In western Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party is waging a losing battle to retain Muslim support. The community was said to have deserted the ruling party in the wake of last September’s communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and adjoining areas. But the party appears to have recovered some lost ground following the state government’s healing touch. Notwithstanding the palpable anger over numerous riots in the state since the party came to power two years ago, the Narendra Modi factor weighs heavily on the minds of Muslims.
And the BSP, known as the silent killer in UP politics, has emerged as a formidable challenger to the SP and threatens to sweep a large share of the Muslim votes.
The SP may have made marginal gains in western UP — which goes to the polls on 10 April — but the same cannot be said about the party’s electoral prospects in the rest of the state. The rise of Modi and the ensuing communal polarisation weighs heavily on the minds of Muslims. In some places, particularly in western UP, the polarisation is more intense among the Hindus in favour of the BJP rather than among the Muslims against the BJP. In the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Saharanpur, Moradabad and Bijnor affected by communal riots, the BJP has made a dent in the Dalit-Muslim social coalition of the BSP . Dalits, especially the upwardly mobile Jatavs, are gravitating towards the BJP.
According to community leaders and political observers, Muslims see Modi’s BJP as a different animal from the one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The community is all set to go for tactical voting, which will be more strident, compared to previous elections in the state. The tactical voting per se will be negative voting and the community will exercise its franchise in favour of a candidate who is best suited to defeat the BJP.
Much to the chagrin of the SP, the Congress has emerged as the most unexpected beneficiary of the communal polarisation in western UP. The blessing in disguise for the Congress is turning out to be a curse for the SP as well as the BSP .
Congress candidate Imran Masood’s hate speech against Modi in Saharanpur, and his subsequent arrest has triggered a massive polarisation of Muslims in favour of the Congress in western UP. The sudden turn of events in Saharanpur, which made a strong impact in the region, has caught the SP and the BSP off guard. The BSP is already struggling hard to save its turf from communal polarisation in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who kick-started his campaign in western UP from Saharanpur on 29 March, may have disapproved the contents of Masood’s hate speech but added to his stature by sharing the dais with the latter’s wife. In Saharanpur, Rahul did not name Masood, but at another rally in Ghaziabad, he defended the Congress candidate by saying “he made the speech when he was with the Samajwadi Party”.
“Congress candidate Imran Masood had used harsh language, which is not the language and the ideology of the Congress as we believe in inclusive politics carrying along all sections of society,” Rahul said in Ghaziabad.
Masood’s arrest and his refusal to apologise for his hate speech against Modi catapulted him overnight as a darling of the Muslim community in Saharanpur and adjoining areas. In the ensuing polarisation, the battle for Saharanpur has turned into a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP, thus relegating the BSP candidate and sitting MP Jagdish Singh Rana to the fringes.
Masood is the nephew of former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP Rashid Masood, who was disqualified from Upper House last October, following his conviction in a corruption case. At the time of his conviction, Rashid was in the Congress and later defected to the SP. His son Shazan is the SP candidate from Saharanpur.
“Masood’s arrest will not only have a tremendous impact in Saharanpur but in almost all the seats in the adjoining divisions and will benefit the Congress,” says Mavia Ali, chairman of the Deoband Nagar Palika.
In the 2009 General Election, the BSP rode on the wave of the Dalit-Muslim support to win five of the 10 seats going to the polls on 10 April. Of the remaining five, two went to the RLD and the BJP and one to the Congress. The BSP had also won the Muzaffarnagar seat, though by a narrow margin of 20,000 votes. With the palpable shift of the Muslims towards the Congress, the BSP faces an uphill task of repeating its 2009 performance.
“The storm created by the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli has now settled down to a large extent,” says Mufti Zulfikar, the Sahar Mufti of Muzaffarnagar. “None cay deny that Muslims here were angry with the SP, but its election time and one has to face the bigger issue and that is to defeat the resurgent communal forces under the leadership of Narendra Modi.
“The SP has done a lot to mend its relations with the community and douse the frayed tempers over the riots. The BSP has failed to capitalise on the SP’s failure. Mayawati never visited the area to console the victims living in the relief camps.”
Mayawati addressed her first election rally in eastern UP on 3 April and another one in Muzaffarnagar on the same day. Incidentally, her non-show in Muzaffarnagar after the riots has not gone down well with the minority community. Even SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav did not visit Muzaffarnagar after the riots, but he tried to recover lost ground by sharing the dais with Maulana Arshad Madani, the influential Deobandi cleric and president of the Jamait Ulema Hind, at a recent rally.
“Muslims in western UP are angry with the SP, but are not willing to reject the ruling party lock stock and barrel as they need a viable alternative that can defeat the BJP,” says political analyst AK Verma. “At the same time, in the communal- secular narrative of politics, it becomes Muslims vs the rest. In such a situation, even people from the majority community get affected by the violence and feel the pinch of the communal hatred. This narrative is operating in Muzaffarnagar and the SP will lose the support of other communities.”
The SP may have mended its relations with the minority community in Muzaffarnagar but the community remains hostile to the ruling party in central and eastern UP. “The SP is not the first choice of Muslims in eastern and central UP,” says Verma. “Empirical field studies show that Muslims have never voted in a uniform manner across the state and this time too they will vote tactically to defeat the BJP. In that case, other parties stand to gain in some seats of central and eastern UP.”
Meanwhile, strident hostility by the Aligarh school of thought against the SP and its chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has added to the woes of the party. The outrage over the riots and the subsequent ill-treatment of Muslims in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar has so angered the academic community of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) that they have decided to campaign against Mulayam in Azamgarh and parts of eastern UP, where the bulk of the AMU students come from. The Aligarh school of thought represented by the AMU has shaped the opinion of the community leaders and intellectuals over various issues for close to a century.
“We will oppose the SP and Mulayam, who is contesting from Azamgarh,” says Aftab Alam, secretary of the AMU Teachers’ Association (AMUTA). “Our opposition is on two counts: communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and the SP’s opposition to the Communal Violence Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The SP was voted to power in the 2012 Assembly polls with overwhelming support of the Muslims and the party can no longer take the community for granted by raising the Modi bogey.
“Mulayam claims to be the messiah of Muslims, yet more than 20,000 people are still living in relief camps in Shamli. He believes more in symbolism rather than doing something substantial for the welfare of Muslims.”
The AMU community plans to run a sustained campaign against Mulayam in Azamgarh. “There are more than 10,000 students, former students, teachers and non-teaching staff from Azamgarh and they are being asked to contact their family members in the rural areas of Azamgarh and expose Mulayam’s real face, because the rural people know little about his politics,” says Alam.
In February, Mulayam had to call off a visit to the AMU, following a strong protest by students and the AMUTA. The SP leader was to address a seminar highlighting the long-pending demand of the university to be accorded minority status. However, with widespread protests in the campus over the party’s mishandling of the riots, he had to cancel his visit. The teachers said it was a private programme of the SP chief and the university had nothing to do with it. SP leaders wanted to use the AMU campus to send a message to the Muslims that all is well.
Noted Urdu poet Munawwar Rana expressed regret about the prevailing political scenario. “Faultlines are being unabashedly exploited by all political parties,” he said. “To every party, the Muslim vote is like apple. But on the day of polling, it turns out to be like an orange.”