Locating AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal is never a problem in his home town, Hojai in Nagaon district, about 170 km east of Assam's state capital. For, he and Ajmal Foundation are everywhere. Posters and hoardings, schools, colleges, hospitals, madrassas, all bear the name of the family. The real surprise came when our vehicle entered the expansive Ajmal estate, which has a carport housing about 20 vehicles of different makes and colours, a pond to supply fish to the household, a lawn with pavilions, a palace and an army palace staff.
The interiors of Ajmal's house look like a huge durbar. We saw at least 100 people waiting for the leader to make an appearance. And when cleric-perfumer finally did so, no one rushed to attract his attention. No one spoke. The leader always has the first right to speak. Doing everything large-scale is perhaps an Ajmal trait. The family owns most of Hojai, a town of 36,000 people. It also runs the largest agar plantation near Hojai, Asia's richest NGO named Markaj-ul Maaris and Asia's largest rural charitable hospital – the 500-bed Haji Abdul Majid Memorial Hospital & Research Centre – besides one of the world's biggest perfume businesses.
But who is Badruddin Ajmal? Nine years ago, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi asked the same question dismissively. Earlier this year, after his party AIUDF won half the seats it contested in a tribal council, Ajmal asked, “Now, who is Tarun Gogoi?
That, precisely, is the length of AIUDF chief Ajmal's journey so far, while Gogoi's graph in Assam has been southbound since the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Of the 14 LS seats, the Congress managed three while the BJP bagged seven. And Ajmal emerged as Gogoi's equal. A scholar from Deoband in Uttar Pradesh and one of India's richest politicians who made his millions from the family business, Ajmal insists that his party was formed “because the Congress betrayed the minorities" in Assam.
For the AIUDF, the youngest of Assam's top five political parties, the rise has been phenomenal. From 10 seats in 2006 – six months after its birth – the party secured 18 in the 126-member assembly in 2011, leaving behind the once-potent regional Asom Gana Parishad with 10 seats and BJP with five seats. Sixteen of AIUDF's seats in the last assembly election were spread across nine districts where Muslims, mostly Bengali-speaking migrants, are in a majority. But Ajmal draws a distinction between the AIUDF and parties like the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi.