Strategic voting

Print edition : May 21, 2004

Notwithstanding the election-eve tactics of the BJP and a handful of "community" organisations, Muslims in the State will yet again vote tactically to ensure the defeat of communal parties.

in Lucknow

AT all his public meetings in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to assure the State's Muslim community that the Gujarat carnage was an aberration, that it was a reaction to the Godhra incident and, if voted back to power, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would ensure that such incidents would not recur. Vajpayee's statements were in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party's new electoral tactics - to reach out to the minority community.

Outside the BJP office in Lucknow on April 30, Muslim supporters praying for Atal Bihari Vajpayee's electoral victory.-PAWAN KUMAR/REUTERS

The NDA manifesto has promised a minorities development agenda within six months of the combine's return to power, special developmental programmes for socially and economically backward Muslims, enhanced Muslim representation at various levels of government and in public sector enterprises, a "riot-free" India, continuation of the peace process with Pakistan, jobs for Urdu teachers, minority status for Hamdard University and so on. Ironically, the BJP used to describe similar promises made by other parties as "Muslim appeasement". Arun Jaitley, BJP leader and Union Law Minister, claimed: "There is a difference between appeasement and fairness. What we are promising does not come in the category of appeasement."

But all this has not helped the BJP win over the community. The Gujarat carnage has played an important role in reinforcing Muslims' scepticism. "Even after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Muslims were willing to trust the BJP once Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. We almost believed him when he said he wanted to bring Muslims closer to the BJP. But he said nothing and did nothing when Muslims were being killed in Gujarat. Let alone removing Narendra Modi, there was not a word of criticism against him from the Prime Minister. How can we trust him?" asks retired colonel M.J. Shamsi, who is associated with the Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow, a major centre for Islamic studies in the country. Shamsi said that Muslims' expectation that once the Masjid was demolished, saner elements would prevail over the Hindutva fundamentalists was proved wrong.

Similar feelings are expressed by other Muslims as well. "Riots had happened before. But Gujarat was different in the sense that unlike in the past when the police secretly helped Hindu rioters, here the whole system of government was against Muslims. If the state machinery itself turns against you, where do you go for justice?," asks Begum Naseem Iqtedar of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. According to her, such a fear of denial of justice could prove decisive at the time of voting.

While Begum Naseem Iqtedar described the BJP as a "Bahut Jhooti Party (a party that lies too much)", Shamsi gave examples of the changing statements of the Prime Minister to wonder what should be believed. "In Goa he says Muslims should trust the BJP, then in Mumbai he says Muslims themselves do not live in peace and harmony. He says one thing today and another tomorrow," he said.

Organisations such as the Atal Himayat Karvan, the Fans of Atal Bihari Vajapyee and the Minorities Action Group of India, set up to support the BJP and campaign for Vajpayee, have by and large been dismissed by Muslims. Statements by a few community leaders such as the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid calling upon the community to support the party too have met with a similar response.

"We still live in the slave era. Previously human beings could be bought, now their support and vote can be bought. It is all about money now," says Begum Naseem Iqtedar. Zafaryab Jilani, convener of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC), thinks such propaganda hardly impresses Muslims because "they know the reality". As for the BJP's claims to get a substantial number of Muslim votes, Manjoor, a tailor in Lucknow, summed up the community's mood: Itne bhi jalil nahin ki BJP ko vote de (We are not so depraved as to vote for the BJP).

Realising that its efforts to win over the community was not yielding the desired result, the BJP came up with another strategy - ensure that Muslims do not vote in large numbers for a particular party. For example, Vajpayee's statement that Muslims should not vote for the Congress(I) but for the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.) which was "more trustworthy" and ideologically close to the BJP had such an aim. Similarly, a section of BJP leaders hinted that if the NDA fell short of a majority in the Lok Sabha, the S.P. could extend support to it. However, such attempts too seem unlikely to achieve anything substantial. Large numbers of Muslims in the State, who have voted for the S.P. ever since the decline of the Congress(I), are still ready to repose their faith in Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Congress(I) and the Bahujan Samaj Party too are likely to get the community's support.

Meanwhile, the All India Milli Council (AIMC) has called upon Muslims to support the S.P. in the majority of seats in the State because its candidates are best placed to defeat the BJP. An April 29 appeal of the AIMC to Muslims sought their support for the S.P. in 15 of the 30 seats going to the polls on May 5, the Congress(I) in five seats and the BSP in two. In the remaining eight constituencies, the AIMC has left it to local members of the community because of the conflicting reports emerging from them. Interestingly, the AIMC explained that its support for the BSP was only meant to "reduce the strength of the BJP because it would prefer the success of BSP candidates to BJP candidates".

The surprise element in the AIMC's appeal is the substantial improvement in the support for the Congress(I). While the Congress(I) represents only two of the 30 seats going to the polls on May 5, the AIMC has appealed to secular voters to support party candidates in Jhansi, Fatehpur, Kanpur, Mathura and Lucknow. With these five, the total number of seats in which the AIMC has decided to support the Congress(I) has gone up to 14. Of these, voting in nine took place in the first round of polling on April 26 - Rae Bareli, Amethi, Pratapgarh, Sultanpur, Padrauna, Salempur, Azamgarh, Varanasi and Mirzapur-Bhadohi. For the first round of polling, the AIMC sought Muslim support for the S.P. in 15 seats - Misrikh, Hardoi, Phulpur, Allahabad, Chael, Jalaun, Ghatampur, Etawah, Kanauj, Mainpuri, Jalesar, Etah, Firozabad, Agra and Hathras. Thus, the S.P.'s tally has gone up to 30. The BSP gets AIMC support in five seats in all - Bilhaur, Shahabad, Akbarpur, Balrampur and Faizabad.

While the AIMC's declaration of support for various parties has thrown up interesting possibilities, one thing appears certain - Muslims, as always, would vote for various non-communal parties. This could, in turn, help the BJP in some seats. For example, in 12 seats where the AIMC has left the decision to the local leadership, it could lead to confusion and the BJP could emerge victorious.

"There is no way this division of votes can be stopped. Ideally, the secular parties should have come together. But since this has not happened, this division of secular votes cannot be prevented, though we are trying our best," said Jilani, who is also a member of the AIMC. According to him, the main aim for Muslims today is the defeat of the communal and pseudo-nationalist forces led by the BJP.

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