Rajnath chale Lucknow: Why it's a bad move to woo Muslim clerics

At 15 percent of the electorate overall and at 19 percent of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh, Bharatiya Janata Party president Rajnath Singh meeting Muslim clerics while on his trip to Lucknow would be par for the course. The Muslim vote, if there is such a thing, can influence the outcome in about 30 to 35 Lok Sabha seats out of UP's 80.

So nobody was surprised when Rajnath tweeted a quick update about his meeting. "Met renowned clerics..." he said, adding a photograph.

Whether he was setting himself up as the leader with alliance-building, laisioning skills in the eventuality that the BJP is forced to pull out a Plan B in a post-poll scenario or whether he was merely reiterating that the fear of Modi among the Muslim electorate is merely a bogey, the BJP clearly believes this is prudent politics.

But, just how far does the word of a Muslim cleric travel? And how effectively?

From the Congress party's wooing of the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid and the latter's subsequent endorsement of the party for the Lok Sabha election, and now Rajnath's discussions with Lucknow's clerics, you'd imagine that a cleric's decree is all-powerful in influencing who Muslims vote for at the polling booth.

 Rajnath chale Lucknow: Why its a bad move to woo Muslim clerics

Representative image. AFP.

Not quite.

Take, for instance, the sheer numbers of Muslim leaders and groups backing various parties -- the Shahi Imam himself backed different parties in previous elections, some other groups have put their might behind the Aam Aadmi Party in this one.  It is hardly likely that Muslims can obey the many different directives hurled their way.

Now there is new evidence that shows that the so-called cleric endorsement may be vastly over-estimated.

Research conducted by retired IPS officer Masoom Aziz Kazmi shows that "fatwa politics", a popular trend ever since the post-Emergency years, could well just be clever clerics feeling the pulse of the community before an election and issuing their vote directive in the same direction -- a classic example, says a Times of India report on Kazmi's research, is the vote against the Congress in 1977. If the Muslims voted en masse against Mrs Gandhi it was less a result of Abdullah Bukhari's exhortations and more due to Sanjay Gandhi's sterilisation drive.

Kazmi argues that most Muslims, more than ever, do not follow such diktats blindly, preferring to select themselves the local candidate they vote for.

Clerics are not the only so-called opinion leaders of the community that the Congress is banking on.  It also has called upon "NGOs, local luminaries, social outfits and religious leaders" according to a report in The Economic Times, with a view to sway Muslim voters to their side. The Congress won 37 percent of Muslim votes in 2009, a statistic set to drop in 2014 as part of the larger wave of anti-UPA anger sweeping the country.

But is there really a thing such as the Muslim vote, a unified vote, a few million Muslims voting strategically, en bloc? Not likely.

Research has already shown that the Indian Muslim identity is actually highly diversified -- in the 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections, surveys showed that only eight percent of Muslim respondents considered their community to be the most important factor while casting their vote while over a half of these respondents said they looked at the party they were voting for.

Also, Muslim sub-communities that are now included in the list of OBCs and SCs certainly have more complex choices to make against a backdrop of identity politics than defeating the BJP. State-level factors, the choices available, how polarised a polity is and on what lines, all these factors form a complex matrix of choices for all voters, including Muslims.

Rajnath's latest move may not garner the BJP any votes, but it does reinforce the myth that Muslims follow their clerics' fatwas as gospel. Even more dangerously, the wooing of the clerics renders these community leaders vulnerable to being used to perpetrate the idea that Muslims -- unlike other communities in India -- care only about religion to the exclusion of issues that concern other Indian votes, be it  development, economy, infrastructure, price-rise etc.

Let's face it, what are the odds that Rajnath asked his cleric friends in Lucknow to advise people to vote intelligently? Whether it's the Congress or the BJP or even the AAP, major political parties' aggressive wooing of the religious leaders is a sign that they believe the community votes, and should continue to do so, based on their religion and on their need for a political mai-baap.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2014 12:29:06 IST