Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh: Behind the green-white complex of Pilibhit’s Jama Masjid is an arched gate of distinctively Islamic design, the incongruous entrance to the Gauri Shankar temple. The gate was financed by the mosque’s builder, the nobleman Hafiz Rehmat Khan, as a favour to his vizier Gauri Shankar, and for two centuries it has stood as a symbol of what Pilibhit’s residents call the “absolute peace” between the town’s Hindus and Muslims.
Political divide: A defaced poster of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Varun Gandhi in a Muslim-dominated area of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
The peace still stands, but it has begun to feel uneasy. On Wednesday, a bandh day in Pilibhit, street corners were occupied by the Provincial Armed Constabulary, a riot vehicle idled next to locked-down shops, and police stations were deserted, every policeman out on patrol.
Pilibhit’s voters, numbering at least 1.3 million, have been cleanly divided by the events of the last few weeks: an allegedly vicious diatribe against Muslims by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Varun Gandhi, his sharp descent into disfavour with the Election Commission, and his subsequent arrest and charge under the National Security Act (NSA).
Analysts say this polarization, which began in Pilibhit, is spreading across the state, which less than a decade ago was a strong base for the BJP. They believe it could once again touch levels last witnessed in Uttar Pradesh around and after the events that led to the demolition of Babri Masjid, the 16th century mosque, located in Ayodhya in 1992. That’s something that could ensure the BJP an assured block of votes in a situation where the poll contest in the state has degenerated into a four-cornered fight after the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) decided against a pre-poll alliance. Delimitation, which led to the reordering of constituencies across the country, has only added to the uncertainty.
In a state that elects 80 members to the Lok Sabha and in a situation where no political combination has a clear edge ahead of the polls, such efforts at polarization carry potential.
The communal division is a new experience for Pilibhit. Its former member of Parliament, Varun Gandhi’s mother Maneka Gandhi, has been winning here, except for once in 1991, since 1989—first with the Janata Dal, then as an independent, and finally with the BJP—and she has done so without generating such heated rhetoric. Muslims often voted for her, and Pilibhit, says Bidyut Chakrabarty, a political science professor at Delhi university, was “more secular than, say, Lucknow or Moradabad”.
Outside Varun Gandhi’s shuttered campaign office, with a BJP flag fluttering forlornly atop it, Prem Pal Prajapati, the 30-year-old owner of a prosthetic clinic, sat on his motorcycle under a tree. Prajapati stressed that he was a supporter of no party, but “the victimization of Gandhi”, he says, could only lead in one direction: A huge victory for Varun Gandhi in Pilibhit, and a victory for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
Thanks to the intense media focus on Pilibhit, many Hindu residents now offer their views in a deftly formulated caveat: “There has never been any communal problem here, but…,” Madhuri Mishra, a homemaker, uses it. “We have nothing against the Muslims,” she says first. “But isn’t it strange that when Varun spoke for the Hindus, everybody was up in arms? What about (former chief minister and SP leader) Mulayam Singh Yadav’s sops to Muslims and (chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP chief) Mayawati’s favours to Dalits?”
The video clip of Varun Gandhi’s speech, both Prajapati and Mishra are certain, was doctored. “He just spoke for the Hindus,” Mishra says. “What’s wrong with that?”
The BJP’s careful lionization of Varun Gandhi is, it appears, a strategy to revive its wilting fortunes in the state. In the 1996 general election, the BJP won 52 seats; in 1998, it won 57. But in 1999, it could only muster 29 seats, a figure that further dropped to 10 in 2004.
“In Uttar Pradesh, the party has been consistently declining since we started efforts to encompass everyone,” says a senior BJP leader, who requested anonymity. “The state has too many players and fighters for Muslims and Dalit votes, and divisions along caste line are too clear. So our USP is Hindutva.” But, he admitted, “the situation in other states is different. We cannot win seats on Hindutva card”.
Not surprisingly, therefore, while the BJP has discretely distanced itself from his remarks and not Varun Gandhi’s new strident profile, its ideologies, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, have gone on an all out offensive to not only back their young leader, but also organize statewide protests against his incarceration.
Other political parties are quick to roundly criticize this strategy.
Communal divide: Students and teachers at Pilibhit’s Jama Masjid; the direction of the town’s Muslim vote is still unclear. Pilibhit’s voters, numbering at least 1.3 million, have been cleanly divided by the events of the last few weeks: an allegedly vicious diatribe against Muslims by the BJP’s Varun Gandhi, his sharp descent into disfavour with the Election Commission, and his subsequent arrest and charge under the NSA. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
“The big mobilization in Pilibhit, the forcing of confrontations with the police, rousing passions by rabble-rousing…are clearly BJP’s campaign strategy,” says Sitaram Yechury, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo. “Communal polarization is part of their vote-consolidating mechanism. It shows that they have no other issue to garner votes.”
