Patna, Feb. 18: The Muslims of Bihar will have a major say in who gets to rule for the next five years. But no one quite knows how they will vote.
There are clear signs of change but whether it is a trickle or a flood of votes is the question of questions. The movement of voters away from the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal is not so easy to assess as might seem at first sight.
There is an upwelling of anger among politically articulate sections, often let loose from loyalty to Laloo Prasad Yadav by the sharp decline in the fortunes of Hindutva in recent months.
More ominous are the issues raised by activists of groups like the Pasamda (lower class) Muslim front that works among the vast under-class of self-employed and labourers.
Ali Anwar, a former journalist who heads the forum, which has taken up a host of economic and social issues, is convinced of a turn in the tide. 'The same set of demands submitted to the chief minister in September 1999 remains unfulfilled despite assurances,' he claims.
A lawyer, Mushtaq Muhammad, echoes such sentiments. He is upset that 'in 15 years, there has been no new scheme for businesses'.
Some of the windfall will go to parties that are critical of both saffron politics and Laloo Prasad-Rabri raj. Ram Vilas Paswan is the most prominent face in this crowd but not the only one. In every speech, he assures that the lower strata of Muslims will benefit directly from targeted reservation in the same way as former untouchables among the Sikhs and Buddhists do.
The return of goodwill among the Muslims cutting across classes for Sonia Gandhi and the Congress is genuine but its electoral impact may be uneven.
Laloo Prasad still has a card, which he has been playing to the hilt. It may yield diminishing returns but these are not to be discounted.
His party workers have been refuting Paswan's allegations of Laloo Prasad going soft on the Bhagalpur rioters. Shivanand Tiwari points out that over a hundred rioters were convicted and the report tabled in the Bihar Assembly as far back as June 1995.
More ominous for Paswan and other claimants for minority affections is a poster widely distributed by sympathisers of the ruling party. Since it has no party logo or symbol, it cannot be linked to Laloo Prasad's party.
The poster shows Paswan, Uma Bharti and Rajnath Singh wearing one huge garland. The election rally photo has a two-line logo in Urdu. It reads: 'Inhe pehchaneyee, ye andar ki baat hai.' Translated, it means: 'Recognise them, this is news from the inside.'
In such subtle and other more direct ways, Laloo Prasad has been reminding minority voters of one simple truth. He is the man who arrested L.K. Advani in 1990, when no other chief minister in the country was willing to act. Further, he had the Godhra report released, raising doubts whether there was an attack at all on the train in Godhra.
Studies of the last several polls by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies show that around seven out of 10 Muslims voted for Laloo Prasad's party.
There has never been a monolith of a votebank. Even this time, while the Pasamda Muslim front is anti-Laloo Prasad, the Ahl-i-Hadis with its own wide network among aalims, or men of the scripture, has come out with public advertisements praising Laloo Prasad as defender of peace.
The RJD's strong attack on Paswan as a leader of criminal candidates is aimed as much at Muslims as at poor and lower-caste voters. This, sometimes, does evoke positive response. 'Paswan sahib says the right things,' says a college student, Mohammed Jahangir, 'but there's a gap between what he says and does.'
'Ninety per cent of the non-intellectual vote is intact,' boasts Ali Raza Ansari, a district-level office-bearer in Muzaffarpur.
A potential threat could still be from the Janata Dal (United). The BJP's intervention projecting Nitish Kumar as the NDA candidate for chief minister was aimed at pacifying minority fears of a Hindutva chief minister. But the problem for Nitish is the hard-hitting attack that he was the railway minister who did not investigate Godhra.
There is one positive change, which cannot but be welcome. Fifteen long years ago, Dalits and backwards broke free of the upper-caste stranglehold and began to vote as they liked. Muslims had little option but to rally behind the most stable anti-Hindutva force, especially after Advani's arrest in September 1990.
In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, minority voters have long been divided, if unevenly, between the Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Mayavati camps. A similar situation may well be developing across much of Bihar.
Much of the evidence of a shift is from an articulate section. There is little doubt of disaffection among weavers, tailors and madarsa teachers, but the impact on voting behaviour is not clear. There is intense rivalry here between the RJD and Paswan's party, with each claiming to represent aspirations of the mass of poor Muslims.
At no stage did Laloo Prasad bag all or nearly all Muslim votes. The minority votebank is a myth. Only one in three Muslims preferred other parties. If that ratio goes up and sharply, it would spell trouble for the RJD. If it retains its support base, Laloo Prasad will still be able to claim in his inimitable style that he is the 'biggest maulana of them all'.