July 05, 2020
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Undecided, Yet Decisive

With every vote proving crucial, the race is on to win over the non-majority communities

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Undecided, Yet Decisive
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India’s two main minority communities—the Muslims and Christians—comprise only about 16 per cent of the electorate (13 and 3 per cent approximately). But they are going to play a crucial role in the forthcoming Lok Sabha poll. While it is true that both communities, much like the majority Hindu community, do not vote en bloc in a uniform manner all over the country, it is relatively easier—due to the smaller numbers involved—to make approximations. And in these days of fractured mandates, only one factor stands out in sharp relief: whatever the BJP may say, it is still seen as the principal adversary by the minorities.

While there are about 20 Lok Sabha constituencies which have over 35 per cent minority votes, the minorities can play a crucial role in deciding the fate of over 100 candidates. In states like Andhra Pradesh, where the vote difference between the two main contestants—the Congress and the tdp—is minuscule (the tdp won 38.39 per cent of the votes in the 1998 election while the Congress tally was 38.24 per cent), even a small swing of Muslim votes can lead to significant gains in terms of seats. Similarly, in the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu, Christian voters can tilt the scales in quite a few constituencies. In Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the minority vote is sizeable and both communities tend to vote for whichever party has the best chance of defeating the BJP. Outlook examines the voting inclination of the minorities in four frontline states:

UTTAR PRADESH: In search of a new messiah

For Uttar Pradesh’s battered minorities in the ’80s, Mulayam Singh Yadav was the natural messiah whose uncompromising stand on maintaining communal peace gave the Muslims security and him solid electoral benefits. Regardless of the fact that they never actually benefitted in real terms during the two Mulayam regimes, Muslims retained an unflinching belief in the man as well as his party.

That reserve of goodwill appears to be fading fast. His strong anti-BJP language is now merely a counterpoint for his equally aggressive stance against the Congress. Mulayam’s main worry now: for the first time since 1989, the minorities will not be driven by a purpose or an emotive issue. There has been no significant communal tremor in the state for quite a while. The building of the new temple at Ayodhya is largely a non-issue.

For Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Muslim vote holds the key to his very survival. He has ridden on the popular 17 per cent minority vote in the state since 1989, but with one stroke—where he was seen as blocking the entry to power at the Centre of secular parties led by the Congress following the BJP government’s loss in the vote of confidence—the feisty socialist’s main mass base seems to be shrinking.

Says Mulayam: "I have prevented this country from playing into foreign hands with an individual of foreign origins holding the reins of governance." However, he will also have to explain to the minorities the logic of allowing the BJP-caretaker government to continue for an additional six months.

Undoubtedly the Congress has even more explaining to do. From the opening of the locks of the Ram temple in 1984, laying of the foundation stone, to the mosque demolition during Narasimha Rao’s regime in 1992, Muslim sentiments have been badly bruised. The minorities are left with little reason to trust the Congress. At the same time, they cannot rely on Mulayam alone to defeat the BJP at the national level.

When cornered, Mulayam goes on the offensive. According to him, reports of the Congress gaining ground at his expense are imaginary. "No appeal can prove a balm to the hurt inflicted by the Congress on the minorities in Uttar Pradesh," he says.

Leading the Congress charge is the suave president of the state unit, Salman Khursheed, who has been touring Uttar Pradesh extensively and is drawing crowds—even if they do question him about his party’s role in the Ayodhya dispute. Khursheed is doing his bit to assuage feelings. At a public meeting in December 1998, he urged Muslims to forgive and forget the mishaps of the past. But the more important card he played was that only the Congress was a match for the BJP. Party circles are relying on conventional wisdom that minorities will vote for a party that can keep the BJP out. The stand taken by respected Muslim scholar Ali Mian from UP has boosted the Congress. In a letter to Mulayam, Ali Mian had called upon him not to oppose the Congress move to put up an alternative government at the Centre. The move is seen as being "significant" in the state.

The voter himself is not willing to commit himself so soon. Says president of the All India Muslim Forum, Nihal-ud-din, "Muslims have learnt their lessons. Their past experiences have taught them that they are mere pawns in the hands of different political leaders." That, however, can only be cold comfort to Mulayam Singh Yadav.

MAHARASHTRA: Split Decision

I give you my word. Commitment is my only currency. There are no rewards here. You will get neither money, nor position nor a ticket—until you have earned it. In the meantime it is my word to you that you will be treated with due respect and honour."

This is Prataprao Bhosale, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief, making assurances to about a dozen state executives of the Samajwadi Party wishing to cross over to the Congress. Their names are to be forwarded to the Congress president. Two of the SP men leave Bhosale’s chambers to discuss the terms of the offer. They return and give the pcc chief the green signal.

The SP in Maharashtra seems headed for trouble. Close on the heels of the resignation of Harbans Singh, the state unit’s vice-president, comes the threat from president Hussain Dalwai that he will quit too. Differences are surfacing in the party over the position it should take vis-a-vis the Congress in the forthcoming elections.

Mumbai’s SP president, Abu Hashim Azmi, is sure there will be no desertions. "Not one. Not one will go," he asserts. But supposing they did? "Well, whoever is deserting the SP is not known to me. There might be some frustrated individuals. No party executives."

Privately, though, SP leaders are not so sure. Miffed with Mulayam for not taking them into confidence before deciding not to support a Congress government at the Centre (they had to learn of his moves through television), they are aware of a great restlessness among Muslims, who trusted a gamut of non-Congress leaders to protect them against Hindu communalism only to find party after party striking its own deal with the BJP.

