Muslims are unlikely to throw their weight behind any single party in areas dominated by the community in Moradabad, Bareilly, Shahjahanpur, Amroha, Bijnore and Rampur districts, which go to the polls in the third phase of the state assembly elections on April 18.
Several of the 40-odd assembly constituencies in these districts are either Muslim-dominated or hold the key to the success of candidates of the ruling Samajwadi Party and the opposition Congress and BSP.
"Muslim votes will not go in favour of any single party this time," said Maulana Salman of the prestigious Shahi madarsa of Moradabad. "We are asking the community to vote tactically to ensure the defeat of communal forces."
Well-known Shia cleric Raza Abbas Zaidi alias Raja Mian of Sambhal, which has a sizeable Shia population, said Muslims should support those who did not indulge in communal politics and worked for the development of the country and the state.
Another noted cleric, Maulana Ashhad Rashid, manager of the historic 130-year-old Jamia Kasmia Madarsa in Moradabad, said those indulging in religious politics should be "discarded".
"Muslims should support candidates who can work for fostering communal amity and national integrity," he said. Tactical voting, however, appear to be the key words among Muslims.
"Jo aage barh raha hai usi ko vote denge (We shall vote for those who are ahead in the race)," said Abdul Latif, a cloth merchant of Tiriapur village in Bareilly Cantonment constituency.
Asad Rauf, a vegetable vendor at Fatehganj market in Bareilly, said: "Communal forces must be defeated. We shall go for parties who can do it, whether it is SP, Congress or BSP."
Muslims also feel 'fatwas' (decrees) issued by various clerics at the time of elections will have "no significant bearing" on the community.
"Muslim votes kisi ki jageer nahin hai (Muslim votes are not the domain of anyone)," Latif said.
"There is no use wasting votes on losing candidates," said Naseem Ahmed, a fruit-seller in Maigalganj near Shahjahanpur town.
Significantly, the clerics have not issued appeals in favour of any single party. A large number of constituencies in this belt are dominated by Muslims. They are in strength in three seats in Moradabad city, west and dehat, Thakurdwara, Rampur and Swar Tanda and are a deciding factor in Syohara, Afzalgarh, Najibabad, Dhampur, Kanth, Amroha, Sambhal, Bahjoi, Kundarki, Shahabad, Bareilly Cantonment and some others.
Undeterred by the possibility of tactical voting by Muslims, the Congress, Samajwadi Party and BSP are trying their best to woo the community and claim it will side with them.
While the Samajwadi Party claims its government had taken a number of steps for the welfare of Muslims, the Congress is brandishing its secular character and lists its achievements on this count.
"The Muslims know well that Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's government has done a lot for them," claimed senior Samajwadi Party leader and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Azam Khan, citing the construction of Haj houses and estblishment of Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar University in Rampur.
Khan also claimed that the state government's promptness in getting a stay on the recent Allahabad High Court judgement that said Muslims are not a minority community has sent out a "positive message" to the community.
Senior Congress leader Begum Noor Bano, however, termed Khan's claims as "eye wash". "Muslims have realised that only the Congress is a secular party in the true sense," she said.
"The Mulayam government has not done anything for the Muslim community," she said.