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SP’s silence on Muslim issues: strategy or surrender?

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav during a ‘Samajwadi Vijay Yatra’ in Hamirpur.  

Salman Imtiaz, the outgoing president of Aligarh Muslim University Students’ Union, is miffed with the Samajwadi Party (SP) for not raising Muslim issues in the run-up to the Assembly election. Mr. Imtiaz recently gave a memorandum to the district administration demanding the release of Islamic scholar and cleric Kaleem Siddiqui, arrested by the U.P. police for allegedly running a conversion syndicate.

Every Opposition leader, he pointed out, rushed to Lakhimpur Kheri but none commiserated with the families of protesters who were killed in police firing in Assam. He claimed top officials and RSS leaders had been in touch with Siddiqui and were aware of his work. “Why has he been arrested before elections need to be questioned. If SP takes the Muslim vote for granted, it will be in for a surprise this time,” cautioned Mr. Imtiaz.

As western Uttar Pradesh warms up for election season, analysts say, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is a given, the question is behind whom would the Muslim vote polarise. Observers caution shedding the Muslim-Yadav image of the party could have implications.

Azmi and Azam

Social media is abuzz with posts in which Muslim youth flay SP for ignoring the beleaguered Azam Khan, founding member of the party and a close confidant of Mulayam Singh Yadav. After sidelining his father and uncle, is party president Akhilesh Yadav ignoring another father figure?

The recent tour of SP leader Abu Azmi in western U.P. is being seen as an attempt to fill the shoes of Mr. Khan. While Mr. Azmi hails from Azamgarh, he has been active in Maharashtra and his alleged closeness with the underworld could be raked up by the BJP. Recently, during a visit to AMU, a section of students questioned him on SP’s promise on Muslim reservation and the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.

Mr. Azmi’s remark in Gautam Buddha Nagar that in India, a Hindu remains the leader of Muslims, was seen as a surrender to the BJP’s agenda. It came at a time when AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi was advocating a leadership role for the community. Local sources said Mr. Owaisi’s articulation of his anti-Hindutva stance is becoming part of the discussion, particularly among the youth.

Numbers game

In the last elections, the SP-Congress alliance emerged as the first choice of Muslim voters. Out of 140 seats where the Muslim population percentage is 20% or more, the BJP and its allies won 111 seats, SP bagged 23, and its ally Congress three. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which fielded the highest number of Muslim candidates, could win only two. In 2012, when SP came to power, it won 72 of these 140 crucial seats.

Though Muslims constitute about 19% of U.P.’s population, in 2017, only 24 (6% of 403 seats) Muslim candidates reached the Assembly, putting a question mark on the appeal of Muslim candidates in times of saffron surge. In 2012, this number was 69.

Perhaps, this explains BSP’s shift from Dalit-Muslim combination to Dalit-Brahmin engineering and SP’s calculated silence. Describing it as a strategy, former Aligarh MLA and SP leader Haji Zamirullah said sometimes silence is better than speech. “Every time Owaisi speaks, Muslims suffer. Akhileshji believes in action on the ground.”

Masood Ul Hasan, a prominent leader of SP’s youth wing and nephew of Moradabad MP S.T. Hasan, said the AIMIM leader jumps into the fray wherever BJP seems to be losing grip. “He did it in Bihar and now he is doing the same in U.P.”

Arguing there is a difference between social media chatter and ground reality, Mr. Hasan said Azam Khan was shifted to Lucknow during COVID because of the SP president’s unstinted support. “Otherwise, he would have met the fate of RJD MP Mohd. Shahabuddin. Khan sahib has recovered now and would be projected at the right time,” said Mr. Hasan, citing the Rampur MP’s photograph featuring on Akhilesh Yadav’s Vijay Yatra bus. “Nobody could replace him in the party. Azmi sahib’s remarks on leadership were personal and didn’t represent the party view,” he said.

The entry of former BSP MP Kadir Rana, the Muslim face of Muzaffarnagar riots, into the SP fold is being projected as an example of a silent but decisive move as Mr. Rana can stand up to Cabinet Minister and the sitting BJP MP from Muzaffarnagar, Sanjeev Balyan. “Rana could shift the Muslim votes from BSP to the SP and match Balyan in the battle of strongmen,” said advocate Manan Balyan, who heads the Azad Samaj Party in the district.

The Owaisi factor

Aftab Alam, professor of political science in AMU, said the BJP had ensured that no political party used the word ‘secular’. “The opposition is only responding to the agenda set by the BJP. They fear if they talk about Muslim issues, their Hindu vote bank will shift.” The farmers’ agitation, he said, was being pitched as a “secular agenda” but whether it would translate into votes remains to be seen.

Prof. Alam held it was a myth that Muslims vote for one party and the way Mr. Owaisi was negotiating difficult questions, there was churning even among the educated Muslims who earlier even refrained from taking the AIMIM leader’s name. “I don’t think all AIMIM candidates will lose their deposits this time but the biggest chunk will still go with the SP. However, it cannot take support for granted. If Azam Khan is ignored, he could look for other options and Owaisi would be more than happy to join hands.” The AMU professor said Rashtriya Lok Dal, which is expected to align with SP, has much more clarity on the contentious issue.

“It will benefit as the good old Muslim-Jat combination seems to be back,” said Prof. Alam.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 2:20:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/sps-silence-on-muslim-issues-strategy-or-surrender/article37145867.ece

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