The complicated and controversial notion of a Muslim vote bank stretches back to the first general elections in 1952. The post-Partition face of the Indian Muslims, Maulana Azad, was keen to contest an election from a constituency with a sizeable Hindu population to prove his ‘secular’ credentials when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru insisted he contest from Muslim-majority Rampur district instead. Nehru didn’t want to take a risk with the electoral fortunes of one of his key lieutenants. A reluctant Azad eventually agreed, and although he managed to have his way by contesting from Gurgaon in the 1957 elections, the die had been cast: a Muslim politician in UP was seen to need the crutches of his co-religionists to win an election.
Azad at least had the stature to be seen as a genuine ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. Azam Khan, the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) most-prominent ‘Muslim face’ and its MLA from Rampur, typifies a dangerous brand of aggressive ‘Muslim-first’ politics masquerading as secularism. His strident rhetoric is designed to consciously appeal to his Muslim constituency: Rather than speak of how he intends to lift the community from the morass of under-development, his focus is on stoking their worst fears and insecurities. In the Azam Khan worldview, the way to win elections is to portrait Narendra Modi as an ogre, someone Muslims should be very frightened of.
And yet, despite his abominable public utterances (one of the worst was when he suggested that the Kargil war was won by Muslim soldiers), the SP has chosen to stick with Khan because it suits their political agenda of wooing the state’s 18% Muslim vote. The party’s original vote bank was built in the early 1990s on a Muslim-Yadav (MY) alliance, with Mulayam Singh’s ‘shoot-at-sight’ orders against kar sevaks at the height of the Ram Mandir movement conferring him the honorific ‘Maulana’ Mulayam. The standing joke in Lucknow was that if any influential Muslim cleric approached Mulayam, he would be rewarded with an official post.
Truth is, the SP has failed to offer the UP Muslim genuine security or social uplift: Patronage of Muslim elites or donations to madrasas have had almost no impact on the lives of citizens. The numerous small and large riots that have occurred in UP in the last five years are indictments of the claim to have ensured communal peace: The worst example being the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots where the local administration clearly failed to act swiftly or in a non-partisan manner.
Perhaps, sensing an opportunity, the BSP leader Mayawati has attempted to challenge the MY alliance with her own DM (Dalit-Muslim) social engineering. By giving tickets to 100 Muslims including mafia dons like Mukhtar Ansari, Mayawati has made an attempt to break the Yadav stranglehold over the Muslim vote. There have been previous attempts to create a Dalit-Muslim unity, most notably in Maharashtra, but never has it been tried on the scale that Mayawati is now seeking. It is this fear of a divided Muslim vote rather than any principled commitment to secular values that has spurred the Samajwadi-Congress alliance.
The BJP’s response is even more troubling. Despite the PM’s promise of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, on the ground there has been a concerted attempt by the local BJP leadership to identify issues that will create a Hindu-Muslim polarisation. If in 2014, the party exploited the Muzaffarnagar riots, this time, issues like a proposed ban on slaughter-houses, a national ‘debate’ on triple talaq, the alleged flight of Hindus from Kairana in western UP, have been raked up on election eve with the sole intent of consolidating a Hindu vote. The pernicious ‘love jihad’ campaign of Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath and the hate speeches of BJP MPs like Sakshi Maharaj and MLAs like Sangeet Som expose their bigoted mindsets.
Trapped then between the opportunistic politics of the so-called secular parties and the demonisation by Hindutva forces, the average UP Muslim voter is left feeling angry and frustrated. They don’t want to embrace the self-appointed ‘thekedars’ of the community like the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid who pops up just before elections despite his growing political irrelevance.
They may be attracted to a more articulate leader like Asaduddin Owaisi but are also acutely aware that the Hyderabad MP is only a spoiler at election time. Indeed, if the Muslim voter prefers the SP-Congress alliance today, it’s because of a visible lack of options, and the fear that he will be soon left without any political voice in the state when confronted with the Sangh parivar juggernaut. Remember the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was the first when not a single Muslim was elected MP from UP.
The answer to the Muslim dilemma does not lie in the growing radicalisation of the young who want to express themselves in more violent terms. Nor is it in seeking sops from the state, which are seen as token ‘appeasement’. It must lie, at the very core, in the recognition of the economic inter-dependence of communities: A Jat land owner in a sugarcane field in Baghpat must make common cause with the Muslim agricultural labourer as must a Muslim weaver in Banaras with a Hindu sari shop owner for mutual benefit. This can only be enabled by a leader with vision and credibility who enjoys the trust of both communities: Uttar Pradesh is crying out for a 21st century Azad and Nehru.
Post script: In the aftermath of the post-Ayodhya riots, Lucknow was remarkably free of any bloody communal conflict. An elderly gent explained it to me with a poetic touch: In this city, Hindu and Muslim are like taala and chabi (lock and key), one cannot do without the other’.
What Lucknow thinks today, hopefully India will think tomorrow.
The writer is senior journalist and author