NEW DELHI: The Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid Syed Ahmad Bukhari entered the Uttar Pradesh poll fray two days ago by announcing his support for the Bahujan Samaj Party. And using his exalted status declared in what amounts to a political decree that “Muslims should look for a political alternative in Uttar Pradesh and show exit route to this unjust Samajwadi Party that has gone back on its word. Otherwise, every political party will use Muslims like football for their own interests.”

Unfortunately, the Imam who should keep out of political issues has always been “used” to adopt a word from his own vocabulary by political parties to come out in one or the others support. And through his decrees has joined the game of using the community as a “football” as he so eloquently puts it.

Imam Bukhari has never failed to oblige the politicians, and while there have always been rumours that his decision is prompted by considerations other than the welfare of the community he represents, the Imam does manage to get the attention he is looking for.

At the joint press conference with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at Lucknow today, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav when asked about the Imam’s decision to support the BSP merely said, “I am sure if you speak with him privately he will tell you that we have his blessings.” Clearly the political leaders do not want to join issue with the cleric, who still manages to convince all that he wields more influence than he actually does.

In fact, Imam Bukhari as this writer can confirm barely enjoys political support in the Jama Masjid area where he lives and presides. Resident after resident said that while he was respected for leading the congregation in prayer, his political fatwas had become suspect over the years. “Imam sahab speaks for himself and his political interests, we vote where we think we should,” is the consensus from Jama Masjid.

And this has extended into UP as well where Muslims do not look at clerics to determine their political choice. They never have despite the mistaken notions of the media, and certain political leaders.

Over and over again the Muslims have voted tactically in UP for the political party that they see as representative of their interests, and repeatedly against whatever political choice the Imam or other Maulanas might have made at the time publicly. Clericsm insofar as politics is concerned, do not inspire respect amongst the Muslims, and certainly little compliance, unless of course their view view coincides with the larger view taken by the minorities across UP.

There have been several instances where Imam Bukhari’s choice has been completely rejected in the final hustings, not deliberately, but simply because he was out of tune with the politics of UP. And when he has said vote for one the minority vote has shifted decisively to the other.

Syed Bukhari is to put it mildly, controversial when it comes to politics. He is used to being wooed by political parties, and usually waits to see who will approach him, and with what offers before making up his mind. Today he has well known differences with Samajwadi party’s Azam Khan, and was approached by BSP’s Naseemuddin Siddiqui who has been working hard to secure the support of all minority religious clerics and organisations in the state for the BSP. Indications are that the SP and the Congress, both well known for also spending extra time and resources in winning over the clerics in the past, have not been particularly focused this election on what has become over the years part of pre-poll political activity in the state.

Imam Bukhari has thus, gone full steam ahead in not really praising the BSP, but in denouncing the Samajwadi party and the Congress for not doing anything for the minorities, and instead leading them up the path of deprivation, poverty, insecurity and violence.

Interestingly, the clerics have lost ground with the Muslims in UP steadily over the years and yet the political parties in a bid to sew up all loose ends continue to shower attention on the Maulana’s every election. It is widely recognised that the clerics received favours from the political parties---in cash and kind it is claimed---to issue these political directives. The very fact that the Imams are purchasable has reduced their political weight within the community with Muslim voters, election after election, dismissing their ‘fatwas’ with scant regard.

It is true that often the Imam says what the voters have decided, and later an overzealous and ignorant media insists that his diktat had an impact. It is unfortunate that despite demonstrating over and over again that the clerics cut no ice with them insofar as political decisions are concerned, the media and some politicians continue to insist that the community listens to the Maulanas.

This basically emerges from a mindset that refuses to recognise that one, the Muslims in UP are not a monolith; and two, have always rejected the fundamentalist for the secular political choice. The Jamaat e Islami for instance has tried, but failed completely to grow in UP as its candidates have usually lost their deposits. And disappear from the political field entirely unrecognised.

The UP Muslim has always rejected those who have little on their platter other than religion, and opted for the secular alternative without a break since independence. And yet the Congress party in the first decades, and the others later, insisted on clubbing the minority vote with the clerics so called influence, working on the latter to influence the former. When in reality no such influence existed, except in the mindset that cannot seem to get rid of a stereotype it itself has created.