Mumbai: A bespectacled, mild-mannered Muslim cleric stands on a potholed sidewalk in the south Mumbai suburb of Nagpada and speaks to around 150 people seated on red plastic chairs on the street. He wants their votes in the 30 April election.
Traffic crawls slowly behind the audience and curious residents of surrounding buildings gather at their windows to hear the speech and watch the spectacle.
Maulana Ather Ali, 56, sporting a perfectly trimmed white beard and skull cap that make him look more like a scholar than a politician, begins by speaking of emotive issues—of young Muslim men arrested after bomb blasts, communal riots and systemic discrimination. All he can evoke from the crowd in response are polite nods. Aware that the emotional spiel is not striking a chord, Ali deftly moves on to other topics—economic development and education for Muslims—and immediately connects with the audience.
Fingers crossed: A file photo of Maulana Ather Ali, the SP candidate from Mumbai South, at a campaign meeting in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
“Why do Muslims have to wait for development? Is this the life we want? Is it not time we asked for our rights as the citizens of this country?” demands Ali and the crowd comes alive, whistling and applauding the Maulana and then chanting, “Maulana Ather Ali aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain”. (Maulana Ather Ali march ahead, we are with you.)
Ali is fighting for election to the Lok Sabha from the prestigious Mumbai South constituency, home to an electorate of 1.7 million people. At a time when emotive issues such as religion have moved to the centre stage of Muslim discourse elsewhere, development and education have emerged as the most pressing issues for Muslims in a constituency where the community has traditionally backed the Congress party.
This time, the All India Ulema (Clerics) Council has decided to field one of its own—Ali—on a Samajwadi Party ticket. The Congress, says the Ulema, has neglected Muslims’ well-being for decades and undermined the community’s legislative representation by not giving a sufficient number of party tickets to Muslims.
“We all want the same thing. We want a decent home. We want education for our children. We want good roads, hospitals. Everything else is just politics,” says S.M. Haroon, who owns a medical supplies store in the Nagpada suburb, where Muslims comprise about 35% of the population. Muslims constitute about 9% of the population in Maharashtra and about 15% in Mumbai.
To be sure, few give Ali a realistic chance of winning in a field of 19 from a constituency where the Congress has lost only two elections in the last three decades—in 1996 and 1999, both times to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
For a major part of these years, Mumbai South has consistently elected the Congress’ Murli Deora to the Lok Sabha. In 2004, his 27-year-old son, Milind Deora, defeated BJP rival Jaywantiben Mehta by a margin of about 10,000 votes to become India’s youngest member of Parliament.
Milind Deora’s website, which includes endorsements by movie actors, authors, businessmen, social activists and educationists, points to the popularity he enjoys and most expect that when Mumbai South turns out to vote on 30 April, it will send Milind Deora back to Parliament again.
“Maulana Ather Ali’s decision to contest these elections has symbolic importance,” says Hasan Kamaal, editor of the Mumbai-based Urdu-language newspaper Shahafat.
“Muslims have become very politically aware, but still many will go out and vote for the Congress. Not because they love it, but because they see no other alternative.”
Kamaal explains that Ali could have chosen to run from some other constituency where he has a better chance, but the Ulema decided on Mumbai South because he has worked in this part of the city for many years and knows the local community well.
“No one really expects him to win from this constituency,” he adds. “But this is a signal that the Muslims in Mumbai are looking for an alternative banner. And when it does emerge, Congress will be in very, very deep trouble.”
“It is now a question of time,” he adds.
Azghar Ali Engineer, an islamic scholar and founder of the Center for Study of Societies and Secularism, says that what is happening in South Mumbai is a reflection of the desire of Muslims in Mumbai for greater representation.
The trigger for the Ulema’s decision not to back the Congress was the distribution of party tickets.
“Like in the rest of the country, the Muslim relationship with the Congress has been souring for a while,” said Fareed Khan, general secretary of the Quami-Majilis-e-Shoora, an organization that works for Muslim empowerment. “But this time around, the Ulema withdrew its backing of Congress when the party refused to give an adequate number of tickets to Muslims in Maharashtra. Of the 48 (Lok Sabha) seats of Maharashtra, they gave only one ticket to a Muslim.”
Psephologist and political commentator Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says this is good news for Indian democracy because it shows that Muslims want their vote to be taken seriously and their issues addressed.
Small regional Muslim parties have also emerged elsewhere, such as the Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh.
“The Ulema council and Indian Peace Party have fielded candidates not only in Mumbai, but also in Uttar Pradesh,” says Imran-Ur-Rehman Kidwai, chairman of the Congress party’s minority cell.
“They are just helping parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cut the Congress vote, that’s all,” he said, adding that he was confident the Muslims will not vote for Ulema candidates. The BJP is not contesting the Mumbai South seat, though.
Muslim awareness of issues such as education has grown after the Rajinder Sachar committee in 2006 came out with a report on the socio-economic status of Muslims in India. The committee found that the literacy rate among Muslims was way below the national average. About 25% of Muslim children in the 6-14-year age group either never attended school or had dropped out, it said.
“We also understand that education is the only way out of poverty. We want our children to get good education that will allow them to compete in the world outside,” said Afifa Salim, a parent in the Mumbai South constituency.
The issues that Ali is raising range from the need for better teachers at municipal schools to redevelopment of dilapidated and even dangerous buildings that risk collapsing in the monsoon.
That may not suffice for him to win election, but he has his supporters among the Muslims.
“His voice resonates with us. He talks about our problems—our roads, buildings, schools, and reservations. This is what Muslims of Nagpada care about,” said Suhail Khan, a computer trader and long-time resident of Nagpada.