Mayawati's Strategy to Woo the Muslim Voters of Uttar Pradesh

A defeat in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly election could wreck Mayawati’s career; a victory will forever change India’s politics of the marginalised. pti
04 February, 2017

In the upcoming assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, which begins on 11 February, the state’s four-time chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati has more at stake than she has had in any poll she has contested before. After a loss in the 2012 assembly elections and an underwhelming performance in the 2014 general elections, her party’s electoral fortunes are at their lowest since the early 2000s, when Mayawati served as chief minister and was seen as a strong contender for the post of prime minister. A defeat in the upcoming election could wreck Mayawati’s career; a victory will forever change India’s politics of the marginalised.

For our February 2017 cover story, “The Mission,” Neha Dixit, reported on Mayawati’s battle for Uttar Pradesh, which she began planning soon after the 2014 election. The cornerstone of the politician’s current strategy, Dixit writes, has been to woo Muslim voters. In the following extract from the story, Dixit reports on the BSP’s strategies for encouraging Muslim voters to back the party, instead of the ruling Samajwadi Party—otherwise seen as the natural choice for the Muslim electorate in UP.

To the BJP, the prospect of a voting bloc of Dalits and Muslims—two groups that are naturally disinclined towards supporting the party—is deeply worrying. As per the 2011 census, Dalits constitute 20.7 percent of the population of Uttar Pradesh and and Muslims 18.5 percent. Together, they make up 39.1 percent of the population—a proportion that, if translated into vote share, is usually enough to ensure a comfortable electoral majority.

To counter this prospect, BJP workers, with the help of RSS cadre, began to hold small meetings in Dalit bastis across the state. Among the messages that the party sought to spread at these meetings was that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim, and that, therefore, Dalits should vote for the BJP, and not the BSP, which was wooing Muslims.

The BSP responded swiftly. “To dispel the myth, the BSP cadre from booth committees mobilised in turn to hold closed-door meetings,” a BSP worker based in Lucknow told me. At these meetings, BSP workers explained to Dalits that the BJP’s claim was untrue, and pointed out that Ambedkar had been elected to the constituent assembly for the first time, in 1946, with the support of a Dalit leader of the Muslim League, Jogendra Nath Mondal. “If the Muslims had not helped Ambedkar, we would have neither got reservation nor dignity in the Indian constitution,” he said.

At its events, the BSP emphasised that the Muslim community has generally enjoyed security under Mayawati’s rule. The Muslim party coordinator cited a famous example from 1995, when the party shared power with the BJP. During this time, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad attempted to whip up communal fervour around the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura, said to be situated at the birthplace of Krishna, adjacent to which was a mosque that the organisation wanted demolished. Mayawati received well-deserved praise for ensuring that the situation did not boil over. “Even when the Liberhan Commission report on Ramjanmabhoomi dispute came out in the last regime, there were no incidents of violence,” the coordinator said. Under Akhilesh Yadav’s rule, too, Uttar Pradesh saw violence, in Muzaffarnagar, which left, according to the official count, 60 people dead and more than one lakh displaced—most of them Muslims.

After the BJP’s 2014 win, western Uttar Pradesh saw the rise of pro-Hindutva groups such as the Narendra Modi Sena, the Janeu Kranti Sena and the Hindu Bahu Beti Bachao Sangarsh Samiti, which worked at sustaining religious polarisation with the help of the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and local RSS units. This created a deep sense of insecurity in the community, which is thought to form a core voter base for the Samajwadi Party.

Among the biggest challenges the BSP faces in winning Muslims over is one of perception: it has formed an alliance with the BJP twice in the past—once in 1994, and then in 2002—leaving many Muslims permanently suspicious of it. To counter the negative impression created by this assocation, the party, on 14 October, released an eight-page booklet titled, “Muslim samaj ka sachcha hitaishi kaun, faisla aap karein” (Who is the real well-wisher of the Muslim community, you decide) and distributed it in Muslim-dominated areas. It listed 13 points pertaining to its association with the BJP. “We did not compromise with the ideology, principles and did not implement BJP and RSS agenda,” the booklet stated. “No new tradition could be started in Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi.”

The booklet accused the current Samajwadi Party government of supporting the BJP in an underhanded manner. “BJP always became stronger when there is SP government in UP,” it said. “In 2009, BSP was in power in UP and BJP could win only 9 seats”—in fact, the party won ten. “In 2014 when SP was in power, BJP won 73 seats”—in fact the party won 71. These claims are in line with rumours in Samajwadi Party circles that the central government has assured Mulayam Singh Yadav that it will back him to become country’s next president, succeeding Pranab Mukherjee, who completes his tenure this year.

