The vote that counts



Small, assertive Muslim parties are keeping all the big players on their toes in Uttar Pradesh. And forcing them to change their colour. Rana Ayyub reports

Photo: Kanchan

ON SATURDAY, 8 October, the BJP did something unusual. It hosted a Muslim Jan Swabhiman Yatra in Lucknow, perhaps a first for the party of Hindu nationalism. It is unclear how many Muslim votes, if any, this will win the BJP in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in 2012. Yet the very fact that this public meeting was held was indicative of the BJP’s keenness to, at worst, reduce the hostility of the Muslim voter in India’s most populous state. With 18 percent of all voters in Uttar Pradesh being Muslim, the community is crucial to every party’s plans in the run-up to the April-May 2012 election.

New allies: Rahul Gandhi with Muslim leader Allu Main at Jagdishpur village
New allies: Rahul Gandhi with Muslim leader Allu Main at Jagdishpur village, Photo: AFP

Suddenly everybody wants to court the Uttar Pradesh Muslim. On 4 November, Rajnath Singh, former BJP president and its most senior leader in the state, told another gathering that the party was committed to a policy of a sub-quota within the broader OBC quota for, among others, 35 sub-castes of Muslims. Uma Bharti, firebrand of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was not to be left behind. In Gorakhpur, she spoke less of Ram and more of ushering in Gandhi’s Ram Rajya, which encompassed Muslims.

To take things to a climax, LK Advani concluded his Jan Chetna Yatra in Uttar Pradesh by insisting he was not asking for just the Hindu vote and neither did his party believe in divisive politics. Addressing a massive crowd in Rampur, a largely Muslim town, he asked the principal minority community to join the battle against corruption. Thousands of Muslims heard him out.

So has the BJP changed its image? More importantly, have Muslims changed their opinion on the party? The BJP is aware the community is unlikely to bite the bait and vote for it. It has opted for a strategy that will not just divide the Muslim vote bank among various new parties that have cropped up, but also attract at least a trickle among the socially and economically backward Muslims.

Making friends: Mayawati with Khalid Rashid, Naib Imam of the Lucknow Idgah (far left) and other community members
Making friends: Mayawati with Khalid Rashid, Naib Imam of the Lucknow Idgah (far left) and other community members, Photo: Pramod Adhikari

The BJP is adroitly using Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Rajya Sabha MP, as its ambassador to the community. He has held extensive backroom meetings with mostly Shia and Barelvi clerics. Visiting Muslim neighbourhoods with a copy of the report of the Social Justice Committee set up by the Rajnath Singh government in 2001, he reminds Muslims that the then BJP government had implemented recommendations of the committee. “It was the Samajwadi Party and the BSP that scrapped the BJP government’s decision,” he adds.

There were more surprises from the BJP. The party’s Uttar Pradesh Swabhiman Yatra culminated on 18 November in Ayodhya. Despite the final destination, the yatra seemed to develop amnesia about the Ram temple issue. In Ayodhya, Rajnath, Bharti and BJP President Nitin Gadkari only paid lip service to the temple issue.

Instead, they focussed on how Muslims had been cheated by the Congress and other parties: “Look at the fate of Muslims in the state. Have they risen in all these years of rule of the BSP and the Samajwadi Party?” Muslims in Faizabad were pleasantly surprised as one BJP notable after another came to meet them.

Splitting votes: Javed Siddiqui (third from right) wants mainstream parties to suffer losses
Splitting votes: Javed Siddiqui (third from right) wants mainstream parties to suffer losses, Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

It is clear there is an extraordinary churning among Muslims as Uttar Pradesh readies for elections. To gauge the mood of the Muslim voter, TEHELKA travelled across the Muslim belts of Lucknow, Rampur, Azamgarh and Faizabad. There are 37 million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, more than they are in Iraq or Morocco. They are being wooed not just by the BJP, but also by the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, numerous smaller Muslim parties and, of course, by the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, whose yatra coincided with TEHELKA’s journey across the Muslim heartland.

