Why the Muslim vote matters in U.P.

Marginalised and fearful, Muslim voters want to demonstrate that they still count in India’s democracy

May 16, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Uttar Pradesh continues to hold the key to political power in the country. The results for the 80 parliamentary seats in this keystone State will decide who governs India. Travelling through five districts of Awadh, including the VIP constituencies of Lucknow, Amethi and Rae Bareli, makes it amply clear that the Muslim vote will play a crucial role in the final outcome.

Tactical voting

There are three interconnected assumptions about Muslim political behaviour, which may not necessarily be accurate. First, they vote en bloc for one candidate or party. Second, they are more strategic in their voting than other demographics. Third, their voting preference is likely to be influenced by clerics or traditional community leaders. While there was little evidence to support this view of Muslim unity in the past as they mostly voted for parties that best protected their interests, in 2019, opposition to the polarising politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clearly influencing electoral preferences and imparting a unity of purpose to the Muslim vote. Although the most important issues for Muslims, as indeed for any voter, are education, health care, jobs and infrastructure, today as a community they feel beleaguered; hence their singular aspiration to vote for the strongest party or alliance that can defeat the BJP.

If previously they did not vote en bloc for any single party, in this election too they are not voting as a homogenous group but there is a strong preference and consolidation behind the mahagathbandhan (the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal, or SP-BSP-RLD, alliance) because it is more likely than the Congress to overwhelm the BJP. This feeling is so strong that even elite and upper-middle class Muslim families, which have historically had close ties to the Congress in Lucknow, have chosen to vote for the alliance.

Significantly, then, unlike other social groups, Muslims will exercise their vote along ideological lines, and not on the basis of the candidate’s identity. Nonetheless, some Muslims may not vote as a unified entity despite the consciousness that 2019 is a critical election. “This verdict will be the life or death of democracy in India,” said Manzoor Ali from the Giri Institute of Development Studies. This was also evident in scores of voters travelling long distances from different cities to cast their vote on May 6 in Lucknow.

This is not surprising because U.P. — which saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in Ayodhya, is now run by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and has been long considered to be the pulse of the Hindi heartland — is the centrepiece of the Hindutva project built largely on creating a fear of Muslims as the Other. This has resulted in fundamental changes in U.P. politics — and more so in Awadh, a BJP stronghold since the days of the Ayodhya movement. The landslide victory of the BJP in 2014 and in the 2017 Assembly elections has seen the consolidation of the Hindu vote under the BJP, while Muslim votes have remained split between the Congress and regional parties. At the same time, many Muslims in Lucknow, Rae Bareli, Amethi, Faizabad and Ayodhya narrate how the Rasthriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been sowing seeds of division and splitting up communities.

The BJP has extensively used issues such as national security, terrorism, uber-patriotism and cow protection to construct a ‘Hindu’ constituency. It has tried to exploit its so-called progressive stand on the triple talaq issue to attract Muslims. (After raising the issue with such intensity, ironically the BJP did not give a single ticket to a Muslim woman). It has also tried hard to slice the Shia vote by promoting Shia clerics such as Maulana Kalbe Jawad Naqvi, who issued a statement extending support to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the BJP candidate from Lucknow. But this was promptly dismissed by most people as inconsequential. So, neither of these efforts is likely to help the BJP in getting a significant chunk of the Muslim vote because of the widely shared perception that it is an anti-Muslim party.

Fearfulness as cohesion

Though Muslim identity on the ground is highly fragmented, varying with religious denomination, caste and class, the lack of security and overriding fear have neutralised social differences. Madhavi Kuckreja, a social activist, recalled how a rumour about a stray cattle being injured in a road accident led to anxious guests promptly leaving a walima (wedding reception) to rush back home. Such apprehensions are driven by the fear of the mob and police crackdowns (even when they are the victims of violence). This surcharged environment has been fostered by repeated incidents of mob lynching over perceived cow slaughter, ban on the beef trade and its consumption and the vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric of BJP leaders such as Mr. Adityanath, who portrayed the electoral battle as one between “Ali” and “Bajrang Bali”.

Secularism, in the new political context, has been redefined as Muslim appeasement. It has helped the BJP to gather Hindu support, especially as no party is willing to represent the concerns of Muslims. Democracy and development should go hand in hand. but in U.P. the two do not share a symbiotic relationship.

Hence, political and social equality in terms of roughly proportionate distribution of development benefits and representation eludes them. Muslims in rural areas feel they’ve been left out of government schemes such as the Ujjwala Yojana or in getting financial support to build toilets or homes while other strong contenders in the rural hierarchy are benefiting.

It is indeed odd that though Muslims constitute 43 million of U.P.’s 200 million-strong population, no party is really talking about issues that concern them as the battle for 2019 rages. Instead there is a manufactured silence. Majoritarian impulses, to a greater or lesser degree, are the foundation for the current political discourse, as are caste alliances in which the Muslim voice has little space. Their current marginalisation is a far cry from the time when Muslims were crucial to the political fortunes of parties, especially the Congress. Today the tendency towards political equality when it comes to the distribution of power or representation is completely missing. Perhaps the Muslim is seen as a liability. In 2019, as in 2014, the BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in U.P., while it is 10 for the mahagathbandhan and eight for the Congress.

This deliberate neglect has had its repercussions. The politics of hate has forced Muslims to give priority to security of life and property. Even more worryingly, they are once again looking to clerics for succour whereas a few years earlier they were beginning to show signs of autonomy and independent thinking, said Athar Husain, Director, Centre for Objective Research and Development in Lucknow. They are getting pushed back into ghettos and into the arms of conservative clerics. Fearing a backlash, they are reluctant to protest against attacks on their livelihoods, food habits, closure of slaughterhouses and meat shops or any other issues that matter to them.

Weapon of the marginalised

Despite the failure of politics which has invisiblised legitimate issues and allowed a radical Hindutva consolidation in their name, Muslims continue to believe in the efficacy of their vote. Even though their representation in Parliament and State legislatures has fallen drastically and development deficits haven’t been addressed, there is no dilution in their electoral participation. What is significant is that discrimination and low representation have not bothered Muslim voters or affected their political engagement with democracy. This is because the vote is a weapon of the weak — a political counter against the concerted effort to render them voiceless and irrelevant. It can establish links between local voices and regional forces, between the politics of community and the idea of citizenship.

By capitalising on their vote, U.P. Muslims today, more than ever, want to demonstrate that they still count in India’s democracy. They are using their vote to demand a new deal which crucially depends on dismantling the BJP’s Hindutva project in India’s heartland.

Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi. Mannika Chopra is Managing Editor, Social Change, Council for Social Development


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