For a major part of these years, Mumbai South has consistently elected the Congress’ Murli Deora to the Lok Sabha. In 2004, his 27-year-old son, Milind Deora, defeated BJP rival Jaywantiben Mehta by a margin of about 10,000 votes to become India’s youngest member of Parliament.
Milind Deora’s website, which includes endorsements by movie actors, authors, businessmen, social activists and educationists, points to the popularity he enjoys and most expect that when Mumbai South turns out to vote on 30 April, it will send Milind Deora back to Parliament again.
“Maulana Ather Ali’s decision to contest these elections has symbolic importance,” says Hasan Kamaal, editor of the Mumbai-based Urdu-language newspaper Shahafat.
“Muslims have become very politically aware, but still many will go out and vote for the Congress. Not because they love it, but because they see no other alternative.”
Kamaal explains that Ali could have chosen to run from some other constituency where he has a better chance, but the Ulema decided on Mumbai South because he has worked in this part of the city for many years and knows the local community well.
“No one really expects him to win from this constituency,” he adds. “But this is a signal that the Muslims in Mumbai are looking for an alternative banner. And when it does emerge, Congress will be in very, very deep trouble.”
“It is now a question of time,” he adds.
Azghar Ali Engineer, an islamic scholar and founder of the Center for Study of Societies and Secularism, says that what is happening in South Mumbai is a reflection of the desire of Muslims in Mumbai for greater representation.
The trigger for the Ulema’s decision not to back the Congress was the distribution of party tickets.
“Like in the rest of the country, the Muslim relationship with the Congress has been souring for a while,” said Fareed Khan, general secretary of the Quami-Majilis-e-Shoora, an organization that works for Muslim empowerment. “But this time around, the Ulema withdrew its backing of Congress when the party refused to give an adequate number of tickets to Muslims in Maharashtra. Of the 48 (Lok Sabha) seats of Maharashtra, they gave only one ticket to a Muslim.”
Psephologist and political commentator Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says this is good news for Indian democracy because it shows that Muslims want their vote to be taken seriously and their issues addressed.
Small regional Muslim parties have also emerged elsewhere, such as the Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh.
“The Ulema council and Indian Peace Party have fielded candidates not only in Mumbai, but also in Uttar Pradesh,” says Imran-Ur-Rehman Kidwai, chairman of the Congress party’s minority cell.
“They are just helping parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cut the Congress vote, that’s all,” he said, adding that he was confident the Muslims will not vote for Ulema candidates. The BJP is not contesting the Mumbai South seat, though.
Muslim awareness of issues such as education has grown after the Rajinder Sachar committee in 2006 came out with a report on the socio-economic status of Muslims in India. The committee found that the literacy rate among Muslims was way below the national average. About 25% of Muslim children in the 6-14-year age group either never attended school or had dropped out, it said.
“We also understand that education is the only way out of poverty. We want our children to get good education that will allow them to compete in the world outside,” said Afifa Salim, a parent in the Mumbai South constituency.
The issues that Ali is raising range from the need for better teachers at municipal schools to redevelopment of dilapidated and even dangerous buildings that risk collapsing in the monsoon.
That may not suffice for him to win election, but he has his supporters among the Muslims.
“His voice resonates with us. He talks about our problems—our roads, buildings, schools, and reservations. This is what Muslims of Nagpada care about,” said Suhail Khan, a computer trader and long-time resident of Nagpada.