THIS WAS a voyage of discovery to make sense of the sudden spurt in Muslim-specific regional parties in Uttar Pradesh. Take the Rashtriya Inquilab Party, also known by the unfortunate abbreviation of RIP and founded by three-time BSP MP Ilyas Azmi. Once a popular Muslim face of the BSP, Azmi was marginalised after what he terms his open defiance of Mayawati.

Changed hue: The BJP was seen singing a different tune at the Jan Swabhiman Yatra in Lucknow
Changed hue: The BJP was seen singing a different tune at the Jan Swabhiman Yatra in Lucknow, Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

“I realised she was not working for either Dalits or Muslims,” he says, “so I walked out of the party, the first MP who did this to her. She didn’t dare to sack me. I left her party for the Muslims.” There could be some truth to that if one were to recollect the speeches Azmi made in Parliament after the 2008 Batla House encounter in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar. At the time, thousands of Muslims were detained from households across Azamgarh and Sanjarpur, Azmi’s borough, on suspicion of terrorist links.

When he felt claustrophobic after what he calls the “jee huzoori of Behenji” (Mayawati’s proclivity for “yes men”), Azmi joined the Welfare Party before the 2009 General Election. After the party’s poor performance, Azmi had a fight with the Ulema Council, which controlled the Welfare Party. Now he has set up RIP as an individual effort to save Muslims from the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, he says.

Reconciliation: Mulayam Singh Yadav with the reinducted Azam Khan (right)
Reconciliation: Mulayam Singh Yadav with the reinducted Azam Khan (right), Photo: Ajay Singh

Yet if one were to dig deep, Azmi’s new party looks like a ray of hope for the BJP rather than for Muslims. There are rumours that RIP is a front for the BJP. Recently Azmi shared the dais with JK Jain, former BJP MP and now chief of its Minority Affairs Cell. Azmi attacks the Congress and the Samajwadi Party but is soft on the BJP, blaming it for the Gujarat riots of 2002 but little else. Even here, he blames Narendra Modi more than the party as a whole.

“Tell me,” he asks with a flourish, “who was responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid? It was PV Narasimha Rao, not Advani. Tell me, were there no riots in Gujarat before the BJP? Were these not there during the Congress regime? Then why blame the BJP alone?” RIP also has a three-point charter of demands, which includes lifting of restrictions under Article 341 for inclusion of Muslims in the SC list, separate reservations within the OBC quota and better political representation for the community that he hopes the BJP will be able to address.

‘We no longer live in the BJP paranoia,’ says Dr Ayyub, president of the Peace Party, a contender for 2012

In a conventional situation, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh would have dismissed Azmi as a proxy for the BJP. In a situation where sections of the community are determined to teach the Congress and the Samajwadi Party a lesson, however, Azmi and his RIP could come in handy. To make matters more interesting, RIP has decided to put up candidates in most Muslim-stronghold seats. There are even whispers of an open pre-poll alliance with the BJP.

Azmi’s line has got clerics in Lucknow worried. Maulana Khalid Rashid, Naib Imam of the Lucknow Idgah, holds considerable clout in the community. He believes the Muslim voter will not be fooled by Azmi. But he too concedes disenchantment is running high and maverick players like Azmi may divide Muslim votes. “That does not mean I have any sympathy for the Congress,” he says. “In this election, the Muslim voter must speak his mind. And if it means trouble for the Congress, so be it.”

Game-changers all?: (Left to right) Dr Ayyub of the Peace Party; Ilyas Azmi of RIP; Tauqeer Raza Khan of the IMC; and Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF
Game-changers all?: (Left to right) Dr Ayyub of the Peace Party; Ilyas Azmi of RIP; Tauqeer Raza Khan of the IMC; and Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF

Another emerging player is the Peace Party. In Badhalganj town of Gorakhpur district, located over 200 km from Lucknow, Mohammed Ayyub — or “Dr Ayyub” as he is universally known — is a bariatric surgeon. His Peace Party has support from the Darul Uloom Deoband and is being pitched as this election’s dark horse. Following his recent closed-door meetings with senior BSP functionaries, Ayyub insists he will play a role in government formation in a hung Assembly.

