In October 2018, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, addressed a gathering of the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys’ Association, an alumni group, in Lucknow. Azad, a Congress man since the start of his career in 1973, compared the present political situation in the country to the post-1857 era “when the British were dividing Hindus and Muslims.” He said that he had himself been a “victim of divisive politics” over the last four years.
Azad recalled that since his days as a Youth Congress leader, he would campaign for other Congress leaders across the country. “Over 95 percent of those who called me for campaigning were Hindu brothers and leaders, while just 5 percent were Muslims,” he said. “But in the past four years, this 95 percent has dipped to 20 percent.”
Azad suggested that his own party leaders had stopped calling him for campaigns because they feared they might lose votes by having a Muslim face. “Aaj darta hai aadmi bulane se … pata nahi iska voters pe asar kya hoga,”—People are scared of calling me … they are not sure what impact it will have on voters.
Six months later, as Priyanka Gandhi, the newly-appointed Congress general secretary, and in-charge for eastern Uttar Pradesh, undertakes rallies across the state including a visit to the Bade Hanuman temple in Prayagraj, several minority leaders within the party have now started echoing Azad’s sentiments. No prominent Muslim leaders have been seen accompanying Gandhi in her road-shows and rallies in the state. This is despite the presence of several prominent Muslim leaders in the Congress—including Salman Khurshid, former external affairs minister who was previously an officer on special duty for Indira Gandhi, Salim Sherwani, a five-time parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun constituency and a close ally of Rajiv Gandhi, Nadeem Javed, chairman of the minority department and a Congress member of the legislative assembly from Jaunpur, and former parliamentarian Rashi Alvi. Raj Babbar, the president of the UP Congress Committee, is the only member of parliament from the state who is seen around the Gandhi family these days.
Several Muslim leaders and workers within the Congress spoke to me about how they feel marginalised within the party. They expressed anxiety that their leadership is being undermined because of their identity. Around a dozen Muslim leaders I spoke to also acknowledged that they had wanted the party to fight the Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh in alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Many of them also told me that the minority department of the Congress party in the state lacked the organisational structure needed to engage with voters at the ground.