Seeking the Muslim vote

With 18 percent of the votes, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are the most sought after vote bank in the upcoming state election

On 9 February 2012, a day before second phase elections in Uttar Pradesh, Union Law Minister and a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh (UP) Salman Khurshid made a claim in Muslim-majority Azamgarh that shocked his fellow Congressmen in Delhi. He said national party president Sonia Gandhi had wept when he showed her photographs of the victims of Batla House encounter. In September 2008, Batla House encounter took place in the neighbourhood of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia where two alleged terrorists from Azamgarh were killed. One of them was a student of Jamia. Repeated requests by civil society groups, university teachers as well as senior Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh and Khurshid for an investigation was turned down by Congress party’s own Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. The party simply refused to take a clear position even as its own government calls it a genuine encounter.

Even as various Congress leaders from UP struggled to pacify the Delhi press and rubbished Khurshid’s claim, the law minister made another sensational rhetoric in another Muslim majority area. Already chastised by EC for making promise of nine per cent sub-quota for minorities among Other Backward Classes (Indian Constitution doesn’t recognize religion based quotas nor has the Congress party manifesto any mentions it), Khurshid announced in Farrukhabad that he would continue to fight for the rights of Muslims even if the Election Commission “hangs” him.

Chief Election Commission SY Qureshi, a Muslim himself, watched the development with bewilderment. He has already complained to the Prime Minister. This time he approached the President complaining about the manner in which the minister was undermining the Election Commission – a constitutional body. But Khurshid, the Muslim mascot of Congress party in UP and many claim a possible Chief Minister candidate if Congress manages to form a government there, seem to be in no mood to put a stop to his rhetoric. Muslims play a major role in the shared dream of both Congress party and the other ‘secular’ political party Samajwadi Party (SP) to revive their fortune in Uttar Pradesh. At 20 percent population in 20 districts, Muslim votes bank can make or break government in India’s largest province.

Last election Chief Minister Mayawati Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) managed to build a rainbow coalition between Brahmins, Muslims and her traditional support base Dalits. This pushed her party to majority. But will Mayawati be able to crack the same arithmetic again? Both Congress and Samajwadi Party have undertaken an aggressive campaign to win back Muslims to their fold.

In the Congress, no one less than the scion of Nehru-Gandhi family – Rahul Gandhi has taken on himself to rescue the party from the din of electoral politics and reinstate it in the state assembly with a respectable number of seats. Congress was poor fourth in the last state elections behind BSP, SP and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The general elections in 2009 changed it all when it won 21 parliamentary seats after Rahul Gandhi extensively campaigned in the state. This time the challenge for Congress party is to win assembly segments in these 21 parliamentary seats and perhaps become the kingmaker if not the king. Whether this is possible we will come to know when the election results are announced on 6 March.

Meanwhile, the party has been making all the politically right and constitutionally wrong noises to attract the Muslim votes. Days before the election, it floated the idea of government job quotas for Muslims. During the Lokpal (anti-corruption bill) debate in the Parliament, the Union government spoke about quotas for minorities in the proposed Lokpal setup – something that took everyone by surprise. One had never heard of quotas for religious minorities in any constitutional body. As expected opposition BJP protested and called a gimmick with UP elections in mind. Then came the issue of writer Salman Rushdie attending Jaipur Literature festival. When Darul Uloom, Deoband had initially demanded a ban on his visit, Khurshid is on record having said that Indian government has no business stopping the writer of Satanic Verses from visiting India. Rushdie is a person of Indian origin and has legal right to visit the country of his birth. But what followed after the growing ‘protests’ and ‘threats’ from fringe Muslim groups was Congress take a completely different position.

Moving ahead from the mere political rhetoric about reservation, Congress promised reserving 4.5 percent sub-quota within the 27 percent Other Backward Class (OBC) quota for minorities in it’s UP election manifesto. Competing with Congress, former UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP) demanded 18 percent reservation for Muslims. UP has around 18 percent Muslims population.

Just like Congress, SP is desperate for the support of Muslims. The party’s original base has largely been among Yadavs and Muslims. Mulayam Singh, who often calls himself Maulana Mulayam and wears skull cap at occasions, has been out of favour of the community for quite some time now. What really angered the Muslims was when he admitted Kalyan Singh, former BJP Chief Minister under whom Babri Masjid was pulled down, into his party. He claimed Kalyan has realised his mistake and thus should be forgiven. Senior Muslim leader Azam Khan was removed the party after he protested Kalyan Singh’s induction. Faced with growing revolt within the party, Mulayam was quick to rectify his mistake. He threw out Kalyan and invited Azam Khan back. He even made a public apology to the Muslim community. But the mistake had been made. Mulayam Singh has now been trying hard to gain his support base back. He even got the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid Maulana Ahmad Bukhari to appeal to Muslims to vote for his party. It was the same Mulayam Singh who had once famously snubbed Bukhani and asked him to stay away from politics.

Apart from Congress, SP and BSP, there are a few other smaller players in the field seeking the Muslim votes. Prominent among them is Peace Party. Found in 2008 by a Muslim surgeon Mohammad Ayub, the party created lot of buzz when it secured more votes than SP and Congress in two by-elections. This time it hopes to win a few seats in the state assembly. Though primarily supported and led by Muslim middle class professionals, it refuses to call itself a party of the Muslims – rather a party of the downtrodden which includes Dalits, Muslims and other backward classes. Whether it wins any seats is still doubtful, but analysts agree that it will certainly eat into the traditional vote bank of Congress and SP thereby helping BSP and BJP.

However questions that many in India are asking are will the Muslims vote as a block like it did in the past? What will be the issues on the minds of Muslims when they press the voting machine to choose their representatives to UP assembly?

The electoral politics of the country has vastly changed over the last 62 years. The issues should have changed. From post-partition UP to post-Babri Masjid UP, it has mostly been about security and safety of a community under attack. Post 9/11, it became about the stigma of the terror tag. Batla House encounter only reinstates the fear. Apart from the security issue, Sachar Committee report commissioned by the present Congress Prime Minister reveals the backwardness of Muslims community. Jobs, education, elected representative – Muslims are still at the bottom of the ladder in the great Indian dream. The report claimed that the condition of Indian Muslims is even worse than weaker sections like Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribes. Around 22 percent of these Indian Muslims live in UP making it as one of the most powerful vote bank in democratic India. And yet sadly the most ineffective when it comes to making any real change to their own lives.

Kunal Majumder is senior correspondent with Tehelka newsmagazine. His twitter handle is @kunalmajumder

Published in The Friday Times: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120217&page=7

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