Muslims would cast their votes in favour of a candidate who they feel has the best chance to defeat the BJP nominee Photograph: (Others)
The Muslim vote does not count in BJP's calculations. But it does for the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party
While many unknown factors can determine the outcome of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the most intriguing of them is the Muslim mood. Voting is done and the result will be known on March 11, but nobody can say for sure which way the minorities in the state have tilted. The only certainty is that they have not pressed the button on the Lotus symbol or, at least, not in sufficient numbers to be considered significant.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, like its opponents, knows it well but is not losing sleep over it. After all, it had not fielded a single Muslim candidate, even in constituencies which had a sizeable Muslim population. The Muslim vote does not count in its calculations. But it does for the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party. It can make or break their prospects.
The Muslims form 19 per cent of Uttar Pradesh's voters, with a majority located in urban regions. In western Uttar Pradesh, the number is significantly higher, with the proportion of Muslims being 26 per cent. If this is large enough to be the deciding factor, consider the following: In constituencies such as Rampur, Moradabad, Bijnor and Saharanpur, the minority voter is predominant. In few other parts of western Uttar Pradesh, it is even stronger, going up to 70 per cent in certain segments.
The voter can be a Samajwadi Party supporter, for instance, but he would opt for the Elephant if he believes Mayawati’s candidate is better placed in the constituency to neutralise the BJP
Beyond the Muslim community's anti-BJP stance, it is difficult to predict how they will vote. Reading the trend is difficult due to several reasons. The first is that the minorities have been spoilt for choice. They can pick their lot from the Samajwadi Party-Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. In certain pockets, they even have an option to vote for Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. But the choice comes with its own set of problems.
In many constituencies, there is more than one Muslim contestant and the voters have to, therefore, split their preference. The proportion of the split in votes will determine the fate of the candidates and their parties. The Bahujan Samaj Party fielded nearly 100 Muslim contestants while the Samajwadi Party gave tickets to almost half that number.
The split in support happens due to tactical voting, among other things. Muslims would cast their votes in favour of a candidate who they feel has the best chance to defeat the BJP nominee. The voter can be a Samajwadi Party supporter, for instance, but he would opt for the Elephant if he believes Mayawati’s candidate is better placed in the constituency to neutralise the BJP. The same calculation can work in the Samajwadi Party’s favour in another constituency.
The BJP hopes this will work for it as well, assuming two things: The first is that the split leaves each of its rivals with fewer minority votes. And the second is that the non-minority vote consolidates in its support as a result of the onslaught of the Muslim candidates, numbering more than one in a constituency. This is, particularly, true for constituencies where the Muslims are in considerable strength. The non-Muslims, in this case, believe they have to halt the march of the minorities.
VP Singh lost steam and the grand anti-Congress experiment flopped. But it had unleashed new forces, one among them being the rise of regional outfits
Such complicated electoral calculations did not exist until the end of 1989, and there had been no need to seek refuge in number-crunching to understand the minority swing in the State. The Congress had been the dominant party since independence, and the Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh, as in the rest of the country, did not have to look any beyond — or at least they had nothing to look beyond.
True, there were the likes of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the Prajatantrik Party or even the Republican Party of India, among others but they had no real pan-India image. In any case, the Jana Sangh, with its overtly aggressive pro-Hindu ideology, was a no-go. The disruption came in 1989 with VP Singh rebelling. Singh quit the Congress, formed Jan Morcha (which later metamorphosed into Janata Dal) and contested against the Congress. Suddenly, the Muslim voters swayed, like many in the country, by VP Singh’s anti-corruption drive, had a real choice. And it exercised the new-found option.
That became the turning point. The Janata Dal later splintered in many directions, VP Singh lost steam and the grand anti-Congress experiment flopped. But it had unleashed new forces, one among them being the rise of regional outfits, such as the Samajwadi Party. Established by Mulayam Singh Yadav in 1992, it soon captured the minority community’s imagination with its robust opposition to the BJP.
After the Janata Dal failure, the Congress party's hopes of regaining Muslim support were effectively dashed to the ground with the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The community held the Congress (with its government at the Centre) squarely responsible for the debacle and never returned to the party’s fold.
But the Muslim voter wasn’t always happy with the Samajwadi Party. This antipathy is there though the community acknowledges Mulayam Singh Yadav’s affinity to them, particularly, his ‘courage’ in ordering fire on kar sevaks in October 1990. The incident had led to 16 deaths. Mulayam recently expressed ‘regret’ over the incident but maintained that the directive was necessary “to keep the Muslim faith in this country intact”.
With enough political alternatives to choose from, many of the community members turned to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party when in distress. In 2007, the minorities, as the others, were disgusted with growing hooliganism in the Samajwadi party regime. Mayawati sensed the mood and fielded some 30 candidates in the Assembly election. The move paid a rich dividend; she romped home with the combined votes of the Dalit and the Muslims.
But this liking for Mayawati would not last long; the minorities promptly returned to the Samajwadi Party five years later. This time they were upset with rampant corruption during Mayawati’s tenure and propelled by the fear that the BJP could make a comeback.
One key reason why it has become so difficult to understand the mood of the minorities in this election is that there is no unifying force to pick hints from; not even from their hostility to the BJP. There was a time when prominent religious leaders, the clerics, took sides and the community by and large respected that position — which got reflected in their voting preference.
The Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid dabbled openly in politics, and even national leaders paid obeisance to him. Today, he is a spent force and is openly challenged by prominent community leaders. Mohammed Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party, for example, holds the Shahi Imam in contempt. Other prominent Uttar Pradesh-based clerics from both the Sunni and the Shia sects do have their biases and they have made that known, but they do not have the capacity to influence voter behaviour. The qazi’s call is today rarely heeded in political matters in the country’s politically most significant State.