While there may not be any tectonic shift in Muslim voting patterns across the key North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in this election, there are distinct signs that these may not be as predictable as in the recent past.
Muslims comprise 17.3 per cent of the population in UP and 14.8 per cent in Bihar. Ever since the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, UP’s Muslims have voted almost blindly for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, and Bihar’s for Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.
Mulayam won their undying gratitude by resorting to police firing to thwart the first attempt to bring down the Babri Masjid in October 1990. In the same month, Lalu endeared himself to them by arresting BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani while he was on his rath yatra to Ayodhya to whip up support for a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood. Equally, Muslims were furious with the Congress feeling that, despite being in power at the center, it had not done enough to prevent the demolition.
Reports from Muslim dominated areas of both states suggest, however, that in this election, the ghost of Babri no longer looms as large as it used to. In UP, with Mulayam Singh choosing to team up with Kalyan Singh — the man who was chief minister during the Babri demolition — the very issue has been rendered near meaningless.
In Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s efforts to reach out to the Muslims, particularly the poorer ones among them, have served to draw attention away from the fact that his government is in alliance with the BJP.
In both states too, the resentment against the Congress – so palpable in the decade after the Babri Masjid demolition — appears to have practically vanished. “Muslims have understood that to fight the BJP in a Lok Sabha election, you need to back the Congress,” said a senior Congress leader in Aligarh. “In Lok Sabha polls, Mulayam, Lalu, Nitish, Mayawati, are all secondary players.”
In UP, there is no large-scale Muslim shift towards the BSP, following Kalyan and SP coming together, as yet. “We’re not giving anything to Kalyan Singh,” said Mohammed Naim, an SP worker in Aligarh. “If he wants to help us defeat the BJP, why should we mind?”
But this is not a universally accepted view among Muslims. The BSP will register some gains. So will the Congress.