Javed Ahmed, former pradhan (headman) of Roodapur village in Phulpur that was for decades was represented by Jawaharlal Nehru, sounds worried about who Muslims could, and should, vote for.
Ahmed’s choices are three: the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. The BJP doesn’t figure on his radar.
Sitting MP Kapil Munni Kawariya, of the BSP, is a Brahmin. The Samajwadi’s Dharamraj Patel is a backward caste Kurmi, while the Congress has fielded former cricketer Mohammad Kaif.
Ahmed dismisses Kaif out of hand, thereby debunking the RSS-BJP’s persistent propaganda to project Muslims as “communal” with a one-liner that says “pehle bhai, phir baaki (first a Muslim, then the others)”.
Ahmed said: Some Hindu and Muslim youths are voting Kaif because of the glamour that cricket carries. Political voters like me have other more serious considerations.”
However, Ahmed’s strategy to vote a candidate tactically in order to defeat the BJP — a text-book approach Muslims adopted in elections that followed the BJP’s rise — could falter this time.
“Logically, we should have gone with the BSP or the Samajwadi because both have strong core votes. That base seems to have cracked because the Yadavs with the Samajwadi are splitting and going to the BJP in some numbers,” Ahmed said.
The BSP’s Kawariya — an Allahabad High Court lawyer whose victory in 2009 was made up of a pyramid of Dalit, Brahmin and floating votes drawn across castes and Muslim electors — looks shaky this time.
Ahmed’s reading is that although Kawariya’s Dalit backers are largely intact, the Brahmins and the “loose” votes that “sailed with the wind” look like going to the BJP. The party has put up Keshav Prasad Maurya, a backward caste candidate.
Om Prakash Mishra, a cheerleader of Kawariya who met Ahmed as we spoke, tried to convince the former pradhan that the Brahmins were still with the BSP because they were upset that BJP veteran Kesri Nath Tripathi, a fellow Brahmin, was passed over for a backward caste nominee.
Ahmed didn’t look convinced. “In the end, the Brahmins will gravitate towards the BJP because they want to see (Narendra) Modi as PM,” he said. R.S. Bharatiya, a former Samajwadi legislator based in Allahabad, didn’t disagree with the proposition.
Zafaryab Jilani, the Lucknow-based convenor of the Babri Masjid Action Committee and additional advocate-general of the Uttar Pradesh government, conceded that unlike recent elections where Muslims generally rallied around the party that looked “unbeatable” against the BJP, the dilemma this time was “real”.
“My information is that in the constituencies that have polled so far, there was a 25 to 30 per cent division in minority votes. This might have given the BJP an edge because there was a proportional consolidation of Hindu votes,” Jilani said.
He cited examples. In Aligarh, which polled in the first phase, Jilani said Muslims showed their preference for the Samajwadi nominee “loudly and clearly”. “When word was out that their votes were rapidly going in his (the Samajwadi candidate’s) favour, Hindu-minded elements of the Congress spread the word that Hindu votes must go to the BJP,” Jilani claimed.
Based on the Aligarh experience, Muslims decided they should be “discreet” about their choice. But, according to Jilani, “discretion” didn’t help much. He pointed to Lucknow where initially word was out among Muslims that the Congress’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi was best poised to take on the BJP’s Rajnath Singh because she had a chunk of the Brahmin votes.
The Samajwadi too put up a Brahmin, state minister Abhishek Mishra. He began as a latecomer but stepped on the plate to work on the Brahmins and the Muslims. “The result is that the Muslim votes got divided because by then, there was no effective voice to communicate that the votes should go one way,” said Jilani.
But it isn’t as though the Muslims were up against imponderables everywhere.
In Mathura, where the BJP's Hema Malini was the apparent front-runner, Muslim leaders like Shahid Qureishi said they had collectively decided that rather than root for Jayant Chowdhury, the sitting MP and son of the Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh, they should go for the BSP’s Yogesh Chaturvedi.
“It’s simple arithmetic. The BSP has a 1.5 to 2 lakh Dalit-Jatav votes, Muslims add up to another lakh-and-a-half and there are 75,000 other votes of small non-Jatav Dalit sub-castes and the most backward castes. Jayant’s core Jat base, on the other hand, was badly dented by the BJP because of the Hindutva factor and because Hema husband (Dharmendra) is a Jat,” Qureishi said.
In Sitapur, the BSP’s sitting MP, Qaiser Jahan, seemed comfortably placed against her closest opponent from the BJP. That is because she managed to regroup the “subalterns” from the Hindus and the Muslims, the Dalits, the most backward castes and the Pasmanda Muslims who had evolved an identity distinct from that of the “elite” Sheikh, Syed and Pathans.
By contrast, the Samajwadi’s Bharat Tripathi was a straggler because the Brahmins were plumping for the BJP’s Rajesh Verma despite him being a backward caste Kurmi.
“The Brahmins want to be close to power,” said Akhilesh Pandey, a farmer. His estimate is that “10 per cent” of the Samajwadi Yadavs have tilted towards the BJP.
However, underlying the polemics that influenced community choices was a realisation that the “secular” entities had taken Muslims for a ride.
Kanpur community activist Ghufran Ahmed “Chand” articulated this view forcefully, terming “this election a milestone for Muslims”.
“I think we are becoming more politically mature. The Congress, Samajwadi and the BSP are showing Modi’s bhoot (ghost) to us. We will fight this bhoot. But, thank you, we don’t need the help of these parties because the Sachar report has proved that from Independence till today, Muslims are worse off than the Dalits.”
Ghufran said “the Congress takes our votes and does nothing”. “If these parties are truly secular and want to demolish Modi, why did they not come together? Why are they fighting separately and pushing the burden of being secular onto the shoulders of Muslims?”
Phulpur voted on May 7; Kanpur, Aligarh, Mathura, Lucknow and Sitapur voted in April