The dilemma of UP’s Muslim voters

Karo jashn ki taiyyari

Hyderabad se sultan aa raha hai

(Gear up for the celebration; the emperor is arriving from Hyderabad)

It is 11 February. AIMIM is leaving no stone unturned to get every little detail in place before Owaisi lands here the next day. Sayyad Aslam, the local party in-charge, is busy getting the rally ground ready, just across the town’s Azad Girls Inter College. The ground is big enough to accommodate 10,000 people.

Party members didn’t agree on where to place the dais. While Aslam suggested placing the dais at a corner in the ground, some others wanted the stage in the centre of the ground, facing houses across the street. Their contention was that people will huddle on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the AIMIM leader.

At a nearby street, a man with a grey beard, wearing kurta-pyjama and skull cap, leans on his bike, as he tries to convince four other men to vote for AIMIM. That would, according to him, “ensure a share of the community in politics”. The four men, though, didn’t appear convinced.

One of them— Mohammad Rayees, a 39-year-old, who works in a local transport business—says: “Emotions are with Owaisi, but votes will be for Samajwadi Party (SP).”

The Sambhal assembly constituency will vote today. It’s a Muslim majority seat where an estimated 60% or more of the voters are from the community.

The incumbent member of legislative assembly, Iqbal Mehmood, is from SP and has been elected five times since 1996. In 2017, he won by more than 19,000 votes, getting one-third of the votes polled . The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate Dr Arvind was the runner-up with 25% votes, while AIMIM polled 24.8% votes. In this election season, Iqbal Mehmood will face up to Rajesh Singhal of the BJP and Mohammad Mushir Khan Tarin of AIMIM. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) have also fielded Muslim candidates from the Sambhal constituency.

Several political scientists and psephologists argue that Muslims have not been able to elect many leaders from their community because the votes are often split, benefiting the BJP. In Sambhal, for instance, the AIMIM can eat into SP’s share.

While UP, overall, has roughly 19% Muslim population, the state elected only 24 Muslim candidates in 2017 in the 403 seats contested. That’s a measly 6%. This was quite a drop from 2012 when 67 Muslims were elected—for the first time, Muslim representation at 17% reached close to its population share of 19%.

Will it be different this time? The results will be out in March but for now let’s look at what history tells us.

Split or consolidation?

Moradabad (urban) seat, next to Sambhal, has 45-50% Muslim population—it is a conspicuous example of the thesis that split voting benefits the BJP.

In 2017, BJP candidate Ritesh Kumar Gupta won here by just over 3,000 votes. He polled 44.7% votes, whereas his Muslim runner-up from SP, Mohammad Yusuf Ansari, received 43.6% votes. About 9% of the votes went to the BSP candidate.

An analysis by Sanjay Kumar from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that in the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP won 12 of the 30 seats where Muslim population were 40% or above. SP recorded its best strike of the last election in such constituencies, grabbing 14 seats. INC, which contested the last poll in an alliance with SP, won two seats, whereas BSP won just one seat.

Estimates suggest that the SP-INC alliance, overall, got as much as 70% Muslim votes in the state. Even if SP-INC managed to consolidate Muslim votes, the BJP did a better job of consolidating the Hindu votes. The consolidation of Muslim votes was, in fact, not enough for SP-INC to win seats even where Muslims account for 30-39% of the population. Out of 43 such seats, BJP won in 42.

As the splitting of even a tiny vote share can change the results, Muslim votes will likely see more consolidation this time.

“Muslim voters in this election will be very sharply polarised in favour of SP, far more than previous elections,” says Kumar. It is an election Akhilesh Yadav, contesting in an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)—led by former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh’s grandson Jayant Chaudhary—thinks he can win with consolidation of Jat, Yadav and Muslim votes. “The minority community knows that this time they will have to choose the party that can win the state,” he added.

Meanwhile, INC flags hang from several balconies on the streets of Lajpat Nagar in Moradabad. Priyanka Gandhi held a roadshow recently. “If a party worker requests to put up a flag, you cannot plainly say no,” a localite reasons.

Here, Muslim candidates have been fielded by the SP, INC, BSP and AIMIM.

“It’s a duel here between the BJP and SP. However, Rizwan Qureshi (INC) will also garner a few thousand votes,” Mohammad Naeem, a 52-year-old fruit seller, says. Qureshi was a runner-up during the mayoral constituency elections of 2017, polling over 70,000 votes. His presence may prove costly for the SP candidate who lost the last election by a slim margin.

At the INC office in Moradabad around noon, Qureshi’s wife had just begun a march of burqa-clad women, distributing pamphlets seeking votes for INC. The streets were nearly empty. It was a Friday and the men were in the mosque offering prayers.