WITH SO many parties representing Muslims in the fray, isn’t there a danger of cutting votes and helping the BJP win? “We no longer live in the BJP paranoia, Madam.” Ayyub says, “For the past two decades each time there is an election, the Congress remembers reservations, the Ranganath Mishra Committee report and the Sachar report. Then it warns us if we don’t vote for the Congress, the BJP will come to power. We want to tell them: let the BJP come to power. We want the Samajwadi Party and the Congress to get a setback.”

At this point Ayyub stretches his leg, which is in a cast. “See,” he adds, pointing to his leg, “this is proof that they are nervous.” The injury is the result of an attack by unknown people. Curiously, while Ayyub uses harsh adjectives for the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, the BSP escapes his scathing assault. He almost exonerates Mayawati. But Ayyub has his own set of detractors within the Muslim community, who believe that he has his own agenda of becoming a powerful agent, like the ones that come in handy after election results are announced.

The Peace Party’s choice of seats is also intriguing. It is fielding candidates in constituencies where the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have either finished first or come second in recent elections. He admits there have been feelers from the BSP but prefers not to talk in detail. The Peace Party is now aligned with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and with seven other state parties, two of which represent Dalits. This grand alliance has just lost Ajit Singh and the Rashtriya Lok Dal to the Congress but has had actor Sanjay Dutt campaigning for it. It could perhaps be a gamechanger.

In November 2010, the Peace Party fielded a candidate for the Lakhimpur Kheri by-election and came second, surprising both the Congress and the BJP. “We are planning to contest only 180 seats across belts that are significant for Muslims as well as Dalits,” says Ayyub. It is a decision pregnant with possibilities.

The AIUDF, having tasted success in the Assam and Kerala polls, has now decided to contest all 403 seats in UP

Barely 100 km from Ayyub’s hospital, TEHELKA met another doctor, Javed Siddiqui. An orthopaedic surgeon in Azamgarh, Siddiqui made headlines when two of his sons were accused of conspiracy in the 2008 Delhi blasts and charged with being members of the Indian Mujahideen. The sons ran away and are still absconding. About 100 boys, mostly teenagers who were earlier students of reverred institutes like the Jamia, Aligarh Muslim University , Shibli college and other famed institutes spread across Delhi and Uttar Pradesh were detained or arrested, most of whom were innocents and picked up to build up a paranoia that Azamgarh had become a terror hub.

The families approached all political parties, wrote to the prime minister, knocked on the doors of the National Human Rights Commission, but to no avail. When politicians turned up just months before the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the locals showed them black flags. Siddiqui, a revered figure in these parts, was put up as the protest candidate from Azamgarh with backing from the Ulema Council. The result was stunning. With the Muslim vote split, the BJP’s Ramakant Yadav won a surprise victory.

“We are going to do just that once again,” says an angry Siddiqui, “and the Assembly elections will be a bigger test. Where were the Congress and Samajwadi MLAs when our sons were being tortured and taken from one jail to the other? Where was Digvijaya Singh? Why are we remembered only around elections?” Siddiqui has started the Association for Welfare, Medical, Educational and Legal Assistance of Muslims. As president of the party, he plans to make dents into the mainline parties’ vote banks in the forthcoming elections.

Others agree with Siddiqui. Ahsan Ahmed, father of Zeeshan, who was arrested by the Gujarat Police on charges of “war against the nation” and “sedition”, says, “Did the Congress government not know that those accused in the Malegaon blasts case of 2006 were innocent? Why have they been given bail now? Mulayam and the Congress will have to come clean.”

SENSING MUSLIM resentment, Mayawati has tweaked her strategy. Naseemuddin Siddiqui, the man who holds the maximum number of portfolios in her Cabinet and is considered one of her closest lieutenants, has taken on the task of winning over the community. It was Naseemuddin’s idea to get Mayawati to grant 10,000 Muslims working in madrassas across the state the status of government teachers and give them associated perquisites. Naseemuddin’s wife Husna is an MLC and has been working with Muslim social organisations on behalf of the BSP.

