A humble weaver of silk sarees in Varanasi, a wealthy exporter of Mirzapur carpets, a glass blower bursting his lungs in Firozabad, a leather tanner in Kanpur, a woman zari embroiderer slaving away for a pittance in Lucknow, a sugarcane farmer in Saharanpur, a burnisher of brass artefacts in Moradabad, an unemployed youth in Bahraich — may all be Muslims by birth but they are also individuals with independent political opinions, often unconnected with their religious identity. They are part of the vast and varied tapestry of the country’s highest populated state. This polyglot collection of individuals is far too often lumped together as a Muslim vote bank that unitedly goes to the polls to elect a pre-determined party or candidate.
Several electoral studies of voting behaviour, including a recent detailed analysis in the Economic and Political Weekly on ‘How Muslims Vote in Uttar Pradesh’, clearly show that the idea of a monolithic Muslim vote bank “is just a misguided opinion without any credible evidence”. Repeated opinion polls also show that Muslim voters, along with all other communities and castes, are more concerned about employment, price rise, corruption and other economic issues than they are about purely communal or caste identities. I can vouch for this, as during my recent electoral foray in UP, I found voters increasingly resentful about being asked about their caste or community identity. Such a question seemed to be disrespectful of their existence as individuals with distinct views.
Yet, all the major political parties in the UP election chose to either revile (BJP) or woo (BSP, Samajwadi-Congress) Muslims as an assumed vote bank. They specifically targeted the 73 constituencies where Muslims form over 30% of the electorate and another 70 constituencies where Muslims constitute 20% to 30%. In a state where Hindus form 79.7% of the population and Muslims 19.3%, according to the 2011 census; these political formations and the media have over-played the electoral role of Muslims.
With the election results on Saturday morning showing an overwhelming majority of seats going to the BJP out of the UP Assembly’s total of 403 seats, it has become apparent that Muslims have voted in a fragmented manner and not as a bloc. Mayawati’s BSP fielded 99 Muslim candidates and the Samajwadi Party 56 Muslim candidates in the election. This over-representation of Muslims has not only confused Muslim voters but also consolidated the Hindu vote in favour of the BJP, regardless of caste. As a result, only a handful of Muslims have been elected to the new UP Assembly while 69 Muslims MLAs were elected in 2012, the highest since the country’s independence.
In Kairana constituency, despite the consolidation of Hindu votes due to the widely believed false rumours that Hindus were being forcibly evicted from the area, the SP has won thanks to the 63% of Muslim voters.
The Muslims have clearly not voted for the BJP as they fear that party and the Sangh Parivar which has, since 2014, repeatedly made false accusations against Muslims on issues like love jihad, cow slaughter, forced conversion, forced migration of Hindus, etc. In return, the BJP has totally ignored Muslims and did not field a single Muslim candidate in the UP election. As for the BSP, despite its forceful push to get Muslim votes, the Samajwadi-Congress alliance has remained ahead of the BSP among Muslims.
Now that Prime Minister Modi has had a historic triumph in UP, it is about time he included Muslims in his “sabka sath sabka vikas” development programme, so that Muslims may vote for him in the 2019 national election.
Jawid Laiq is a political commentator who has been covering nationwide elections since 1977. The views expressed are personal.