What the BJP basically needed, says Chakrabarty, was a mascot of fiery Hindutva whom it could keep at a convenient arm’s length—close, but not too close. Varun Gandhi duly obliged with his rhetoric, he argues, but the media and other political parties also obliged with shrill responses.
As a result, the BJP now stands to gain significantly in the state’s four phases of the Lok Sabha elections, beginning 16 April and ending 13 May. “There could be a return of core Hindu votes, which have shifted to various parties in the past, to the BJP,” says G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a psephologist and a member of the BJP’s national council. “There is some kind of consolidation, though it is not heavy.”
Uttar Pradesh is home to 166 million people, the most populous state in the country. The 2001 Census of India estimates that scheduled castes constitute 21% of the population, while Muslims make up 18.5%. While there are no official figures, analysts estimate that Brahmins account for 9% of the populace. Mayawati’s electoral success in 2007, when BSP took majority control of the state assembly in a surprise win, was based on her ability to manage a rainbow coalition of Dalits, Brahmins and Muslims.
The shift, a tectonic one in Hindu-dominated Pilibhit, has additionally left its Muslims confused and wary—and thus prime for electoral poaching. “We wanted to go to the bazaar today, but because of the atmosphere, we didn’t go,” says Mohammad Shamshad Raza, an 18-year-old religious instructor at the Jama Masjid, who is attempting, in the midst of all this consternation, to study for his maulvi exams beginning next week.
Raza cannot make up his mind about the rapid developments at Pilibhit. “On the one hand, Varun is Maneka Gandhi’s son, and how can we be happy that he is in jail?” he says. “But on the other hand, she never said things like: ‘If we enter Pilibhit, the first sound we hear is the call of the mosque’ and talked about cutting off hands. Varun said this just to win votes. He wanted to become a hero, and he did.”
Before the evening namaz, Maulana Izhar Ahmed Khan Barkati, the thickly bearded Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, sits by the lily pond in the masjid’s courtyard. He talks for a while right there, under the fading sun, before murmuring: “We shouldn’t be talking about this in front of the mosque” and moving to a cool, dark room to field further questions.
Barkati would like to believe, he says, that “the Hindus here are not naïve enough to fall for Varun Gandhi’s game”. He draws upon Pilibhit’s inter-communal celebrations of Moharram, Holi and Diwali to talk about the love between Hindus and Muslims. “Maneka Gandhi, I think, should have made her son understand,” says Barkati. “She should have told him that he shouldn’t say these things to people who have supported her and respected her for 20 years now.”
The Muslim vote
It is, as yet, unclear as to which party—the SP, the BSP or the Congress, all of which have been aggressively wooing Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims—will win them over here. The elections are still far for the voters in Pilibhit and nearby areas, which go to poll on 13 May.
By booking Varun Gandhi under NSA, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati sent out strong electoral signals to the Muslim community to consolidate her position, the core of which is made up of Dalit voters. If, as analysts claim, polarization of the electorate does take place and the BSP win seems imminent, then it is likely that the Muslim vote will gravitate towards Mayawati. In a state where the polity is fractured in view of these four-cornered contests, such block voting may be the key between victory and defeat.
However, many Muslim voters in this area of Uttar Pradesh are, in fact, not yet aware of the political permutations that are bubbling in the state. In Muslim-dominated Rampur, a couple of hundred kilometres away, Syed Nasr Mia, the owner of a transport service, still believes that the Congress-SP alliance is alive. As does Mohammadia Khan, who runs a highway tyre-repair shop: “The Congress and SP together will win all the Muslim votes.”
Some analysts believe that, in such a tripartite contest for the Muslim vote, the BSP may, in fact, emerge on top. “For the time being, the BSP has an edge,” says N. Bhaskar Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. “As Uttar Pradesh is a sensitive state, Muslims may support Mayawati, as many prominent Islamic leaders have already announced their support to the chief minister. Also, the Muslim community has been showing a tendency of supporting the ruling party.”
And what will happen, in Pilibhit, if Varun Gandhi wins? Barkati smiles at the question. “He’s doing all this now only to be elected,” he says. “But once he achieves that, if anything happens here, others will question him: Why is this danga (riot) happening in your constituency?” After a pause, Barkati adds: “Well, that is the hope, anyway.”