The Samajwadi Party has snubbed Kalyan Singh and the film star brigade in an attempt to rescue its image before Muslims

Naseemuddin senses Mayawati may be feeling the anti-incumbency heat and is playing the madrassa card shrewdly. Eighty-five percent of the state’s madrassas are run by the Deoband sect, which is deeply suspicious of the BJP or any indirect support to it. Mayawati has also announced the extension of a scheme that will benefit 58,000 Muslim girls studying in 1,600 recognised madrassas in Uttar Pradesh. She hopes to win the sympathy of the influential seminary in Deoband, and create friction among rival Muslim sects.

To an extent this has already happened. The All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), a leading body of Sunni Sufi Muslims, urged rejection of hardline Wahhabism as preached by the Deoband school. At a massive public meeting, Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichhouchhwi of the Barelvi-backed AIUMB urged the government to “immediately pass legislation to set up a Central Madrassa Board so that funding could be audited with a watch on the flow of Saudi petrodollars into madrassa education in India”.

“The government listens only to the hardliners,” says Kichhouchhwi. “It has handed over the wakf properties and madrassas, which belong to us, to these elements. The time has arrived to come out and claim our rights. Let us take a pledge that we will never support Wahhabi extremism, not today, not tomorrow.” Yet again a fissure was promoted within the Muslim vote. Mayawati and the BJP were alleged to be the brains behind this rally. So much so that the Jamaat-e-Islaami Hind insists that the conference was organised with funds from the BJP.

Kichhouchhwi is not the only one. Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan who is planning to contest elections from the Ittehade-Millat Council (IMC), is a representative of the Barelvi sect known for its anti-Deoband stand. Tauqeer could play spoilsport in the Shia-Barelvi strongholds of Rae Bareli, Bahraich and Rampur. A recent rally in Bareilly saw thousands of Barelvi Muslims. But unlike Kichhouchhwi, he talks of more inclusive issues like inquiry into the Gopalgarh firing and the Batla House encounter and talks of exposing the BJP and the Congress.

The Samajwadi Party, meanwhile, is exploiting resentment over changes in the Wakf Board. It has inducted All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) member Kamal Farooqi and announced support to the AIMPLB’s campaign against the Congress- led UPA government. Both the BSP and the Samajwadi Party are supporting the AIMPLB’s campaign against alleged anti- Muslim provisions in laws relating to Right to Education and wakf property, and in the Direct Tax Code and the Communal Violence Bill. Not to be left behind, Rahul Gandhi recently met office-bearers of the AIMPLB and sought to win them over.

THE PERCEPTIBLE anti-Congress sentiment caused Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to iterate the UPA government’s commitment to a quota-within- a-quota for the OBCs among Muslims. “Within the 27 percent OBC quota in jobs, the government is examining fixing a quota for backward Muslims,” Khurshid said on the first day of Parliament’s Winter Session. This was seen as a damage-control exercise just before the Uttar Pradesh elections.

The move drew angry remarks from the Welfare Party, which said: “Muslims want their share from the original bag, not from somebody else’s bowl.” Formed earlier this year, the Welfare Party is patronised by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an umbrella organisation of Deobandi Muslims. It is more popular for its student wing, Students’ Islamic Organisation (SIO).

The Welfare Party’s anti-Congress approach has led many to believe it wants to be a power broker more than a genuine representative of OBCMuslims. However, the Welfare Party, which had a Catholic priest reciting the Gayatri Mantra at its inauguration, insists it’s serious.

“We are not a party meant just for Muslims but for Hindus too, especially those from backward classes,” says SQR Ilyas, general secretary of the Welfare Party. Vehemently denying any liaison with the BJP, he says, “That will be a very big no.” Even so, Ilyas confirms his party and the Jamaat are trying to bring together as many of the Muslim splinter groups as possible. “No single party can make a difference,” he says, “but 10 parties together most certainly can.”

