The pavement outside the iconic Suleiman Usman Bakery, Mohammed Ali Road, is choc-a-bloc with devotees of its baked goodies after the Friday namaz at the mosque nearby. It’s the Friday before votes are cast for an Assembly election of far-reaching significance. The conversations veer towards the political.
“It’s not just secular versus the communal this election. There’s also the national versus regional, non-Marathi versus Marathi. It complicates everything,” said Irfan Ahmed, a second-generation garment exporter.
“May be, it’s best to not vote. Those we vote for ignore us when in power. Those we vote against mark us out as enemies,” said Kamran Khan, a graduate who aspires to study law.
Someone asks: “Why not the Shiv Sena if the candidate is known and good?” He is old enough to know that the Suleiman Usman Bakery was one of the bloodiest scenes of crime in the 1992-93 post-Babri Masjid demolition riots. But pragmatism seems to have overwhelmed anger.
These exchanges reflect the recurrent stream of thought in large sections of the community about the Assembly polls: confusion. Muslims in Mumbai, who do not vote en bloc despite the convenient myth, face peculiar dilemmas in this election – Narendra Modi is now the Prime Minister, the BJP has been tipped by pollsters to win the state, the party giving them a fight is the Sena, traditional choices Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have split, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) sounds attractive in a perilous way.
If many Muslims voted traditionally in the general election earlier this year, they know neighbours and friends who voted tactically too. A few even voted for Modi. There’s apprehension about his agenda. There's also resigned acceptance, especially among the young.
The communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath’s statements are all discussed with apprehension in the voice but there is equal regret that major parties have not selected more Muslim candidates worth giving Modi/BJP a fight.
The issue of “inadequate representation set to get worse” is repeated in the Muslim basti near the Bandra station (west). As it is in Chandivli. Both areas have Muslim MLAs of the Congress, yet people aver that there has not been a vast improvement in their lives. “The split weakened our reach and appeal,” said a NCP leader.
“Muslim or non-Muslim is not the only choice to make, any MLA is good if he/she works for the community,” said youth leader Amir who participated in the recent survey to test “the relevance of Muslims” in this election. The lack of a credible community leadership was discussed in a youth conference last month. There are too many people doing politics in the name of Muslims, but the community has remained in the state that it was 15-20 years ago, Muslims rue.
“The voting would be on local and individual levels; not for a party but a candidate. There’s a high chance of Muslim votes getting very fragmented and, therefore, small enough to not make a difference,” said Hasina Khan, co-convenor of the Muslim Women’s Rights Network. The challenge for women’s groups is to draw out women to vote.
That the BJP is no longer a political pariah was evident in the programme in September when Maharashtra Muslim Sangh, a federation of more than 40 NGOs, presented a memorandum of demands to BJP leaders Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and state leaders.
“We gave 7 demands, they accepted three: implementation of the Mahmood-ur-Rahman Committee’s recommendations for upliftment, returning properties to Wakf Board and Ismail Yusuf College to the trust,” said FM Thakur, convenor.
The anger against “the so-called secular parties” – Congress, NCP and Samajwadi Party – is legitimate but it has allowed the MIM to gather fans. In Byculla, MIM candidate Waris Pathan has a good following and could affect the prospects of the Congress and BJP candidates, both named Madhu Chavan. But MIM is not an option in all Muslim-concentrated areas.
“We are still stuck in the old template. The youth want jobs, and to be protected from false raids and arrests by the Mumbai Police in terror cases,” said a leader unaffiliated to any party.
The upper class Muslims, especially those involved in businesses and trades, display none of the confusion in the community; their vote is for the man who they say understands business. In the Crawford Market lane that specialises in glassware, Modi seems like a desirable and winnable option for several store owners, except that he will not lead the state.
“There’s political re-thinking and multi-dimensional fragmentation of the vote. This election could reveal new political preferences, that’s if they vote,” said Javed Anand, co-convenor of Muslim for Secular Democracy.