THE most significant "other" in Rajasthan, as elsewhere in the country, has become a focus of attention in the context of the Lok Sabha elections. What started off in the form of intermittent statements from the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership directed at the minorities began to take a definite shape in the last week of April when a section claiming to be the voice of the community began to issue directives to support the party. It is another matter that such electoral tactics may not have the desired effect, coming as they do in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage.
On April 25, a newly floated outfit called the Rashtrawaadi Muslim Manch organised a meeting of Muslim intellectuals and leaders in Jaipur. The Manch, a brainchild of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), invited about 50 people to discuss the topic "Rashtrawaadi Muslim Aandolan (Movement) - A new approach". The underlying theme was national unity and harmony and the main speaker was Indresh Kumar, the all-India Sah Sampark Pramukh of the RSS. But what was meant to be a dialogue turned out to be an almost two-hour-long monologue by the RSS leader. The discussion lasted only 15 minutes. The RSS leader's lecture dealt with issues relating to culture, nation, nationhood, identity, the convergence of communities, and the resolution of differences, all seen from the organisation's narrow perspective. The questions posed included: "Why don't Indian Muslims call their creator Bhagwan instead of Allah?"
Meanwhile, in New Delhi, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, issued a directive asking Muslims to support the BJP; in Jodhpur, another prominent Muslim cleric, the Qazi Shahid Usmani, conducted meetings as part of his Sadbhavana Yatra launched in Jaipur; and in Jalore, RSS sympathiser Shaheen Khan was campaigning for Susheela Bangaru Laxman, the BJP candidate from Jalore and wife of former party president Bangaru Laxman. Shaheen Khan, who came from Delhi to help Susheela Laxman, said she was an active member of the BJP's All India Minority Morcha. She said she had been associated with the RSS for several years now.
In Jodhpur, the Qazi made it clear that the Yatra, though coming in the midst of the elections, did not have a political mission. His idea was to emphasise the importance of national unity and communal harmony. However, he added that it was an undeniable fact that Muslims had been tossed around like a "football" by the major political parties, including the Congress(I) for which the community had been voting in the last 50 years. The Qazi said that Muslims had voted for the BJP in the last Assembly elections as they did not want to show that they belonged to any particular party. However, Abdul Qayuum Akhtar, the State representative of the All India Milli Council, articulated a different opinion. He calls the sops offered by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime a tamashaa (charade). Akhtar said: "How can Muslims forget the things that have happened? Our community is mature enough. It can visualise its interests and it has a vision."
Elsewhere in Jodhpur, BJP State president Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi, addressing a section of the Muslim community, said that it was time Muslims reposed confidence in the BJP and stepped forward to become its political ally. He assured them that the State government would take care of the interests of the minority communities. The Qazi of the town, who was also present, said that if the Central government was led by Vajpayee it would definitely protect the interests of the minorities.
Working class Muslims such as Rashid Ahmed Qureshi and others in Bilada, Jodhpur, aired a different view. Qureshi said: "We will vote according to our conscience. The only order we follow is that from Allah. We don't listen to the fatwas of Qazis and Maulvis. These leaders have been bought by the BJP." There are around two lakh Muslim voters in Jodhpur, a crucial segment no party can afford to ignore. When asked about the reasons for the defeat of the Congress(I) candidates in the Assembly elections, Qureshi and his companions said that while the Jat and the Maali (an Other Backward Class category) communities did not vote for the party, the Muslims did. He added that work done by particular candidates will be considered. "We use this criterion even in the ward elections," said Mumtaz Ahmed.
Ghaffar Shah, who has an egg stall in the busy bus-stand in Pali district, said about the "order" from Delhi: "Yes, we have heard of it. But we don't read the newspapers and the old generation anyway will vote for the Congress(I)." Interestingly, he adds that he has been already identified as a Congress(I) supporter. "The BJP has been campaigning for several days now. But no one has come to me to ask for my vote," he says. For Ghaffar Shah and others like him, who are mostly poor people, security of life is a big issue.
Overriding all political considerations is the concern about the rise in the prices of essential commodities and the lack of employment opportunities. Naimuddin, a daily wage earner, said that the ration shops were selling bajra instead of wheat. "How can we consume bajra in this heat?" he asked. Bajra, a heavy coarse grain, is normally consumed in the winter months. Naimuddin found the employment figures issued by the BJP governments in the State and at the Centre lacking credibility. He said that with great difficulty he managed to get 10 to 12 days of work a month and that too at the old rate of minimum wages. "It is not just us. Ask the farmers. They will tell you how much power supply they get in the villages," says Nizammuddin, a driver.
In Barmer, where Finance Minister Jaswant Singh's son Manavendra Singh is pitted against veteran parliamentarian Sona Ram of the Congress(I), the preferences of the Muslim community are a matter of discussion. Apparently, Sona Ram supported rebels against the official party candidates in the Assembly elections last year. Among those who lost were two sitting legislators from the community, one of whom lost by a slender margin. A section of the Muslims in the constituency feel that Jats sabotaged the chances of the two candidates. There is some nervousness in the Congress(I) ranks as the community's alienation affects the party's Jat-Muslim-Dalit-Adivasi support base. But Maalu Ram, a cousin of Sona Ram, says that all problems have been solved and that Muslims are solidly behind the party.
For both parties, the final preoccupations are the caste combinations, the Muslim voting pattern and similar sectarian concerns. People everywhere speak of dhanda aur karobaar (employment and business). The desperation is such that they want the government to start some drought relief work so that they can survive through the hot summer months. Most people spoke about the sinking groundwater levels and the shortage of potable water and power. Also apparent was the fact that class interests within communities prevented people from seeing themselves as homogeneous categories.
There are other worries too. Professor Mohammad Hasan, a geographer formerly associated with the Rajasthan Institute of Public Administration, said that the reinforcement and re-emergence of caste loyalties were indicative of what he called the "tribalisation of Indian society". Criticising the Congress(I) for actively encouraging caste mahasabhas in the State, he said that as long as a third alternative did not emerge, voters would be forced to choose between the BJP and the Congress(I).