Tactical Voting Or Four-Way Split?

There are only a few states in India where Muslim votes are critical for any party to win elections. Incidentally, many of them are either going through elections or are going to face one in the coming days. Of the states with a sizeable Muslim population, West Bengal and Assam have already seen polls. While Uttar Pradesh will have a very crucial assembly election next year, it is a well-known fact that Muslims are critical in Uttar Pradesh polity and that their role in any election is crucial.

There are a few age-old conventions about Muslim votes, and one of them is that you cannot predict which way these votes will go for sure. Only by the very end of the campaign phase can one say for sure what has the community decided. But that of course has not stopped parties from wooing them in any manner that they deem fit.

However, like the Great Game of the yesteryears, a great game to divide the Muslim votes in Uttar Pradesh is already afoot. And whenever there is a talk of division of Muslim votes, can the name of Owaisi brothers from Hyderabad be far behind? The Owaisi brothers had made up their mind long ago to make a foray in Uttar Pradesh. And they are set to do just that. But the Owaisis are not the only ones with a sight on the Muslim votes; buoyed by the victory in Bihar, Nitish Kumar led JD (U) and fragments of the old Janata Parivar has also made a foray in Uttar Pradesh and they will possibly have an alliance with the Congress Party. Since Nitish’s image among the Muslims in Bihar is very positive, it is expected that he might find some traction among the Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh as well.

There is a slight increase in the population of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh since the last Census. And the same increase is reflected in the voter percentage as well. According to various psephology experts and political pundits, as many as 122 assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh are Muslim dominated. These are the seats where Muslims play a crucial role in who wins the election. On these seats, either a Muslim candidate, or a candidate of their preference generally wins the election.

In Uttar Pradesh, conventional wisdom is that Muslims have always been with the Samajwadi Party. Whenever the Samajwadi party has won assembly elections, it has done so riding on the Muslim votes. Mulayam Singh’s role in keep BJP at bay during the Ram Mandir Movement had endeared him to the Muslim populace. The Congress’ muddy role in the Babri Masjid demolition resulted in the Muslims getting disillusioned with the party and shifting their votes en masse to Samajwadi Party. Nevertheless, none of the past actions or trends can sufficiently prepare one to predict the Muslim vote this time around.

When the Samajwadi Party won the elections in 2012, Muslims had voted solidly for the party. A case in point is the number of Muslim MLAs in the party. In the 2012 elections, of the 69 Muslim MLAs who were elected to the Assembly, as many as 64 were from the Samajwadi Party. Similarly, in 2007, when BSP stormed to power, it did so because Muslims voted en masse for Mayawati in that election.

Even in the 2014 general elections, in spite of bagging merely five seats, Samajwadi party did manage to gain around 22 percent of the popular vote in the state. It is understood that a large majority of Muslim and Yadav voters voted for the party. However, because of the Modi-wave, the polarization happened in such a way that the Hindu votes got consolidated, and that is what propelled BJP to a historic 71 seats. In fact, BJP won all the 16 Muslim dominated Lok Sabha seats from the state. Although BJP does get some Muslim votes here and there because of the local equation, more often than not, Muslims seem to unite and vote in tandem whenever they fear that a particular BJP candidate might win the election.

However, no particular party is sure which way the votes will go this time. Although there are still a few months or so before the polls are due, Samajwadi Party has already started sweating at the prospect of the community deserting it. Muslims found SP’s role dubious in the Muzaffarnagar violence; and a section of the community has made it obvious that they are geared up to teach SP a lesson. Samajwadi Party knows that significant portions of the Muslim community are disillusioned and that’s why it is trying to woo them back with some sops here and there.

This is also a historic opportunity for the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimee (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi to project himself as the pan-Indian leader of the Muslim community, and that is why he is all set to venture into the already muddled waters of Uttar Pradesh politics. While in Bihar, he had to climb down to five seats after initially announcing candidates for over 24 seats, no such climb-down seems to be in the offing in Uttar Pradesh. He has already declared candidates for as many as 44 seats in the state and he is apparently going to fight all of them. He has already tasted water in the state in the by-polls and local elections. He in fact managed to get one of his candidate elected in one of the local bodies.

Naturally, Owaisi is primariy targeting Mulayam Singh. He has alleged that while Mulayam Singh used scare tactics to garner Muslim votes, he and his party have failed the community completely. It would be a gross understatement to say that Samajwadi Party is concerned about Owaisi. It is not for nothing that it has stopped Owaisi from coming to the state several times in the past. There is a prevailing sentiment among the minorities that attacks against the community and community members have increased during the present Samajwadi Party rule. The incidents like Muzaffarnagar and Dadri have further deepened the rift between Samajwadi Party and the community. It is this rift that Owaisi is planning to cash in.

And he is not alone. Dr. Ayub of the Peace Party is also gearing up for a better show this time around. His party had won six seats in the last assembly elections, and he is positive that he and his party will only improve from here. He is in fact telling whoever is willing to listen that he has an outside chance of becoming the Chief Minister of the state. In case of a hung assembly, he believes many parties will try and woo him.

The Peace Party is aligning itself with JD (U) and RLD to fight the election in Uttar Pradesh. Nitish Kumar wants to disturb BJP’s plan in Uttar Pradesh and he’ll go to any length to achieve that goal. If this alliance has a tie up with Congress, they will pose a formidable challenge to all the other players. The Shahi Imam of Delhi is also in the play. He wants his son-in-law to fight the election and is wooing both Samajwadi Party as well as Peace Party for a possible ticket. Whoever gives his son-in-law the ticket can expect a decree from him asking Muslims to vote for that particular party.

But Samajwadi Party has not lost hope as of yet. It announced 4.5 percent reservations for the community, but the move has turned controversial. Muslims have also demanded inclusion in the OBC list. Owaisi, in line with his Dalit-Muslim unity plank, has given seats to over a dozen Muslim candidates. The Muzaffarnagar riots will be a critical issue in the polls. The bad blood between Muslims and Jats persists and the issue has got politicised. Those accused in the riots went on to win elections and became MLAs and MPs. But then again, the polarization might subside by the time of elections.

Under the circumstances, while the BSP is confident of a good performance, there is no guarantee of which side the Muslim vote bank will tilt this time in UP.