Heterogeneity, aspirations for common public goods mark minority attitudes

It is early morning and Mohammad Afroz is sipping tea near the Jama Masjid in Khagaria bazaar. Reluctant to open up about his political choice, he tells us, “It is too early. There is no hawa right now.”

But when asked about recent communal disturbances in Khagaria district, he becomes agitated. “This is all because of Nitish Kumar. He has allowed all these liquor shops to open up for some additional tax. People get drunk and create mischief. They were responsible.”

According to other accounts, the tensions had more complex roots, in disputes over graveyard land. Chief Minister Mr. Kumar has claimed that with a policy of fencing graveyards, he has sought to address such disputes at a larger systemic level.

But Mr. Afroz does not buy the explanation. Instead, he lists out other complaints against the government, starting with price rise. But isn’t that a function of the larger economic situation, beyond the control of the Patna government? “How is that my business? Our mukhiya, chief, is Nitish.” Bureaucratic dominance, afsarshahi, ranks a close second. “You pay but no work gets done. To file an FIR on the theft of a cycle worth Rs. 1,500, they take a bribe of Rs. 100.” The Janata Dal (United) government, Mr. Afroz declares, must go. “Laluji was better than this. He kept officers under control.”

But his opinion is not shared by Abdul Mamman, Principal of Azad Academy in Araria town. Sorting out papers on his table, he says: “Lalu just spoke. He did nothing. Education has shot up now. The CM distributed cycles, uniforms. Today, girls are coming to school. Law and order and roads have improved.”

When pointed out that these were achievements during the first term, and Mr. Nitish’s government is perceived to have slipped in the second term, Mr. Mamman acknowledges there are problems. “I have 11 teachers for 1,300 students. It is so difficult to manage. But everything can’t happen at one time. These are slow processes. Public is happy with the government.”

Multiple aspirations, diverse histories

In Bihar’s multi-cornered political contest, the favourite question today is, which way will the Muslims vote? With Mr. Kumar’s move to split from the BJP on the issue of Narendra Modi’s leadership being seen as a move to reach out and win support of Muslims, this question has assumed more salience.

But as the views from Khagaria and Araria indicate, a clear-cut answer is elusive. Like any other community, there is diversity among Muslims in the way they make their political choices. Travels across seven districts of the State revealed this heterogeneity, which is a function of historical association, patronage networks, current aspirations, and political socialisation.

Ejaz Ahmed Khan works with Tata Finance. We are sitting in the courtyard of a run-down, deserted, primary health centre, now used as a dumping ground for garbage and construction material, in Mominpur village in Madhubani. Mr. Khan is a vocal advocate of the RJD, and claims Mr. Prasad gave voice to the poor. Later, he discloses he had got the contract to build the health centre way back in 2002, during the RJD rule.

Soon, Jamil Ahmed joins us. He says, “Till my death, I will continue voting for the Congress. It has always been secular, right from the time of Nehru.” When Mr. Khan prods him to shift to Mr. Prasad, he responds in Maithili, “Look, I will stick to the Congress. If our parties ally, then we don’t need to fight.” With Mr. Prasad’s conviction and sentencing, the plans of the Mominpur local leaders seem unlikely to fructify.

A few hours away, in Darbhanga, local journalists tell us that the Muslim vote is sure to consolidate behind RJD leader, M.A. Fatmi. “He is a senior figure. They are all 100 per cent with him.”

But as we trawl the minority-dominated localities, the picture gets more complicated. One of north Bihar’s biggest centres, Darbhanga, has traditionally fallen under the BJP quota when the NDA was intact; so there is no recognisable JD (U) face for the coming Lok Sabha polls. But Khalil Kizumma, who runs a cement trading shop in Karimganj, says, “We will go with Nitish. The power situation has improved.” A rickshaw-puller agrees, “We refused passengers because the road was so bad here. Now, it is smooth.”

Today, the Muslim vote in Bihar is clearly fragmented. RJD leaders claim that the majority are with them. But a senior JD (U) leader discloses that the party recently conducted a private survey through a reputed agency — and they discovered that minority voters are almost evenly divided between Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar.

Roads, power, price-rise, education, quality of schooling, industries, jobs are key issues for Muslim voters. But there is one factor that could well overwhelm the rest — security.

Mufti Javed Iqbal of Madrasa Anjuman Islamia in Kishanganj speaks of protection of ‘life and property’ as their fundamental goal. In Patna’s Phulwari Sharif, Quasar Khan of the RJD echoes the sentiment. Ziauddin, a power-loom operator in Bhagalpur, says he does not want to see riots ever again. Muslims of Mominpur shed their political differences and agree that they must stay united to resist any attack.

Many of them perceive a threat from the BJP, particularly Mr. Modi and say they would unite in favour of the candidate best positioned to defeat the party right before the elections — a trend that is popularly called ‘tactical voting.’ Even in such cases though, Muslim leaders say, divisions are inevitable.

The ruling party calculates that with Mr. Prasad in jail, and a possible alliance with the Congress, the Muslim support towards them would increase. “And when Mr. Modi arrives in Patna, his target will be Mr. Kumar, not Mr. Lalu. When it becomes a Modi-Nitish contest, the Muslim vote will consolidate towards us,” says a senior JD (U) leader. But the RJD is quick to dismiss the claim, with leaders asserting that only they provide the real ‘secular alternative.’

As the State prepares for 2014, the big question is not which party will Muslims vote for, but what will be the key motivations at the polling booth — experiences related to their livelihoods or fears and insecurities triggered by rhetoric and actions which they perceive as threatening. That will determine the nature of the minority vote.