As a result, ever since Khurshid announced the quota-within-a-quota, the Jamaat and other Muslim bodies have been meeting regularly. Ilyas agrees the quota, if implemented, could be a clincher.

There are other issues too that could sway the minority vote. Mayawati has been insistent on a general inheritance law for women across Uttar Pradesh. Many Muslims feel this is strongly against Islamic tenets. Muslim organisations have been urging Mayawati towards a Shariat-compliant inheritance law for Muslim women.

Not wanting to be left behind, the millionaire Ajmal brothers, who tasted blood in the Kerala and Assam Assembly elections earlier this year, too, have decided to contest all 403 seats in the Uttar Pradesh elections. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) emerged as the second largest party in the Assam Assembly. In Kerala, the brothers backed the Indian Union Muslim League, which moved to 20 seats from eight. The Ajmals hope to replicate this in Uttar Pradesh in alliance with a regional party.

While the Ajmals are open to allying with whichever mainstream party gives them the best deal, the Welfare Party is arguing the “BJP and BSP are not pariahs”. This has led some in the Milli Council, another Muslim institution, to speculate if the Welfare Party is acting on behalf of the BJP. As prominent lawyer Shamim Khan says, “The two parties that look to benefit the most from these factions are the BJP and the BSP.” The BSP in particular is alive to this and has kept its channels open with most of these factions.

MUSLIMS CAN tilt election results in some 130 of 403 Assembly constituencies. They comprise 20 percent of the electorate in about 70 seats. In 20 seats in western Uttar Pradesh, 10 seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh, five in central Uttar Pradesh and one in Bundelkhand, Muslims comprise 30-45 percent of the electorate.

Till the late 1980s, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh voted only for the Congress. They deserted the party after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and switched loyalties to the Samajwadi Party. In 2009, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party leader, shook hands with Kalyan Singh, the BJP stalwart who had also been chief minister in 1992. This led to widespread disillusionment with the Samajwadi Party.

This time, the Samajwadi Party has tried to make amends by snubbing Kalyan as well as the film star brigade that did nothing for its image among traditional voters. Azam Khan, perhaps the only Muslim face of the Samajwadi Party who still holds credibility, has been re-inducted.

On its part, the Congress is banking on Khurshid and on Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra. It is a tough ask. Standing on the outskirts of the demolished Babri structure, Khaleeq Ahmed, member of the AIMPLB and trustee of the board of mosques in Ayodhya, emphasises this: “The problem with the Congress is that it still lives in the era of Ayodhya and Ram Mandir. It still thinks Muslims are in a state of victimhood. It fails to understand the bigger issue for the Muslim electorate is unemployment.”

Indeed, as TEHELKA travelled to Ayodhya, there were new banners of welcome: Parcham Party, Millat Party, two other fringe Muslim groups. Both promise employment and economic opportunity, not the Babri Masjid. Perhaps there are lessons there.

SO WHICH way will the Muslim sway? Will the fringe parties hijack the vote bank? “Unless the parties come together it would be futile,” laments Shamim Khan. Regional parties, he says, have a tendency to align with mainstream parties after elections and lose their distinctiveness: “Look at what happened to Ulema Council candidates who later joined the Congress. Or the Majlis Party, which lost the Lok Sabha elections due to personal ambitions of people within the party. Masood and Asghar Khan of the Loktantrik Party, which was formed in 2009, merged it with the Samajwadi Party. These small-time outfits just become political bargainers.”

To be fair, many of the smaller groups are aware of this history and baggage and are trying bridge their differences. They see strength and security in numbers. “If these parties unite and become a force to reckon with,” one observer says, “the Muslim voter can perhaps be in a position to have a true representation and break out of the clutches of appeasement he is subjected to before every election.”

That’s a big thought, but it rests on an even bigger “if”.

Rana Ayyub is Assistant Editor, Mumbai with Tehelka.



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