Caught in a saffron storm

The BJP might win the three Muslim-dominant seats in Uttar Pradesh, but attributing it solely to Hindutva mobilisation would be a mistake.

Published : Apr 15, 2024 16:05 IST - 6 MINS READ

BJP supporters at an election rally in Moradabad on April 12, 2024. The SP-BSP alliance that enabled S.T. Hasan to win this seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election does not exist today.

BJP supporters at an election rally in Moradabad on April 12, 2024. The SP-BSP alliance that enabled S.T. Hasan to win this seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election does not exist today. | Photo Credit: PTI

Uttar Pradesh, the backbone of the BJP’s majority in Parliament, is home to the constituencies of two leaders frequently referred to as Hindu Hriday Samrat (rulers of Hindu hearts): Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The BJP’s national pitch since January 22 is that Ram Lalla is now home in Ayodhya; meanwhile, the Hindu-Muslim fault line is being stoked at Kashi and Mathura. It is within this saffron storm that Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, estimated to be 20 per cent of the population, live their daily lives.

There are Lok Sabha constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh where the Muslim population exceeds 40 per cent. Several of them go to the polls on April 19. Let us examine the situation in three such constituencies—Moradabad, Rampur, Amroha—that were won in 2019 by Muslim candidates belonging to the grand alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In 2024, though, the BJP may win these seats, which means we could have three fewer Muslim MPs in the next Parliament. For all the talk and hype about a BJP outreach to Pasmanda Muslims (a term used for economically and socially backward Muslims), there is zero evidence of anything real on that front so far.

Also Read | Assembly elections 2023: How BJP turned Congress’ playbook against it

Yet it would be a mistake to see Hindutva mobilisation as the primary reason for the BJP’s position in constituencies that are described as “Muslim dominant”. The real story also lies in the split opposition vote, the State parties’ failure to present a narrative beyond haggling over tickets and, most seriously in an age and in a State dominated by the BJP and the RSS, the inability to work on the technical aspects of an election such as guarding electoral rolls.

The Samajwadi Party’s electoral template

This is arguably one of the serious shortcomings of a party like the SP that has structures in place in the State, but whose electoral template involves intense competition for each ticket (in some cases two candidates were given the symbol to contest from the same constituency, leading to chaos) and the person getting the nomination arrives to fight the election. In Uttar Pradesh, people flaunt visiting cards that say they were candidates for elections (that they lost).

This chaotic method is simply not enough to defeat an organised force like the BJP-RSS. Their cadre map each locality around a polling booth months before voting day and put in several applications for cancelling voters on the ground that they have moved and are no longer residents. The electoral rolls are revised by booth-level officers who are often government schoolteachers who could be overburdened or in some cases ideologically motivated and/or obeying instructions of the party in power. Clearly, a vigilant force needs to counter this, but the SP does not apply itself to this issue.

During the 2022 Assembly election, I met Haji Yusuf Ansari, the SP candidate for Moradabad city who had lost to the BJP by 3,000 votes in the 2017 election, in a seat with a 47 per cent Muslim population. Days before polling in Moradabad, once again I found many voters whose names were missing from the electoral rolls. It was clear Yusuf Ansari had not done the groundwork. He lost again in 2022 by 900 votes. Were he to contest again, he would probably drive around the city in a cavalcade again, raising slogans, but fail to apply himself to the essential nuts and bolts of elections.

In fact, given the delays in ticket distribution by the SP, one can assume that this crucial aspect has not been addressed.  After intense lobbying, the sitting Moradabad MP, S.T. Hasan, was dropped and the ticket was given to former MLA Ruchi Veera. Another interesting question raised in this election is whether over and above the Muslim votes, the SP can get some Hindu votes as well.

Meanwhile, the BJP has gone ahead with its long-term Moradabad candidate Sarvesh Kumar Singh, a Thakur strongman who won in 2014 after he had lost the 2009 election to the cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin, who contested on the Congress ticket. Singh lost in 2019, too, to the SP’s S.T. Hasan (who won thanks to an alliance with the BSP). The arithmetic suggests that the BSP-SP alliance made the win in Moradabad a certainty in the last Lok Sabha election. However, that alliance does not exist today.

Amroha, located on the highway from Delhi to Moradabad, goes to the polls in the second phase on April 26. It is a seat where the minority population exceeds 40 per cent and, in the urban areas, touches 70 per cent. Danish Ali won from Amroha in 2019 on the BSP ticket. Again it was the arithmetic of an alliance with the SP that saw him romp home (beyond Muslim votes, the BSP brought in the Dalit votes as well). Ali is a high-profile MP, the one who was famously abused in Parliament by the BJP’s South Delhi MP Ramesh Bidhuri who has since been dropped by the national party. 

Ali, too, was suspended by the BSP the day after he defended Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra in Parliament. He is now contesting on the Congress ticket and enjoys the support of the SP since the Congress is in alliance with it. But it will be quite a feat for Ali to win in a triangular contest. The BSP has also given the ticket to a minority candidate. Having covered these constituencies over several elections, I have noted that in places where their numbers are large, Muslims do not always polarise against the BJP but can be divided due to local competing interests.

One could argue that since the 2014 advent of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, it is caste Hindus who are more united around their religious identity and the calls of “Hindu khatre mein hai” (Hindus are in danger). Muslims have become used to living in palpable danger, frequently in their ghettoes, and currently do not believe that any party is in a position to defend them. In Uttar Pradesh, they are psychologically prepared for the worst, such as the loss of rights, incarceration, demolition of properties, and hate crimes.

Take what happened to Azam Khan, who won the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Rampur that has a 50 per cent minority population, but is now in jail along with his wife and son. He was disqualified after being convicted for acquiring a fake birth certificate for his son. Several other cases have been lodged against him and it seems likely he will remain incarcerated as long as the BJP rules the State.

Also Read | Can Congress set aside Ram mandir and reclaim its ground by reorganising, reuniting, and refocussing?

In the byelection in Rampur in 2022 after Azam Khan’s disqualification, the BJP won the seat amidst many reports of names disappearing from the electoral rolls. In 2024, the minority population of Rampur is demotivated and it is not clear whether the candidate that the SP has chosen, Mohibullah Nadvi, a Maulana from a mosque in Delhi, has the charisma to inspire the people of Rampur.

Rampur is a prestigious seat for the BJP, as the town’s history of nawabs and monuments evokes just the sort of Muslim era of the past that the RSS wishes to erase, even as Azam Khan is a contemporary politician that the BJP seeks to crush. Meanwhile, the BSP has fielded a young Muslim candidate, so there are wheels within wheels that keep moving.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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