The Congress is leveraging that dissatisfaction and trying to influence a Muslim mindset already in a quandary over whom to support. There is a 10 per cent Muslim vote in the state and four constituencies in Mumbai have a sizeable Muslim vote. In the last election, the Congress has tied up with the SP. But the feeling in the Congress is that it can go it alone this time.

That confidence stems from the feeling in the Congress that the SP counts among the Muslims in Mumbai alone. The rest of Maharashtra is practically sewn up in its eyes as the issues for Muslims in the Konkan, Marathwada or Vidarbha are far removed from those affecting the Uttar Pradeshi or Bihari settler in Mumbai. And Congressmen are only too quick to note that Mulayam’s influence is on the decline as indicated by the dissidence within his own ranks.

But SP leaders maintain the Congress is unlikely to get more than half-a-dozen seats out of 48 in Maharashtra without SP support. Party mlc Dalwai quickly amends that figure to "around 15", a claim scoffed at by Sharad Pawar, the architect of the alliance with the SP in the ’97 elections. "They should be awakened to the fact that the SP has a presence in less than six districts. And for the last 10 months, our alliance has been practically off. In this time they have put up candidates against us in at least 10 by-elections and lost their deposits in seven." He’ll be hoping that the trend continues.

ANDHRA PRADESH: The Backlash Effect

Though the Muslim vote comprises only 7 per cent of the vote share in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress and the tdp are wooing Muslims with a vengeance. The Congress hopes that the pro-BJP stance of Chandrababu Naidu leaves the minorities no alternative but to go with them. The tdp has been giving a series of sops to the Muslims to bring the community back into its fold.

Even as the Muslim community in the state waits for a clearer picture of the political realignments to emerge, it finds itself in a bind. If it holds the Congress responsible for the demolition of Babri Masjid, then it feels betrayed by the Telugu Desam for extending outside support to the Vajpayee government.

Muslims have been consistently voting tdp. But the minority community was very vocal in expressing its displeasure when Chandrababu Naidu chose to back the Vajpayee government last year. His stand to vote for the BJP in the trust vote is being seen as further reiteration of the tdp’s closeness to the BJP.

Naidu has been hard at work trying to appease Muslims. He has made Urdu the second official language in schools in eight districts in Telengana, provided direct financing to build and rebuild mosques. The budget allocation to the Minority Welfare Department has been raised from Rs 5 crore to Rs 31 crore while the Minority Finance Corporation funding is up from Rs 60 lakh to Rs 10 crore.

These are only some of the sops. Naidu has clearly tried to project himself as a doer and enjoys some level of support on this account. Says Amanullah Khan, mla and the founder president of Majlis Bachao Tehrik: "The Muslim voter has to choose the lesser evil." In the prevailing political situation, he feels his community has no option but to vote for the tdp. But he is quick to add that the Muslims will vote Naidu only if he fights the elections alone.

However the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the most influential minority grouping in the state, is opposed to Naidu. Says Asaduddin Owaisi, legislator and son of the party president: "If the party in power feels that it can appease Muslims by giving sops, it is sadly mistaken. We are not sheep or goats which can be bought." He also accuses Naidu of making pro-minority noises in Hyderabad while his parliamentary party leader Yerram Naidu hobnobs with the BJP coalition partners, even representing their case before the President.

In the months to come, Muslims in the state will be actively wooed by both the tdp and the Congress. Their votes will play a vital role in at least 11 parliamentary constituencies. The Christian vote could influence a few constituencies in coastal Andhra. But with the tdp vote share in the 1998 elections a minuscule 0.15 per cent more than that of the Congress, every vote will count.

TAMIL NADU: An End To Insularity

When electoral arithmetic becomes the dominant mode of political discourse, compassion becomes the first casualty. The minorities in Tamil Nadu always prided themselves over the special place accorded them by the Dravidian movement as well as the Congress over the last 50 years. But they received their first shock when the AIADMK, the MDMK and the PMK joined hands with the BJP. That alliance shattered the belief that the parties from the Dravidian stock would not join hands with the forces of Hindutva. The DMK was seen as the only party which would stand by the minorities. But when the country’s oldest regional party switched sides and voted with the BJP during the confidence vote, that confidence was severely jolted.

Tamil Nadu has a 12 per cent Muslim population and 4 per cent Christian. The Muslims vote bank directly influences the electoral outcome in six parliamentary constituencies, while the southern coastal districts have a sizeable Christian presence. The minority vote will be crucial in providing a swing in favour of or against the two leading political groupings in the fray—the DMK-BJP combine and a Congress-led alliance.

"From being the most wooed lot, we’ve become the most unwanted section within the span of two years. Everyone is prepared to compromise with the bigotry of the majority. We do not know who our friends are. We can’t recognize the AIADMK as a secular party just because it has severed its connections with the BJP. We know that the Congress is opposing the BJP. But does that alone make it a secular party? We don’t know," observes a Chennai-based bishop.

After the Orissa incidents, Christians feel the Congress is a better bet. The Muslims, though, are not as committed. But a shift towards the Congress under Sonia is possible since they feel let down by the DMK which has come down on Muslims after the Coimbatore blasts. Its truck with the BJP will also work against the DMK.

What makes it difficult to predict which way the Muslim votes will go is the fact that many members of the community have moved away from the inl and iuml. A large section has already started talking in terms of even boycotting the elections. But it is too early to say which way they will cast their votes.

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