In the first general elections after Indira Gandhi was assassinated the Congress party, under Rajiv Gandhi, came to power with a record 400 plus seats in the Lok Sabha. And while the Congress patted itself on the back, a RSS blueprint at the time had made it clear that this victory was only because the cadres of this organisation had been directed to support Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party at the time. This was evident on the ground in Uttar Pradesh ---recorded by this writer in The Telegraph at the time---with the results sending out a strong message that really was a major, and very significant political signal: that the consolidation of Hindu votes could completely negate the influence of the minority votes, and that in circumstances it was very possible for this majoritarian consolidation to take place in India.

The Congress never really recovered from this overwhelming victory, with its secularism replaced with a desire and an ambition to repeat this feat over and over again. This was apparent in first the play with the Muslim fanatics over the Shah Bano issue, and then the quick reversal finding expression in the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid for the first time since 1947 through a court injunction. This was followed by permission to the shilanyas, Rajiv Gandhi’s call for ram rajya and so on and so forth.

Today it is very clear that the BJP/RSS has taken the agenda to a point where the entire campaign is dominated by Muslim, Muslim, Muslim----with the usual concoction of Pakistan, Kashmir, Muslim, traitor, anti-national taken to new heights. Lynchings, threats, abuse, vicious assaults have become part of the systematic hate campaign against the Muslims.

In UP the campaign has been intense, to put it mildly. As one stopped for tea at a midway halt from Delhi to Moradabad, a couple of BJP workers with zari trimmed BJP scarves walked in. One was a brother of the candidate and asked how the campaign was going confided, “it is going well. These Muslims need to be dealt with. Everyone is convinced of that. We are winning, it will be PM Modi’s jai.” Vitriol poured out of the man, with the Muslim being the issue and not jobs and development.

This is the story across UP, particularly in constituencies ---most of them really--- where the Muslims are in large numbers. The campaign is insidious at places, open at others, as workers roam around the villages and visit the homes to convince voters to isolate the minorities. “They are traitors, you want a Hindu rashtra to take your lives forward, they are coming in the way” is the substance of the campaign that has further consolidated, and yet terrified, the Muslims in the state.

It is, thus, a vote that has developed huge stakes in security and democracy. It has faced the brutality of communal hatred over these past five years as never before. The campaign has been constant, the attacks vicious with even the police being used for the infamous ‘encounters’ that has entire villages of the marginalised fearful for their lives.

There is thus a determination that seems to have gripped this vote bank, with a consolidation behind the gathbandhan that actually defies the concept of tactical voting. After the SP-BSP came together, for the Muslims tactical voting is overwhelmingly in support of the gathbandhan candidates regardless of religion and caste. Even in Moradabad where rock star candidate Imran Pratapgarhi is being fielded by the Congress party, the muslims in the rural areas were clear that they were not going to budge from the gathbandhan. They admitted that the city Muslim vote was a little confused, as it indeed was within the town precincts with Imran Qureshi, a Congress supporter maintaining, “that Imran sahab is popular and people are looking at him.

But SP supporters just a little distance away were clear that eventually the dust created by the Congress would settle, and the 24 hours before polling would see a Muslim consolidation behind the gathbandhan.

BSP Lok Sabha candidate from neighbouring Amroha, agreed entirely laughing away a question about the Congress cutting into the gathbandhan’s vote with, “ no no this will not happen, its just a joke, the muslim have decided to vote for the gathbandhan all across.” This view was shared by Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh, the coalition candidate from Muzaffarnagar who told The Citizen that the “muslims have made up their minds, they are voting for us. They know that by voting for the Congress they will not make their candidates win as they have no other vote with them.”

Over the years, as insidious communalism started spreading its tentacles across UP with the demolition of the Babri Masjid marking this turning point, the Muslims have started what is referred to as ‘tactical voting’, casting the vote for the winning ‘secular’ candidate. This could be from different political parties ---Samajwadi, BSP, Congress--- in the UP context, any candidate who was projected as winning with a substantial section of the votebank. The coalition this time, has made the task infinitely easier for the Muslims who have been spared the confusion, except in some seats like Moradabad, Saharanpur, Bijnore in the first phases of the parliamentary elections where the Congress has seemingly strong candidates as well.

However, as the gathbandhan has its own vote ---Dalits, Backwards---the minorities have found it largely easy to support it by bringing the full weight of its substantial percentage in some of the constituencies to bear upon the election. All spoken to across spoke not of joblessness or agrarian distress, but of sheer survival that has come to dominate the minority discourse. Even though Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have not spoken out on this issue as some might have liked, for the Muslims the alternative in itself is enough.

There is also a realisation that it is important not to contribute to polarisation. And thus to vote, with silence without giving much away. So once amongst the most vocal vote bank in UP, the Muslims have become almost as silent as the Dalits used to be. In fact over the years, given the political mobilisation of the community, the Dalits including the Jatavs are more willing to discuss politics than ever before. Instead of a ‘we don’t know’ shrug as they walk away from you and the question, the Jatavs now stop and actually discuss the political climate of the day. And if some remain quiet, there are many who make it clear they will be voting for the gathbandhan this time. Some admit that they did not last time, “the youth did not as they believed Modiji, but for us it is Behenji…”

Significantly, Muslims in UP have always been visibly reluctant to vote for political parties who have little, except them, on their agenda. For instance the Jamaat e Islami, in one form or the other, has often fielded candidates in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections and not been able to get even one elected. Asked about this a Muslim scholar in Lucknow was categorical, “our votes have always gone for the secular parties, for us votes are political not religious.” Despite efforts by sections of the Wahabis to merge the two concerns into the ballot, the UP Muslims have resisted this stoutly since independence. Ashfaq, a tailor in Lucknow’s Hazratganj had no qualms in saying, “religion is what defines me as a Muslim, the vote is for my life as an Indian.”

This is the pragmatism that is visible throughout the state, where the political misuse of religion by one party might drive the voters into the embrace of another. The Muslim voters are no different, seeking security and development from those in the fray. In the process from being Congress voters ---stoutly so after Partition---they have moved to the Janata Party, the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party in different phases, in different constituencies depending on the candidate. This time around the BJP has played such havoc with the community, that the community along with other voters who are not enamoured of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has welcomed the gathbandhan and the alternative it offers with open arms.

As Arifa in Muzaffarnagar says, “we will vote for the party that will ensure our safety and treat us as equals.” The youth is aspirational, regardless of religion and caste, and the young Muslims are no different. For them security is important, more so now than before, but so are jobs and forward movement. Shoaib in Varanasi is clear, “our vote is not for Muslim leaders or political parties, we do not care about all this, our vote is for secular political parties who believe in an equal India.”