Marching across the plains of poll-bound Uttar Pradesh is a scholarly band of Muslim academics and preachers, students and laymen. They have waded into the state’s electoral battle from universities in Delhi and Allahabad, Kanpur and Lucknow, to try and achieve what has never been done before—to mobilise a concrete, unified Muslim votebank.
The group’s aim is to foster a Muslim-Dalit alliance and for this they have been visiting, secretly, each and every constituency for the last six months. “Our aim is to bring all Muslims together on one platform,” says Adeeb Hasan, a JNU scholar who has been spearheading the effort. “We worked secretly through the last six months for we did not want to polarise the Hindu voters against the Bahujan Samaj Party.”
The group, which is now headed for the villages around Varanasi, as the last two phases of the polls approach, claims to be 4,000-strong. They are trying to convince rural Muslim voters to hold political parties accountable before casting their lot with any formation. This they do by splitting into smaller groups, who fan out into villages and visit individual mosques in pairs. Here, between the last namaz on the night before polling and the first namaz on voting day, they hold meetings at mosques, in which they persuade voters to select the elephant symbol of the BSP in polling booths.
Their refrain: for democracy to deepen among Muslim voters, parties seeking their votes need to fulfil, not just make, promises. They feel that the ruling Samajwadi Party, which has forged an electorally successful Muslim-Yadav alliance, created and fuelled communal disharmony, and that it did not keep promises made to the poor, like granting 18 per cent reservation to Muslims. “Maulanas and imams know beforehand that we would be visiting. So, after prayers, we are introduced as well-intentioned independent persons who want the Muslims to vote for their betterment,” says Hasan.
Significantly, the “450 communal incidents” in UP during SP rule belie its claim of making Muslims feel secure. “That is why we have been convincing imams and maulanas of rural mosques to proclaim support for the BSP,” says Hasan. “Because we don’t want Muslims to vote just for a false sense of security.”
Akhilesh Yadav with Muslims at an Iftar party in Lucknow
In UP’s altogether perplexing electoral scenario, both the BSP and the SP have vociferously engaged in a tussle for votes from 18 per cent of the state’s population—the Muslims. Also, the social salience of a group of educated Muslims asking a switch of mandate from the SP to the BSP has never been tested before. Nor, importantly, have Muslims ever voted en bloc.
“Far more credence is being given to the notion of a Muslim votebank,” says Khalid Anis Ansari, a professor at Glocal Law School in Saharanpur. “The idea is nonsense.” A unified Muslim voter, he feels, is absurd also considering the manner in which the UP polls are playing out this time. “It’s every constituency for itself, every candidate for himself. There’s more confusion among voters than usual and there is no wave or pattern. How would Muslims be swayed either way?”
Indeed, on a balance, the on-the-road sense in UP is that Muslims have largely stood by the Samajwadi alliance, whether from confusion or ennui, a ‘sense of security’ or the ruling party’s ‘development’ works, or by calculation—by combining forces with the Congress the SP is in a stronger position to keep the BJP at bay. This last sense prevails more in eastern UP, where Muslims are less numerous than in the west.
The reason for the extensive attention paid to the Muslim voter this time, and the raison d’etre for Adeeb’s group, is the strong pitch from BSP supremo Mayawati for Muslim votes, including her 97 tickets to Muslims. During 2012 as well, around 20 per cent of Muslims, according to CSDS surveys, had gone with the BSP. By sheer arithmetic, Mayawati’s party requires less Muslim support than the SP, for she is said to have a Jatav vote bank and cadre voters who make up 20 per cent of the electorate. Conversely, for the SP, Muslims and Yadavs are a cornerstone of its M-Y alliance.
This is why, ever since the third and fourth phases, the BJP brought up kabristan and shamshan and its star campaigners, including PM Narendra Modi, have simultaneously tried to project the SP as a “party of Yadavs”. Should the Muslim-Yadav alliance start to fray, only then would the BSP get a share of its Muslim pickings. This way, non-Yadavs would gravitate towards the BJP in significant numbers. However, so far, the low voting percentage, relatively speaking, indicates that upper castes are not voting as enthusiastically as the others. This might adversely affect the BJP.
When Mayawati pitched for the Muslim community’s vote, it was against the backdrop of the ‘surgical’ strikes. A turning point was the Una incident, in which a group of Dalit men was beaten up by cow vigilantes. “The Muslim voter seeks to align with a strong Hindu community, for they feel targeted by the BJP’s propaganda. After Una, cow vigilantism lost steam, Dalits showed that they can offer Muslims protection too,” says Satish Prakash, a professor at Meerut College and a Dalit intellectual.
The group soliciting Muslim votes for the BSP says the SP fuelled communal disharmony and did not keep its promises made to them.
Furthermore, there are indications of a Dalit consolidation in UP, against the backdrop of reservation in promotions falling through. While communities like the Passis now see themselves as more Passi, or SC, than claiming a Hindu identity, it is the BSP that stands to gain. This is why, with Jatavs firmly by Mayawati in 2017, if not Muslims too, the BSP expects to have a stab at government formation. Accordingly, she has twice reassured Muslims that her party would not align with the BJP as she did thrice in the past.
