SEEMA MUSTAFA | 6 MARCH, 2017
Polarising Drum Beats in Varanasi: Muslims Join the Silent Castes of UP
LUCKNOW: Win or lose, regardless of who forms the government in Uttar Pradesh on March 11 when the votes are counted, there is a very disturbing message coming out of India’s largest state. And it is a message that all political parties have factored into their campaigns, some aggressively and others through quiet “strategy”. And it is in this message that lies BJP’s real victory.
The message being drummed out from this campaign is that the Muslims must become invisible. And it is only through this can the non BJP political parties garner votes, without polarising the state on religious lines. And this is the reason why the Muslim vote has disappeared into the mohallas, is barely heard from, and is not talking easily.
The BJP, on the other hand, is bent on making this vote bank as conspicuous as possible with the Prime Minister himself infusing the division into the campaign towards the fourth-fifth phase of polling. Despite the fact that the sizeable minority vote in UP is on tenterhooks, walking literally on tip-toe lest it inadvertently feed the communal cauldron, the BJP/RSS campaign is working hard to convince its voters that the minorities are a pampered lot, and only a BJP government can restore a ‘balance’ and tip it to the side of those whom India really belongs to.
The first whisper of this came from a dejected shopkeeper in Meerut, and a BJP supporter, just before the first phase of polling. Upset with the adverse impact of demonetisation the shopkeeper admitted that the wave for the BJP was not as before. But then added as we were leaving, “but at the end if the Muslims start making too much noise, the Hindus will come together for the BJP. This has always worked for us.”
And from then on this sentiment has been echoing across Assembly segments in UP. In Kursi for instance all appeared normal till polling day when the voters consolidated along religious lines, with a few exceptions here and there. The trend of polarisation was very visible. It is of course, not just difficult but impossible to assess this correctly in a state where voters like to make up their minds at the nth hour, but the very fact that the minorities who were amongst the most vocal sections of voters in the past have had to seal their lips is a disturbing trend by any standards.
Mayawati is perhaps the only leader aggressively wooing the Muslims for a Dalit-Muslim consolidation that would have been a winner had it not been for the SP-Congress Alliance. She has fielded 100 Muslim candidates across the state, and is quite unabashed about this as she hits out at the BJP for its anti-minority stance and at the Alliance for exploiting this vote for its own ends.
The Alliance, on the other hand, is very conscious of the polarising efforts of the BJP and Samajwadi leader Akhilesh Yadav and Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi are taking exceptional care not to bring the minorities into their campaign discourse. Hence the attack from the Alliance platform remains against the BJP, PM Modi, and the efforts to divide society. But there is visible effort---particularly by Akhilesh Yadav---to broaden his and the Samajwadi’s appeal and bring it out of the minority box it has been enclosed in under his father Mulayam Singh.
This caution arises from the situation on the ground, that brings with it the realisation that even a small wrong step by the minorities and the political parties they are voting for could result in a complete polarisation. And thereby lose the non-BJP political parties the election even before the votes are cast. One major move that has gone in SP’s favour is Akhilesh Yadav’s decision to remove Mukhtar Ansari, a favoured don of eastern UP, from the Samajwadi rolls. This has deprived the BJP of ammunition against the SP, and while Ansari is with the BSP now, his presence here will not have the same debilitating impact as the Dalits are not particularly hassled on this issue. In fact, according to some reports, Ansari’s switch has added some weight to the BJP campaign.
In Lucknows Chowk area the Muslims point out, in confidence of course, that they are not going to express their choice of candidate or political party. “There is no need, we know the moment we speak we will help the BJP polarise the votes,” said a minority shop keeper.
At present the Muslims are not particularly perturbed by this pressure but seem to have taken it in their stride. In Varanasi where all voters are aware of the possibility of last minute polarisaton of voters, the minorities were clear that they were not going to speak out their preference. This is not because they had not made up their minds---they all have---but as a BJP rebel confided, “if they speak out, the election will be lost to the Alliance.”
A Muslim cleric pointed out that this is one of the reasons why “we are saying nothing, for or against, or even trying to deny any of the rumours that are being circulated.” An influential zari dealer said, “yes we have asked them to keep quiet and you will not hear anything from the mosques or the clergy now.” Others around nodded assent.
This is even more visible now that PM Modi is camping in Varanasi with the BJP and the supporting media on a blitz. The polarisation is being spearheaded by the BJP/RSS with Pakistan, development for ‘some’, discrimination against the majority being used in the campaign to create divisions. The ‘some’ of course are identified as Muslims by the workers on the ground, with the PM and the top functionaries meeting select individuals of Varanasi in groups, and singly, to press home the message of a government that looks after its own.
It is no longer Ram Mandir, but this promise that is articulated in different ways with Varanasi’s academia, business community, journalists and others according to some who have attended these meets. A local Muslim Congress worker was particularly worried about possible polarisation. He went to the extent of saying, “why are all these Congress leaders coming to Muslim areas for meeting, why don’t they go to the other people instead of focusing attention on our vote. That will only help the BJP polarise the polls. Lalu Yadav is coming here but they are bringing him also to the Muslim mohallas, why are they not taking him to the Yadav areas?”
This worry has made the Muslims now join the ranks of the other backwards, and the scheduled castes who are amongst the most silent voters of UP in what they currently see as ‘strategy.’ The Muslims, like the upper castes and the Jats, had been fairly confident of their voting preferences but now this new silence stretching across UP brings them into the ranks of the most marginalised who have always been terrified of stating their political preferences for fear of upper caste and class reprisal.
In fact, the Jatavs in some constituencies ----even in western UP districts---have found a voice over the last couple of elections because of Mayawati and the BSP. But this is still the exception and not the rule. A rickshaw puller in Varanasi, chewing tobacco, smiled and said he was voting for the BJP at the first instance. But when this writer continued talking with him, and assured him that The Citizen was not a political party but the media, he drew up close and whispered, “we are voting for Mayawati” and the grin broadened as if with relief at having spoken the truth.
But the fear remains. And instead of decreasing as India grows and matures as a democracy, it is now spreading to more and more sections as these elections in UP continue to demonstrate.