NEW DELHI: The voters are silent, and even more so are the Muslims in eastern UP. The Citizen team was surprised to find that this rather vocal community had sealed its lips and refused to be drawn into a discussion on the ongoing elections until they---like other voters as well-- had guaged the interviewer to their satisfaction. And were convinced that those claiming to be reporters had no agenda, and were not with any political party.

Except for the odd Muslim, like the odd voter, no one spoke first off. Our team had endless cups of tea at dhabas, bought bangles by the dozens in shops, pretended to feign interest in wares and food to get the voters talking. Even then a question ‘what is your name’ would result in silence, a visible unease, and often work as a mouth sealer. It was clear after the first few stops that the question could come at the end of a conversation, if the voter had opened up, but certainly not at the beginning. Again a major change from earlier elections where the Muslims in UP never hesitated to identify themselves, and speak their mind. It was the Dalits who were always reticent and scared. They have now been joined by the minorities in many parts of the state.

This silence, however, does not always indicate fear. It actually is indicative of political astuteness and as a wise shopkeeper explained in Lucknow, the Muslims do not want to speak out for any one political party lest the BJP succeed in polarising the vote along religious lines. The speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the cremation ground and the graveyard, and a day later by BJP President Amit Shah in Allahabad further feeding into this divisive politics was cited by an elite Muslim family in the state capital with, “now you know we all are not talking. These chaps (BJP) will use whatever we say to communalise the situation.”

The BJP is further trying to confound the situation by spreading rumours---that sections of the media are happily lapping up and reproducing at some length---that the Muslim vote has got hopelessly divided. That the Muslims are running helter skelter, not knowing whether to vote for the SP-Congress alliance, or the BSP. Or for that matter Asaduddin Owaisi’s 23 odd candidates, fielded to ensure a division of the minority vote in these constituencies.

Spreading the same propaganda, interestingly, are the leading clerics of both the Shia and Sunni sects in UP who have issued fatwas for the community to vote for the BSP. That no one is listening to them is evident all across the state, with ordinary Muslims dismissing these with an amused, and sometimes angry, shrug. Mohammad Ishfaq got into our car in Raebareli to show us the way to the BSP office. He spent the first five minutes questioning us about what we had seen in other parts of the state. Then satisfied that we were not pushing any political button, he said that no one was bothered about these clerics, “they have been bought you know, they have taken a lot of money.”

That incidentally is the response of the majority Muslim voters to the clerics for two reasons. One, they do not want the maulanas to interfere in their political choices; and two, these clerics have discredited themselves over the decades by queueing up to take money for the political favour. For a long time they were cultivated by the Congress party, and could be seen rushing around from place to place in election vehicles to promote the candidate whose money they had sworn allegiance to.

What is visible, and almost certain, from Muzaffarnagar to Ayodhya to Malihabad to Amethi to Varanasi to Allahabad to Lucknow, the Muslims have kept BSP for tactical voting, and have virtually consolidated behind the SP-Congress alliance. More so behind Akhilesh Yadav and the Samajwadi party per se. The decision flashed across the state through the invisible grapevine of voters, was taken the day Akhilesh Yadav took over the party, and was given the cycle symbol by the Election Commission. Influential members of the community, as well as political leaders who did not want to be quoted at this stage, confirmed this in the different belts we visited.

For instance in the Domariaganj Assembly seat in east UP, the Muslim vote might be divided between the SP and the BSP because a popular leader who has contested on almost all tickets, is now contesting on Mayawati’s symbol. Again in Raebareli, fed up with the politics of don Akhilesh Singh whose daughter is contesting on the Congress ticket, Muslims are looking favourably at the emergence of a new BSP candidate, a contractor and from an influential family. His brother who is managing the elections, Shahnawaz Khan told us that while the fight was picking up, the Muslim vote would be divided between the two. And then said, “we are lucky that his seat has not gone to the Samajwadi party, otherwise we would have been in trouble.”

This is the refrain throughout. SP-Congress alliance is the first choice, the BSP where necessary. Interestingly the first party to recognise this has been the BJP, as is indicated by its change of track and a strong effort---led by no less a person than the PM---to communalise the elections into Hindu vs Muslim. This decision was taken after the third phase of the poll, where the elections moved from the west into central and eastern UP constituencies. The Muslim consolidation was felt in important districts like Barabanki even by the non BJP candidates who emerged surprised at the percentage of votes that were cast in unheard of Assembly segments like Kursi.

It was after this third phase, that the BJP top brass stepped up the propaganda. As a UP journalist pointed out, “the BJP has been working on dividing communities along religious lines at the ground level actively since 2013, and the PMs speech was to basically give it a ‘full throat ahead’ message” echoed within a day by the party president. And came out of the realisation that despite the concerted effort, the minority vote was not getting divided as per plan.

In Dewa, the Muslims even in their own lanes were reticent. “You tell us where to vote, let us see what happens” was the initial response in the market places. A little more probing, and two sets of bangles later, the response became, “we are with Akhilesh.” Their vote is not for the Congress, but the alliance with the Congress has made them more secure in a strange sort of way, not necessarily understood by visitors. It is an assurance that the SP, unlike the lone BSP, will not join hands with communal forces after the polls.

The voters in UP are perhaps the most astute of all, and this applies equally to the minorities. The silence for this community is a necessity to prevent propaganda that could lead to polarisation. The Muslims in UP that was most impacted by Partition, stayed back for secular India, and have since 1947 rejected religious fatwas, clerics, and others in making their own independent political choices.

And perhaps the wizened old Muslim lady in Amethi should have the last word. And should win the best award for acting as she put up a performance that left us totally speechless. Who will you vote for? A couple of men nearby were silent. Unable to contain herself she spoke out, and sought to convince us that she would vote for Rani saheba, referring to the BJP candidate. And went into details how the Rani was “ours”, how she had been wronged by her husband, how she was committed to the people. We laughed along, and soon she realised we were not believing a word she was saying and started responding to our chuckles with a smile and then finally burst out, “bhar mein jayen yeh rani”. And was set to launch forth, when her grandchildren rushed up and restrained the grandmother from saying more than she should.

Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi are playing along. They have refrained from seeking out the minorities, addressing them directly, or saying a word that the BJP can use to target the hapless community. They have kept the focus on bhaichara, communal amity, development and the adverse impact of demonetisation. Even when the PM spoke of graveyards, the response from the CM was about the donkeys in Gujarat, and not based in any defence of the minorites. As a young lawyer said, “we are so relieved that they (Alliance) are not keeping us in their sights!”

The Bahujan Samaj party that has consolidated the Dalit vote has been unable to become the first choice for the minorities in these polls, except in select constituencies for practical reasons that inspire tactical voting. The SP propaganda as Akhilesh Yadav himself has been saying at public meetings, “Bua (Mayawati) could well celebrate raksha bandhan with the BJP” has rung home. Albeit quietly.