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Congress gambles on former cricketer

Former Indian cricket star Mohammad Azharuddin campaigns with his wife Sangeeta Bijlani
Azharuddin and his wife, former Bollywood actress Sangeeta Bijlani, are celebrities

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

A three-hour drive west of the Indian capital, Delhi, along a bumpy highway brings you to the town of Moradabad.

This is India's political heartland, the state of Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 members to India's parliament.

With the ongoing elections almost definitely resulting in a hung parliament, every single seat counts and the state's importance cannot be understated.

But Moradabad is also part of a stretch of western Uttar Pradesh that has a large Muslim population - a community that has deserted India's governing Congress party in recent years and instead voted for the local parties.

Congress has not won this parliamentary seat in 25 years - but they've just given themselves an excellent shot at overturning history.

Their unlikely saviour is the former cricket star Mohammad Azharuddin, once a sporting hero but whose career ended under a cloud when he was accused in a match-fixing scandal nine years ago.

Celebrity

He has been fielded from here by the party leadership hoping that he will help win the support of Muslims not just in Moradabad but across western Uttar Pradesh where the community has a sizeable population.

The effect of fielding a celebrity is immediately evident.

At the Singhania College guest house - a three-storied building with marble stairs and large, air-conditioned rooms - crowds of young men mill about hoping to catch a glimpse of the former star.

A rally addressed by former Indian cricket star Mohammad Azharuddin
Thousands wait for Azharuddin to turn up

Inside a massive living room, Azharuddin acknowledges fans and political workers alike - with a quick handshake, a nod and a smile.

He's dressed in a short-sleeved shirt with his collar up, jeans and trainers, with large sunglasses perched on his head, a massive contrast from the white Indian-style long kurta shirt and pyjamas favoured by most politicians.

His wife, former Bollywood actress Sangeeta Bijlani, is at hand, very much adding to the glamour quotient.

For the people of a non-descript town in one of India's poorest states, it's a dazzling combination. People try to touch him or get an acknowledgement - failing which they take pictures on their mobile phones.

"I know it's all due to cricket," Azharuddin admits. "But I'm hoping it translates into votes."

Two hours later we are at this first campaign rally of the day - a few thousand people have been waiting in the heat for the past four hours, kept entertained by a motley crew of local politicians and poets.

'Uninspiring'

At the first glimpse of their star, all hell breaks lose. They cheer and whistle their appreciation as Azharuddin, accompanied by his wife and teenage sons, wave to the crowd.

A man of few words - his post-match interviews during his cricket days were remarkable for their brevity and lack of substance - his speech is short and uninspiring.

Moradabad street
Moradabad has a large Muslim population

"Thank you for your love and affection. Please vote for me. I promise I'll develop Moradabad," he mutters.

The crowd is patient and encouraging.

"Very good, very good," says one man appreciatively. "So what if he can't speak. Who wants a silver-tongued politician anyway who'll promise us the moon and do nothing?"

Azharuddin looks bemused and even a bit out of place as local politicians sing his praise and the crowd eggs him on. Then it's off to the next rally.

What is astonishing is that he is not even from the state, let alone being new to Moradabad.

Azharuddin is from Hyderabad, in the south, one of India's booming cities and a hub for its thriving IT industry.

"It was the party's choice, which is why I came here," he says a shade defensively. "It's been an eye-opener really. Where I come from, villages have electricity and running water.

"Here they go without power for 12 hours a day. I've never seen such underdevelopment."

Inexperienced

It's not very clear what he's going to do about it if elected. That's perhaps understandable for a person pitch-forked into politics at short notice.

But in Moradabad's main streets and markets, his lack of experience or local knowledge is not something that bothers many.

Shopkeeper Rahman
Mr Rahman says Moradabad needs development

"He was an international cricket player, he's visited many countries so he's certainly got a vision," says Pervez, a local student.

"In any case, none of our local politicians have done anything for us for the past 60 years. So why not give an outsider a chance?" adds Suresh, another local resident.

But Zia-ur Rahman, a shopkeeper, adds a note of caution.

"We need a lot of development. Our local industries are suffering because of the recession, there are no jobs. We need a lot of attention."

Fielding Azharuddin in these elections may be a gamble for the Congress party - but it's one that they think may just work.



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