Lucknow: In Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, there’s a saying among politicians that winning the Muslim vote means clinching the election.
The political adage is based on simple logic: The community tends to vote en masse for a particular party.
The relevance of that saying is being tested in the 15th Lok Sabha election, not just in Lucknow—which votes on 30 April—or Uttar Pradesh, but across several states where a trend is emerging of the Muslim vote being split among parties and individuals of varied hue.
Different directions: Lalji Tandon, the BJP candidate from Lucknow. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Political ideology or religious affiliations aren’t paramount any more. Muslims—whether in elite Mumbai South or Bhagalpur in Bihar (as reported in Mint on 27 April and 25 April)—are being drawn increasingly towards candidates speaking about bread-and-butter issues, education, economic reform and development.
That’s a departure from the past when the country’s largest religious minority, making up 13.4% of India’s 1.02 billion population according to the 2001 Census, voted along political lines, usually as a block.
It will not be the first time that the Muslim vote has shifted. Immediately after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which provided reservations for the so-called other backward classes (OBCs) in government jobs, in 1989 by the then government headed by V.P. Singh, OBCs emerged as a powerful political entity, deserting the Congress.
It forged an alliance with Muslims under the so-called MY (Muslim Yadav) alliance in Central India that became the mainstay of support for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, or SP, in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, or RJD, in Bihar. This combination had endured so far. What it also did was set back the Congress, which till then had projected itself as a party that could accomodate the interests of diverse communities under a secular ideology.
Muslims have continued to back the Congress in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, where parties such as the SP and the RJD do not have a critical mass, mostly shunning the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its Hindu nationalist leanings.
However, there are indications that things may be about to change. Part of the reason is that the electoral hold of the SP and the RJD has weakened due to the emergence of rival political forces such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and anti-incumbency sentiment after prolonged years of rule in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Further, the decision of the Congress to go it alone rather than in a pre-poll alliance with either the SP or the RJD has transformed straight contests into quadrangular fights in the key states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“True, Muslims are voting for development, regional parties, regional issues and so on... Both the SP and BSP have lost ground with the Muslims; the BSP because of their hobnobbing with the BJP and lack of interest in development in the Muslim-dominated regions,” says Zafarul-Islam Khan, editor of Milli Gazette, a Delhi-based English daily.
“SP’s support base has been reducing because of its support to the nuclear deal (the India-US civilian nuclear agreement) and its ties with Kalyan Singh (former BJP leader and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh),” Khan adds.
In Bihar this time, the work done by the Janata Dal (United)-led government of chief minister Nitish Kumar in building roads and boosting health care and education means the RJD can’t take the Muslim vote for granted in a state it ruled for 15 years until 2005. The Janata Dal (United) is a key ally of the BJP.
In Rajasthan, especially in Jaisalmer and adjoining districts that have a huge Muslim population, Muslim voters say they will vote on the basis of a candidate’s performance or a party’s record on development.
Nazneen, a shop owner in the Machli Mahaul neighbourhood. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
In Madhya Pradesh, especially in state capital Bhopal and in Gwalior, Muslims praise the BJP-led government of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan for focusing on reform and not on Hindutva, or the Hindu way.
The Uttar Pradesh story
“Electricity, water and roads,” says Nazma, a resident of Lucknow’s Lal Colony, listing what she and her family expect of their candidate.
Nazma, who is in her early 30s and identifies herself by only one name, says she has made up her mind to vote for the BJP candidate for the Lucknow Lok Sabha seat, the veteran Lalji Tandon, who is pushing a development agenda. “Everybody in my locality is voting for him,” she says.
In the 2004 election, BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the Lucknow seat defeating his nearest rival from the SP by a margin of 37.74% of the total votes polled.
Lucknow will see a quadrangular contest, with Tandon facing contenders from the Congress, the SP and chief minister Mayawati’s BSP. Tandon concedes that a large part of the Muslim vote will go to his SP rival in Lucknow.
In Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha, both the SP and the Congress have had strong Muslim vote banks. This time, the BSP is also counting on Muslim support.
“The vote is divided between the BSP, the SP and the Congress,” says Gulzar Maulana, a cleric at Lucknow’s Jama Masjid. “There is some, though very little, support for the BJP candidate too, but it is largely based on people’s personal relations with him.”
The division among the Muslims is evident from a tour of Lucknow’s neighbourhoods.
While the city’s Aminabad area, which is largely Muslim-populated, has the BSP’s flags fluttering from every other shop in its major market, in the neighbouring Nazirabad area, most shops have both the BSP’s and the SP’s flags.
In the Machli Mahaul neighbourhood, another Muslim-dominated area, there’s a groundswell of support for the the SP. Social activist and Bollywood actor Nafisa Ali is the SP candidate in Lucknow, where movie star Sanjay Dutt is campaigning for the party.
The Congress failed to enter into a pre-poll arrangement with the SP, its partner in the United Progressive Alliance coalition at the Centre. Some Congress leaders say it was a mistake not to have aligned with the SP in the state.
“It definitely would have been easier for us had the seat-sharing arrangement with the SP worked, since it would have helped in the consolidation of the minority and secular vote, which is now split,” said Bahuguna Joshi. “However, the minority community votes strategically, deciding just a couple of days before polling day.”
Afsar Jahan, a resident of Machli Mahaul, perhaps best sums up the division of Muslim voters. “I will vote for the BSP, my husband will vote for the SP and we will make some other family member vote for the Congress,” she said.
Liz Mathew from Bhopal, Utpal Bhaskar from Bhagalpur, Sangeeta Singh from Jaisalmer and Priyanka Pathak from Mumbai contributed to this story.