“The Muslims are also made up of different castes. The poorer sections, known as the Pasmanda, are turning to us,” says BSP MP Sudheendra Bhadoria. “There is no buzz around this shift because the Pasmanda are also silent voters like the Jatavs. But we will not get even one per cent less Muslim votes than the SP.” Bhadoria acknowledges that he is making a “very big claim”, for what he means is that the poorer Muslims will vote for the BSP, thereby splitting Muslim voters in two equal parts—nine per cent each for the SP-Congress alliance and the BSP.
That this is considered a possibility even within the SP is apparent from how a recent party event unfolded. A top SP Muslim leader arrived on February 24 to address a rally in Faizabad. So upset was he by the sight of BSP banners placed prominently on nearby buildings that he threatened to leave immediately after his chopper landed. “People cajoled him to stay on but he was so upset that he said that it would better if Muslims vote for the BJP rather than the BSP,” says Nafees Khan, an Ayodhya resident who was present. The top SP leader was Azam Khan, and he ultimately did make a speech.
Yet, Nafees himself isn’t convinced that Mayawati will not align with the BJP should she fall short of a few dozen seats. “She has bought a rakhi for the BJP and after elections that rakhi will be tied,” he says. He is a typical Muslim voter from the area—voting BSP out of the conviction that bringing in a Muslim BSP legislator from their area will add to their negotiating strength. “Muslims here voted for the BSP. Should he succeed it would send a signal that Muslims are an electoral force to reckon with. Muslims want to reverse the economic impact of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which has increased uncertainty and slowed traditional trades, like the leather footwear business,” he says.
An impetus to the pro-BSP trend comes from a backing by top Muslim clerics in central UP. In the east, the Mukhtar Ansari factor matters.
An impetus to this pro-BSP trend comes from the fact that top Muslim clerics, like Jama Masjid’s shahi imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari, have supported the BSP, a backing which earlier went to the SP. While this is influencing Muslim voters in central UP, in eastern UP the Mukhtar Ansari factor matters, primarily because Akhilesh Yadav has a weaker following there. What the Mukhtar factor has done is to help other Muslim leaders too. “If Mukhtar is mafia and Atiq Ahmed is
mafia then what’s Raghuraj Pratap Singh and Vinay Singh; what are Yadavs,” Muslim residents in Varanasi and around ask.
“There are many attempts to confuse Muslim voters, whose first choice otherwise is the SP,” says Sudhir Panwar, a member of the UP planning commission, and the SP candidate from Thanabhawan. “Muslims have given votes to the BSP only where they felt that the SP’s candidate was not in a position to defeat the BJP.” Which is to say that where Muslims make up over 20 per cent of a constituency they have sought to defeat the BJP on their own. Elsewhere, they went for the SP-Congress alliance.
The trend of Muslim voting patterns in this election also has to do with Mayawati’s specific pitch aimed at them. She has said that if Muslims vote for SP it’s a waste, because in that party a split was imminent. “But the split never took place and yet she repeatedly talked about wasted votes,” says Panwar.
The other aspect of BSP’s strategy was to approach Muslims head-on, and repeatedly. “This strategy, for what it’s worth, might even have alienated many Hindu Dalit and OBC voters, for it would have created an anti-Muslim candidate polarisation,” says Satish Prakash.
Even Mayawati’s foot soldiers, the young men and women from the universities in and around Delhi and Lucknow, accompanied by religious preachers, would often have had this effect. “There are such groups moving around but at the sight of sherwani-clad bearded preachers in villages, making loudspeaker announcements for the BSP, the Hinduised ati-pichda (most backward) voter would likely be put off, helping, ultimately, the BJP,” says Ansari of Glocal Law College.
If this happens, it remains to be seen if the polarisation is against the Muslim candidates in particular constituencies, or one more directly in favour of the BJP. In such circumstances, at best, the BSP would get the vote of those Muslims who don’t want to be blackmailed into feeling ‘safe’ and prefer an alternative to the SP. Where the BSP has more Muslim support, local conditions will determine outcomes. “Muslims have voted for BSP here,” says Abhishek Chaudhary of the Kurmi Mahasangh, Amethi. “But the Kurmis decided to vote for the BJP in response.” The reason was, the BSP candidate, Shahbaz Khan’s ‘inflammatory’ speech at the end of campaigning.
That said, like Muslims, OBCs and EBCs do not a monolith make. The Kurmis, for example, vote highly tactically. Thus, in Bareilly, they are with the BJP due to Union minister Santosh Gangwar; in Shahjahanpur, they are with the SP and the BSP. In Sitapur they are with the BJP, but in Hardoi with the BSP. In Faizabad, they are with the BJP, in Basti the BSP. In Mirzapur, Apna Dal has scored with the community, while in Ambedkar Nagar BSP’s Lalji Verma has a hold over their votes. In Barabanki, due to Beni Prasad Verma, Kurmi voters are with the BSP.
There is no good reason now to suppose that the Muslims are any different.