22-year-old Fazal Haque heads towards a biryani shop after offering namaz. He is preparing for medical entrance exams while pursuing his bachelors in sciences. He also looks after his family’s pharmaceutical and hospital businesses in the town after his father died.

There is widespread inflation but Fazal does not consider price rise to be an issue in this election. If prices rise, wages will rise, too, he reasons. “You and I know that only sectarianism is being practised,” he adds. “Imam sahab tried to briefly explain to us: we are all Muslims here, but our votes get divided.”

The silent voters

Off the main street, inside a dingy alley, 71-year-old Mohammad Raees sits in his small kirana shop. Raees has been casting his vote for the last 50 years.

“I have never benefited from any government, so I cannot say which government is better or worse,” he says. On welfare schemes such as the piped water scheme, he chuckles and says, “We have been getting tapped water for generations, so what is so new here?”

He has not yet made up his mind on who to vote for and will decide on the voting day itself. Voters like him are called ‘swing voters’ by political scientists as they can swing any way during the campaign or on the polling day. Past evidence suggests that they tend to vote for the party that appears to be winning. Raees has no inhibitions in voting for the BJP if it’s winning on the day. In fact, in 2017, he voted for the BJP as he wanted to try a new party. His response on whether Muslims vote for the BJP is an emphatic yes.

Ayub Ansari (40) and Parvez Ansari (30), both in the business of brass handicrafts Moradabad is famous for, have also not decided on their vote yet. They said that they were too busy in their daily jobs to pay any heed to the campaigning. They are residents of Moradabad (rural). It’s another constituency, where Muslim vote share is even higher than the urban part.

Like Raees, Ayub Ansari is also indifferent to both party politics and the issue of communalism. When asked if there has been an increasing discord between Hindu and Muslim communities, he says nothing has changed when it came to his relationship with Hindu families that live next door. Moreover, the harmony is rooted in day-to-day transactions, he adds.

What does data around Muslim vote for the BJP tell us? About 5% and 8% Muslims voted for the BJP in the 2017 assembly polls and 2019 general elections, respectively, shows a CSDS analysis. Interactions with people in Moradabad and Sambhal suggests that there may be three groups of Muslims who vote for the BJP.

The first group is Shia Muslims. Shia and Baha’i Muslims’ support for the BJP has been reported previously as well. Moradabad has few Shia Muslims, but Lucknow has a sizable population of them.

The second set of Muslim BJP voters choose the candidate, not the party. They vote on account of their personal relationship with the candidate. Wasim Ahmad (32), a businessman dealing in brass scrap, favours BJP because his friend is a member of the BJP Minority Cell. He also shares a cordial relationship with the MLA from Moradabad Nagar, Ritesh Kumar Gupta.

BJP’s hostility to Muslims, he holds, is well-known and direct unlike some other parties that prefer veiled attacks on the community. “You can stop the one coming from the front. How will you stop someone from behind?” he asks.

Muslims from extremely backward classes also vote for the BJP, says Abdul Hakim, a Muslim BJP campaigner who wore a saffron jacket and a skull cap, in Sambhal. They have benefitted from the Prime Minister’s welfare schemes, he adds. He showed photographs of houses that have been built for Muslims under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a central government scheme for affordable housing.

Yashwant Deshmukh, founder-editor of CVoter Research, also backs this thesis. “A large section of the bottom of the pyramid happens to be Muslims. They have benefited from delivery and cash transfer schemes and are the ones who vote for the BJP,” he says.

However, a cleric of a major mosque in Moradabad said that the BJP does not even reach out to Muslims for them to consider the party as an option.

Beyond this election

This brings us back to Asaduddin Owaisi and his growing appeal. He may not rock this season, but people in this region seem optimistic about his prospects, going ahead.

Mohammad Hashim, (25), is visiting Moradabad from Hapur, a town about 100 km away, for business. He says AIMIM may not win but is sure to put up a good fight in about a dozen seats in UP. “AIMIM can make a comeback in the future. If you send off a guest with gifts, he will come back,” says Hashim, pithily. “SP is compulsion, AIMIM is the favourite,” says three brass workers in their early 30s. One of them says he will back SP one last time.

What explains Owaisi’s appeal among Muslims?

“He is a barrister, highly educated, and speaks within constitutional lines. Is there any member of parliament who argues like he does for Muslims? Can anyone tear the CAA bill like he did?,” asks Mohammad Rayees from Sambhal.

Owaisi could have tied up with big Muslim leaders in UP to increase his chances of success, some felt. But, both Muslims…

Read More: The dilemma of UP’s Muslim voters

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