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Imam seeks votes for Congress, Trinamul
- Cleric says communalism bigger threat than corruption, waves Mamata vow to keep off NDA

New Delhi, April 4: The Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, today asked Muslims to vote for the Trinamul Congress in Bengal and the Congress in the rest of the country.

The support to the Congress was attributed to the threat to secularism posed by “communal forces”, Trinamul was chosen because of Mamata Banerjee’s commitment that she would not join the BJP-led NDA under any circumstances. The imam declared support for Lalu Prasad’s RJD in Bihar.

The imam attacked the Samajwadi Party for inaction on the Muzzaffarnagar riots and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s failure in deliver on promises made to Muslims. He rejected Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) because of a perception that it could drift to any group for its benefit.

The imam did not express any such doubt about Mamata Banerjee who, too, had been with the NDA in the past.

It is not clear how much influence the imam enjoys across the community but the public call coincides with a scramble for the minority vote in this election dominated by Narendra Modi’s aggressive politics. There have been efforts by different political parties to extract similar commitment of support from other Muslim clerics.

Addressing a media conference after the Friday prayers today, the imam appealed to Muslims to support the Congress to “strengthen secularism”, contending that communalism was a “bigger threat” to the nation than corruption. He repeatedly stated that his effort was to prevent a division of “secular votes”.

The imam had met Sonia Gandhi a couple of days ago, triggering a controversy as the BJP complained to the Election Commission and sought action against the Congress president for seeking votes in the name of religion.

Bukhari said that although the Muslim community has grievances against the Congress, the decision to support the party was taken as the “country cannot be allowed to go to the communal forces”.

Asked about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Bukhari said Arvind Kejriwal never considered communalism as an important issue. “Two years ago, when he sat on dharna, then also he spoke only about corruption. Corruption will not end in the world in the next 100 years but communalism can break the country in a day,” he said.

Hoping that Mamata Banerjee would play a crucial role in government formation at the Centre, Bukhari said: “I am giving my opinion as a voter. I am free to give my opinion as no rules stop me from doing so. This is for people to decide whether they accept my appeal or not. In the last 65 years, no party has worked for the welfare of Muslims. If we had our own party, we would not have been in such a bad situation. Other communities like Yadavs have their own parties.”

The Congress received the imam’s declaration without any show of excitement or glee, contending that every individual was free to make their choices in a democracy.

“The Congress party’s stand on minorities remains what it was before the meeting (with the Shahi Imam). Minorities require to be part of the democratic process.... They should also share the fruits of development. The Sachar committee and the minority affairs ministry were set up with that in mind,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.

“Unlike Narendra Modi and the BJP, the Congress never appeals to people to vote on religious lines,” he added.

The BJP reacted sharply. “We condemn Imam Bukhari’s statement. This government is desperate. They know they are going to lose very, very heavily. Therefore, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi try to communalise the whole election. They have failed. So, Shahi Imam Bukhari has come to the front. The Election Commission must take note of this rank communal appeal,” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

The BJP did not mention that the VHP mobilises support for the party among religious leaders, and yoga practitioner Ramdev and others have been actively campaigning for them.