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Muslim choice in Bihar elections

patna Updated: Nov 24, 2010 09:00 IST
Srinand Jha

“Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s commitment to minority welfare is unquestioned. In this election the Muslim votes will go to the Janata Dal (United)”.

The seemingly innocuous comment from Edra-e-Shariat general secretary Haji Sayeed Mohammed Sanaullah provoked a furious response.

“Nonsense. The minorities have been used and abused by leaders of all political parties. Nitish Kumar’s protestations against the BJP’s Narendra Modi (Gujarat CM) are a sham. The minorities will vote for a secular government,” barked Bihar Jamait-e-Ulma general secretary Husne Ahmed Quadri.

The discussion was talking place in the spacious air-conditioned chamber of Patna’s Haj House chairman, Anis-Ur-Rehman. Walking out of Haj House that day, this reporter was constantly reminded of Patna’s Gandhi Museum director Razi Ahmed’s words: “Muslim votes are utterly fractured and they might end up voting for the winning candidates.

Despite the development factor, including law and order, being Nitish Kumar’s strong point during the Bihar assembly elections of 2010, there is a question as to whether the Muslims will stand by him. The Babri Masjid verdict of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, splitting the land on which the mosque stood, has not pleased many leading members of the community and hence they are likely to look for a political crutch. Nitish Kumar’s handicap here is his alliance with the BJP, the party committed to building the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Where the Muslim vote matters

Bihar’s 14 million Muslim voters — constituting 16.5% of the state’s population — will determine the poll outcome in 60 assembly constituencies (out of the 243 in the assembly) where they have a presence of anything between 18 and 74%. The statistics gleaned from the 2001 Census of India show that Kochadhaman and Amour (Kishanganj and Purnea districts, respectively) have the highest concentration of Muslim voters (at 74 per cent).

Other constituencies with a dominant presence of Muslims are in the bordering districts of Kishanganj, Araria and Bhagalpur; north Bihar districts of Supoul, Madhepura, Saharsa and Darbangha; and central Bihar districts of Gopalganj, Siwan, Biharsharif, Gaya and Nalanda.

In about 50 other seats, the Muslim voters have a presence of 10-17 per cent of the electorate, adequate to substantially influence the poll outcome.

Given the Muslims’ population proportion in the state, the Bihar assembly ought to have 38-40 Muslims. But, in most elections since 1952, 24-25 Muslims, have been elected while the state has sent, on average, just four-five Muslims to the Lok Sabha.

This time, the Congress has fielded the highest number (46) Muslim candidates, followed by 36 of the RJD-LJP combine and 17 of the JD (U)-BJP alliance.

“In the Muslim mind, the level of earlier hostility towards the JD (U)-BJP combine may have diminished, but they are unlikely to vote ‘en bloc’ for the ruling NDA alliance — or for any other party or grouping”, said Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI).

Local Congress leader Najmul Hassan Najmi says: “Aazmaye Ko Azmana Jihalat Hai” (trying out one who has already been tried out is obnoxious). People are fed up with the ‘nautanki’ (drama) of state leaders. The Congress will emerge strong this time.”

The go-it-alone strategy of the Congress is likely to marginally improve the party strength in the assembly.

Uncertainty on the voting pattern

“The poll outcome will be spectacular. This will be a landmark election”.

Wherever one travelled — Purnea, Madhepura, Saharsa, Kishanganj and Patna — this was the common refrain. Nitish Kumar has taken measures for the benefit of the community.

He brought Kameshwar Yadav, the main accused in the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, to book, has provided lifelong pension to Muslim families affected by the riots, and hiked the salaries of madarsa (Islamic schools) teachers.

The RJD campaign hinges on the argument that former CM Lalu Prasad was the one to have powered the “social engineering” process — providing voice to the minorities. This time, he is promising free motorcycles to the Muslim youth!

Congress leaders including party president Sonia Gandhi say that egalitarian growth and true secularism can be brought to Bihar only when their party is brought to Bihar.

Whose bait will the Muslim voters bite?

This election, the minority voters are truly playing their cards close to their chest.

“Roads and infrastructure development is fine. But what about our villages? The schools have no teachers; government benefits do not reach us. ‘Afsarshahi’ (rule of bureaucrats) prevails and common people have to pay five times more as bribes to the ‘panchayat’, block and district-level officials”, says Rashid Khan at Sabutar, a Muslim-dominated hamlet in the bordering district of Purnea.

Another villager said: “All parties have failed us: From the Congress to RJD and the JD (U).”

So whom will they vote for? “Nobody, we cannot vote for anybody,” Khan says.

Then comes the afterthought: “We are the ones (Muslims) who hold the key to government formation this time. The results will astound you; wait for the outcome!”

The 16% factor