The curious case of Shakeel Saifi

On the campaign trail of a debutant BSP candidate in the busy lanes of East Delhi

Shakeel Saifi’s convoy was scheduled to arrive outside Chand Cinema in Trilokpuri at 10 am and then head to Gita Colony to file his nomination as the Lok Sabha candidate for Bahunjan Samaj Party (BSP) from East Delhi. I have been waiting outside the defunct hall’s derelict art deco façade for over an hour now and there is still no sign of the ceremonial procession. A couple of people are playing cards on the footpath and a man who cleans ears for a living is setting up shop. An old man with cataract-ridden eyes is leaning on his stick and looking into the distance. None of them have heard of Shakeel Saifi.

Half an hour later a small car arrives. A sticker on its rear windshield reads- “Shakeel Ji ne thaana hai/ Atankvaad mitaana hai.” A portly middle-aged driver in a white safari suit and paan stained teeth emerges from the car. I ask him if he works with Saifi. “I am his brother,” he says and thereafter refuses to answer any questions about when Saifi is expected or what sort of business he runs. Gradually more BSP workers begin to trickle in. Very few of them have met Saifi before. He has just joined the party.

What are the issues on which BSP is fighting elections from this area I ask the district head from Lakshminagar who identifies himself as “Advocate Sudhir Raj.” “We don’t do manifestos. Whatever Mayawati says, we do and as soon as we come to power all issues are resolved. UP is the best example.”, is all he has to tell me.

Fortunately, Saifi has more to say when he finally arrives in a slick black SUV with character actor Arun Bakshi by his side. The reason not many workers from BSP know him is that he used to be a Congress member until very recently. I ask him when he joined the Congress and he starts telling me about 1982, when as a 9 year old boy he accompanied his “Congressi” father to a state dinner with Indira Gandhi and Saddam Hussein. A couple of kids who were with Hussein kept pointing to him and saying ‘ro’. He asked Indira why he should cry when he doesn’t feel like it. She explained ‘ro’ in Arabic means go away. He told the Prime Minister he will beat them up. After this pointless, if amusing tale, Saifi begins talking about his checkered history with the party. He claims he was disillusioned with it after the Muzzafarnagar riots. He recounts an “interesting” meeting with Rahul Gandhi. “I met him in Shangri-La” (the hotel, he means). “He was also getting his haircut and I was also getting my haircut. I personally stopped him and asked him about Muzzafarnagar and he said I will tell you after I have visited and then he visited but nothing came of it.” He is miffed that the perpetrators haven’t been punished and the forest land he wanted sanctioned for the riot victims was not given to them. His disaffection with the Congress has other reasons too. “They don’t give tickets to Muslims and they have been using Muslims as a vote bank for 60 years”, he complains. Therefore he met “Behen Mayawati” who impressed him by saying that there have been no riots in UP during her regime. She also offered him a ticket.

Bakshi is sitting in on our interview. He has trained Saifi in public speaking. “He is my brother and father like”, Saifi tells me. He is not very forthcoming about how he came to be associated with Bollywood or what he exactly does. He loves to talk of Ekta Kapoor though who was introduced to him through a woman friend of his. Kapoor is his “younger sister”, he tells me. She has tied rakhi to him in the Ajmer Dargah and “there is no one like her” for him. He claims he does promotions, distribution and production under his company Saifi Films. There is very little information on the work of this company on the internet. The website is defunct and the Facebook page mostly has pictures of Saifi with Sunny Leone. The only record I find of his work in films is on his personal website– news clips from when he took Emraan Hashmi to the Parliament to promote Dirty Picture, including reports criticizing them for disrespecting the premises. Saifi insists stars are calling him everyday asking when they can come to campaign- “Sridevi, John Abraham, Vidya Balan, will all come”, he tells me. I ask him if he thinks people are more likely to vote for him if stars campaign for him. He says he is getting stars only to prove a point to Congress.

He says current MP Sandeep Dikshit is no match for him and his only competition is Maheish Girri who is contesting from the BJP. He doesn’t know Girri but has met him in Shangri-La too. Incidentaly both he and Girri reach the SDM’s office at the same time to file their nominations. Many of Girri’s supporters like him are in saffron robes with tilaks on their foreheads. Saifi’s people are wearing finely embroidered skull caps. Girri’s supporters mob Bakshi for autographs but aggressively heckle Saifi when he starts to do TV interviews. They claim Saifi stands no chance. Girri will win and thereafter take care of their needs “in this world and the next.” BJP workers in the area are given to mythologising their candidate, who used to earlier run an ashram in Gujarat and is now a disciple of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living. “When he delivers sermons you can see God in his face,” they tell me.

Unperturbed Saifi sets off on the campaign trail the next morning. He is in a Porsche Cayenne being driven by pop singer Daler Mehndi, “his brother and business partner, according to Saifi. They are headed for Jamia Nagar where Saifi’s family lives. He claims he has been offered over Rs 3 lakhs in donation in the last 24 hours and he had to accept it because when he tried to refuse one man “became nervous and started crying.” He tells me he enjoys overwhelming support in the area and “Muslim Samaj” is only and only going to vote for him. He is quick to add that the Imam of Jama Masjid Ahmed Bukhari has also asked that Muslims support BSP. I ask him if AAP is a threat. “If Aam Party had fielded Shazia Ilmi or a Muslim candidate I would have withdrawn my nomination but they have fielded an outsider (Rajmohan Gandhi) and sent bechaari Shazia to Ghaziabad,” he says insisting AAP is not in the reckoning. He has started his campaign by praying at the Mecca and is confident of winning. Mehndi, he tells me, asked for votes for him and sang Allah Allah Bismillah for the people of Jamia Nagar.

I meet Mehndi in the lobby of the Surya Hotel where Saifi puts up all his star campaigners. The singer denies having worked with Saifi but does think of him as his “younger brother”. I ask him what he makes of Saifi’s campaign and he says “I don’t understand politics. All I know is they are all the same. They keep making a fool of us and our beloved Hindustan keeps getting fooled.” He does “love Sheila ji and Sonia ji” a lot though, he adds.

Back in Jamia Nagar, I ask 12 year old tea seller, Nadeem, if he saw Daler Mehndi. He has heard of neither Mehndi nor Saifi.  A lot of people in the area are cagey to discuss politics but those that I speak with all tell me they will vote for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The local paan seller, a particularly gifted raconteur, says he will be surprised if Saifi’s own family votes for him. “Gandhi ka beta hi jeetega,” he asserts despite the fact that Rajmohan is yet to come to the area to ask for votes. The same sentiment is echoed when I speak to Muslims near Medina Masjid in Trilokpuri. Most people there laugh off Saifi and Girri’s prospects.

They don’t seem to dislike Sandeep Dikshit but believe AAP can work miracles.

Back at Chand Cinema when I had asked the ear cleaner who he will vote for he had said he doesn’t know. “Maybe I will only stand” For MP or MLA, I ask him. “I don’t know the difference.” Most people blame Dikshit for tasks the MCD has failed to carry out or their local MLA hasn’t performed well. The old man with cataract-ridden eyes, 85 year old Ram Dhir Pradhan, was a freedom fighter in Lahore before partition and has been a Congress worker since. He was at Dikshit’s house for Holi he says, “but he won’t win.” I ask him if he will vote for AAP too. “I will never leave Congress, jeete ya haare,” he says softly and goes back to telling me tales from the freedom movement.

(A shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu, on April 4th, 2014)