It is past 11 p.m., and the constituency office of Arif Aqeel, Congress candidate from Bhopal North, is filled to capacity.
The decibel level rises as party workers stream in at the end of another day of campaigning. Many have now spilled onto the pavement, and the street, exchanging banter and notes, reaching for piping hot tea being served in styrofoam cups.
On a blackboard mounted on the wall, a man painstakingly writes Mr. Aqeel’s campaign schedule for the following day. Topping it is an engagement at which he will be weighed in laddoos. “The sweets will be distributed later to the people,” explains one of the candidate’s aides. I have now been waiting for an hour to meet Mr. Aqeel, the solitary Muslim MLA in the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Assembly, who first won Bhopal North in 1990.
Barring one election since then, he has held this Muslim-dominated seat. When he finally arrives, he apologises, blaming the exigencies of campaigning for the delay. At 60, the generously built Mr. Aqeel, with his shock of white hair, exudes the energy of the student leader he started out as.
He does not wish to be regarded as a “Muslim” leader, he tells The Hindu, stressing: “Everyone is my voter — I don’t think of people as Hindus or Muslims.”
The Bhopal North MLA, regarded as a practitioner of “identity politics” who raises “Muslim” issues, is trying to be careful because the BJP has fielded its only Muslim candidate, the former MP and minister, Arif Baig, against him this time. At BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s rally in Bhopal on November 18, Mr. Baig is the first speaker. He makes a rousing speech in chaste Urdu, targeting the Congress’s Muslim leaders for saying Islam was in danger under the BJP. “Islam is not in danger; the Congress is in danger,” he says, pausing, “Muslims fear no one but Allah. Our slogan is brotherhood.”
Under Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, he points out, “marriages of Hindu and Muslim couples have taken place in the same pandal.” The almost entirely Hindu audience cheers. But If Mr. Chouhan is the “soft face” of the BJP, donning a skull cap on occasion, the naming of the Gujarat Chief Minister as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has made Muslims in the State wary of the party.
Ask Mr. Aqeel about Mr. Modi, and he responds: “I don’t know much about Mr. Modi except the violence he unleashed on Muslims, especially women. If any party seeks advantage from a man with such a record, I have nothing to say.” But it is not just Mr. Aqeel pushing a Congress line. The Muslim community is wary of the arrival of Mr. Modi. At Ichhawar kasba in Sehore district, a question on Mr. Modi’s impact on the State elections elicits a sharp response from Abrar Quereshi: “It is not possible for a man like him to become prime minister.”
Muslims account for 6.4 per cent of the State’s population, but the number of MLAs from the community has never exceeded 10 (in 1956) when Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh. The number of Muslim MLAs has dipped whenever the Janata Party (1977) or the BJP has won the State elections (1990, 2003, 2008).
However, in 1993, when the Congress returned to power in the wake of the dismissal of the BJP government after the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, not a single Muslim MLA was elected. And this in a State where the literacy level among Muslims is higher than among Hindus, where they dominate a dozen constituencies, and matter in another 50.
In these elections, too, even the Congress (that has never sought to build a Muslim leadership, with stalwarts from Arjun Singh to Digvijaya Singh representing the community), concerned at the possibility of communal polarisation with a BJP government in power, has not been generous. It has fielded just five Muslims across the State, adding to the marginalisation of the community.