In my travels through the Muslim-dominated regions of Uttar Pradesh over the past few weeks, I have tried to understand the mindset of the community and assess whether the Muslim vote could swing in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing Assembly election in the state.
A senior Islamic cleric, who teaches at the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama – a world-famous seminary in Lucknow –believes that the BJP is in a far better position than Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose inefficient rule in its previous regime made it fall out of favour with the Muslim community.
During the ongoing polls, the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama has sent out contradictory messages to Muslim voters. Renowned Islamic scholar Maulana Salman Al-Husaini Al-Nadwi has expressed his support for the BSP, while another top cleric at the seminary criticised him for his "wrong decision."
On the other hand, the seminary's principal Maulana, Saidur Rahman, expressed support for the Samajwadi Party (SP). "I support SP because at this point the SP-Congress alliance is better for the country," Rahman said.
While the Nadwatul Ulama, as an institution, doesn't endorse any political party, statements made by its clerics have often confused the Muslim voters.
The situation is similar in different sects of Islam as Shia clerics, Kalbe Sadiq and Kalbe Jawwad of Lucknow, expressed support for the BSP while Sunni cleric Maulana Khalid Rasheed, of the Darul Uloom Farangi Mahal, lay his allegiance with the SP. Maulana Ashraf Miyan Kichhauchhvi, who belongs to the Sufi school of Islam, has also expressed his support for the BSP.
In Bareilly, Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, who has his own Ittehad-e-Millat Council party, is facing resistance from Muslims. He could not strike a deal with any party. It appears that local Muslims shunned him to vote for the SP.
Kulsum Mustafa, an independent journalist in Lucknow, says that varied appeals from the Islamic clerics have confused the Muslim voters in UP. Hasan Ibrahim, who works with the Urdu daily Roznama Inquilab, said that the clerics' appeals for votes had absolutely no impact on educated Muslims, but added that the common Muslims who read Urdu newspapers are heavily influenced by the clerics and Sufi mystics.
This point is relevant because educated Muslims no longer read Urdu newspapers, while for the common Muslims, the Urdu-Islamic media remains relevant. Islamic clerics have also grasped the use of television to advance their message by organising press conferences and other events geared to attract media headlines.
A quick reading of Urdu newspapers indicate that the bulk of Muslims in UP have voted in favour of the SP so far, while some have voted for the BSP.
Assessing BJP's position among the Muslim voters, Hasan Khalid, a writer from Aligarh, said, "The Muslim youth is definitely voting for the BJP but their numbers are miniscule. And even those who are voting for the BJP cannot say it publicly, because they will be shamed in the community."
In Lucknow, journalist Amit Srivastava says that most Muslims are voting for the SP but added that many have expressed their support for the BJP because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stand on the triple talaq issue. Modi's decision to give LPG cylinders to women has also helped the BJP's cause. Their numbers, however, may not be that consequential.
While many psephologists and commentators have argued in the past that BJP has indeed managed to attract a larger share of the Muslim votes, it was largely unbelievable in view of the mass mobilisation of Muslims by Islamic clerics, the Urdu press and the so-called secular parties to vote against the BJP.
So, the argument is not that Muslims are voting for the BJP in large numbers. The only party which Muslims are voting for in large numbers is the SP. This might be because educated Muslims are not in favour of Modi and often fear him; a stark contrast with Atal Bihari Vajpayee's era, when Muslims were receptive to him to an extent.
The BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in the ongoing UP elections, thereby strengthening the view that Muslims are opposed to the BJP. Though it is understandable why Muslim candidates fielded by BJP cannot win in UP, Lucknow-based commentator Faizan Musanna said that all the parties use Muslims as tissue paper for electoral gains – use them for the elections and trash them afterwards – and wonders if BJP should have done the same. Faizan argues that if the political parties cannot field Muslim candidates due to electoral calculations, they could at least involve them in their organisational decision-making processes.
We know that Muslims in Gujarat and Assam had voted in favour of BJP in the recent past and that a section of Shia Muslims had publicly expressed support for the BJP. Mohsin Raza Alvi, of the BJP's UP unit, said that a certain percentage of Muslims are voting for the BJP and that has caused "fear" among the other parties. The bulk of the Muslim voters, however, are still casting their votes against the BJP.
Hriday Narayan Dikshit, BJP's UP spokesman, makes an interesting observation: "Earlier, Muslims would consider the Congress as a Hindu party, or the Muslim League as a Muslim party." His point highlights a shift in Muslim attitudes towards the Congress – from the 1930s and 1940s to after the Partition, when Muslims started voting for the Congress. Dikshit points out that many Muslim writers and women have expressed support for the end of triple talaq.
On 23 February, polling day of the fourth phase of the Assembly polls, Roznama Inquilab carried four news headlines that must have stunned the Muslim readers. One headline quoted Asaduddin Owaisi as saying: "If Akhilesh Yadav can be forgiven for the Muzaffarnagar riots, then Narendra Modi too should be forgiven for the Gujarat riots."
Another headline quoted Dr Muhammad Ayub of the Peace Party as saying that 'Owaisi's All India Muslim Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen wanted to destroy the Muslim leadership.'
A third was a three-column news story as per which Lucknow-based Ulama Committee had urged Muslim voters to be aware of anti-Muslim policies of the Akhilesh Yadav government: "The Akhilesh government is anti-Muslim, and an enemy of Urdu," declared the headline.
A fourth item was a half-page advertisement by Varanasi-based Muslim leader Firoz Khan, which declared: "Fear Allah, not the BJP."
The Muslim votes for BJP are insignificant but the Muslim attitudes towards the party are changing for sure. "Why not BJP?" is a question running through Muslim minds, and if the BJP manage to win in UP, then the Muslims in the state will be forced to revisit their long-entrenched political attitudes towards the BJP.
The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets: @tufailelif
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Updated Date: Mar 09, 2017 17:57 PM