With the Lok Sabha election not far away and the wounds of the Muzaffarnagar riots still festering, the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh is on a desperate mission to retain the support of Muslims. The minority community in the state is seething with anger over the inhuman treatment meted out to riot victims in the relief camps. In a bid to assuage minority sentiments, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav recently elevated three Ministers of State from western Uttar Pradesh — Shahid Manzoor, Iqbal Mahmood and Mahboob Ali — to Cabinet rank, taking the total number of Muslims in the Cabinet to five.
To shore up the Samajwadi Party’s support base among Muslims in western Uttar Prdaesh, supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav has declared Shadan Masood, son of former Rajya Sabha member Rashid Masood, as the party’s candidate from Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat. Once a trusted lieutenant of Mulayam, Rashid Masood had quit the Samajwadi Party after the 2009 General Election and joined the Congress. Last October, he was disqualified from his Rajya Sabha seat after his conviction in a corruption case.
The UP government has also announced that at least three policemen from the minority community will be posted in each of the over 1,500 police stations in the state.
However, the buzz in political circles is that these measures are too little and too late to salvage the Samajwadi Party’s battered image among the Muslims of the state. “Mere cosmetic measures like inducting more Muslims into the Cabinet will make little impact on the electoral preferences of the minorities,” says political analyst Ibne Hasan. “The Samajwadi Party appears to be panicky and confused, with its leaders sending out conflicting signals to the electorate. Even as the party projected the saffron brigade as its principal rival, its chief Mulayam Singh Yadav accused those living in the relief camps to be ‘conspirators’ and agents of his political rivals. And ignoring the nationwide outrage over the death of infants in the relief camps, the party splurged on the celebrations in the Yadavs’ hometown Saifai. Moreover, senior minister Azam Khan led a team of MLAs and ministers on a two-week foreign junket despite being the party in-charge of Muzaffarnagar.”
In fact, Khan is yet to visit the riot-affected people in Muzaffarnagar and neighbouring districts.
Hasan also points out that the ruling party is confused over who its main rivals are. “While Mulayam has long been targeting BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and saying that his ‘hands are stained with the blood of Muslims’, his deputy and national spokesman Ram Gopal Yadav is projecting the Bahujan Samaj Party as the SP’s main rival,” says Hasan. Ram Gopal Yadav has claimed that contest in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls will be between traditional rivals Mulayam and BSP supremo Mayawati, with the Congress and the BJP vying for the third and fourth positions in the state.
“Clearly, Ram Gopal Yadav’s statement shows the panic and confusion in the higher echelons of the Samajwadi Party,” says Sudhendra Bhaduria, a senior leader of the BSP. “The Samajwadi Party’s game is over. With over 100 riots under Akhilesh’s watch, with Muzaffarnagar being only the worst, the party has lost whatever appeal it had among all sections of the electorate, not just the Muslims.”
Bhaduria claims that his party is confident of trouncing all other parties in the Lok Sabha polls. “In the 2012 Assembly election, against the 29 percent vote share of the SP, our vote share was 26 percent, which equalled the share of the Congress and the BJP put together,” he adds.
Mufti Zulfikar, an Islamic cleric from Muzaffarnagar, says that Muslims will never vote for the Samajwadi Party and a substantial section would prefer to support the BSP instead. “Ask any man on the street and he will tell you that the riots were State-sponsored and aimed at demolishing the Jat-Muslim coalition that formed the support base of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal,” says Zulfikar. “And that is exactly what happened. The Jats are now at daggers drawn with the Muslims.”
According to Zulfikar, Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh have started looking upon the BSP, with its solid vote bank among the Dalits, as a formidable alternative to the Samajwadi Party that can help them break out of the “hegemony of the Jats”. “The Samajwadi Party, on the other hand, seems to be falling between two stools,” he says. “Compensation to the Muslim victims antagonised the Hindus who had also suffered loss of life and property during the riots. And the Muslims were enraged when the government sent bulldozers to demolish the relief camps. The Samajwadi Party has alienated both Hindus and Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh. It will have to pay a heavy price in the Lok Sabha polls for mishandling the riots and its aftermath, not just in Muzaffarnagar but across the state.”
Indeed, Mulayam’s party seems to have made a serious political miscalculation in hoping that it can harvest Muslim votes by portraying itself as a “saviour” of the minority community. “The Muzaffarnagar riots was a calculated gamble of the Samajwadi Party that backfired,” says SQR Ilyasi, national secretary of the Welfare Party, floated by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. “It is yet to learn any lessons from its mistakes and continues to commit one blunder after another.”
Ilyasi believes that the rise of the BJP suits Mulayam’s political interests. “He feels that if the Muslims live under constant fear, he will be able to sustain himself for a long time in Uttar Pradesh politics,” he says. “But the Muslims have seen through his game plan.”
The BSP hopes to make the most of the Muslims’ disillusionment with the Samajwadi Party. “The spate of communal riots in the state ever since Akhilesh became the chief minister has exposed the Samajwadi Party’s hollow claim to being the protector of minorities,” says BSP leader Shahid Akhlaq, former MP from Meerut and the party’s candidate from the same seat in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. “Muslims have moved far ahead from the days of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Today, they compare the performance of the Samajwadi Party government with that of the previous Mayawati-led government. We will not only retain our support base but also stand to gain massively from the monumental bad governance under Akhilesh.”
Tasleem Rahmani, who left the Samajwadi Party soon after it was voted to power in 2012 and now heads the Muslim Political Council of India, believes that the Muslims’ support for Mulayam’s party has always been tenuous. “When the party was voted out of power in the 2007 Assembly election, its vote share was 25 percent. When it won the election in 2012, its vote share increased only marginally to 29.1 percent,” says Rahmani. “So it’s not true to say that the minorities voted overwhelmingly for them. That is why immediately after coming to power, they started announcing a series of sops for the Muslims such as building boundary walls around graveyards, scholarships for Muslim girls and earmarking 20 percent of the Budget for the minorities in 85 welfare schemes implemented by the state government.”
However, whatever goodwill these sops might have generated among the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh for Mulayam’s party was lost because of the insensitive handling of the Muzaffarnagar riots and its aftermath. So severe is the loss of face suffered by the party that no one believes the recent measures like inducting more Muslims into the Cabinet will be able to arrest its inexorable downslide in the eyes of the minority community.