits.
"Our leader has got a clean chit as he explained his conduct and we are happy that we are in the clear," says BJP state spokesman Vijay Bahadur Pathak. Amit Shah too feels his remarks of "seeking revenge through ballot" which invited EC's reprimand cannot be treated at par with that of Khan.
EC sources point out that while Shah got off the hook not only for showing "political maturity and apologizing" but also because he upheld the authority of the poll panel. In Azam Khan's case, the officer added, he himself spoilt his case as he went on the offensive against the commission and targeted its neutrality.
"The minister cannot expect a fair hearing when he is accusing us of being unfair and victimizing him on religious grounds," the official remarked. The Samajwadi Party has also written to the EC, seeking relief to Azam Khan during the remaining part of the election campaign.