The BSP has been adding Muslim leaders to its ranks. The party has enlisted the support of over half a dozen influential maulanas from top Muslim seminaries, including Imran Hasan Siddiqui, the president of the Al Imam Welfare Association, Maulana Faryad Hussain, the president of the Bareilly-based Sunni Ulama Council, and Maulana Salman Nadwi, the dean of information and preaching at the Lucknow-based Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwatul Ulama. In recent months, the party won over four prominent Muslim MLAs—three from the Congress, one from the SP. One of these leaders told me, “If we have to save our lives, community and identity, this is the only option left in UP.” A number of Muslim leaders, such as Mohammad Islam, who were associated with BAMCEF in the 1980s, have also been roped in for campaigning and contesting in the upcoming election.

The BSP campaign has drawn significant support from young, educated Muslims, including professors from reputed centres of Muslim scholarship such as Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia and Nadwa University, and members of groups such as the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys’ Association. These supporters participated in the Bahujan Quami Ekta Mushayras—programmes held across the state featuring recitals of Urdu verses, spearheaded by Naseemuddin Siddiqui’s son, Afzal.

Another challenge the BSP faces in winning Muslim votes is that it has never described itself as “secular”—the label used by parties such as the Congress and the SP to appeal to Muslim voters. Kanshi Ram famously said, “We are neither secularists not leftists, we are opportunists.” A founding member of BAMCEF told me, “He said caste was always a bigger problem and to fix that the BSP needs allies.” He added that the BSP’s connection with Muslims was initially strained because sections of the community were prejudiced against Dalits. “Elite, upper-caste Muslims, who were once the ruling class, initially found it below their dignity to ally with a Dalit party,” the leader said.

The BSP, too, has overlooked oppressed sections of Muslim society. One Pasmanda Muslim leader said that he felt the BSP’s focus on upper-caste Muslims to the exclusion of groups such as the Pasmanda Muslims, could prove to be a flaw in its strategy. “Muslims also have distinct caste hierarchies,” he said. “The Pasmanda politics has not been taken note of in BSP’s strategy.”

Further, several Muslim leaders told me that Mayawati would have to overcome the patriarchal mindset of many in the community. One former Muslim politician said, “Muslim patriarchy is not behind other patriarchies. It is a fact well known that the Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the largest Islamic schools of thought in India, situated in Saharanpur, was opposed to British rule and participated in the 1857 mutiny because they did not accept a woman—the Queen—as their ruler. The Muslim community’s opposition to Mayawati stems from this patriarchy.” This bias limits her ability to connect with voters, he pointed out. “As a woman, she can neither roam around with a skull cap, unlike Mulayam, to pretend to be a well-wisher of the community, nor can she enter most places of Islamic worship.”

At the same time, according to the former politician, Mayawati has also become unapproachable. He said that he knew several well-respected Muslim poets who wanted to support the BSP, but didn’t know how to reach Mayawati. “She is impenetrable and that is what she needs to work on if she wants to win these elections,” he said.

One Muslim BSP leader argued that the party has failed to put forward strong Muslim leaders. “Mayawati has been holding press meetings every day to say that voting for the SP this elections will only benefit BJP,” he said. “But these straightforward explanations do not stir up the Muslim community.” He believed that the appeals to the community needed to be more emotional. “They need to get more Muslim leaders with good oratory,” he said. “Look at Azam Khan”—of the Samajwadi Party—“who has done nothing for the Muslim community in the state, but he survives only on the basis of his emotional speeches.” Some popular Muslim leaders, such as Masood Ahmed and Ilyas Azmi, have parted ways with the party over the years, while some current leaders, such as Munqad Ali, have not been given campaigning duties yet.

Ahead of the 2017 election, many analysts have suggested that an alliance between the BSP and the Congress could prove victorious. Though some discussions were held towards this end, they fell through before making any substantial progress. According to one Congress MLA, Mayawati only offered the party the chance to contest 20 seats, far fewer than it wanted. The BSP strategist told me that after the 2016 West Bengal state assembly election, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) performed poorly after allying with the Congress, Mayawati was not convinced that the Congress vote would transfer to the BSP. The Congress went on to ally with the Samajwadi Party, after being assured of contesting more than 100 seats.

Even Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, who has had some success in stitching together an alliance of Dalit and Muslim voters in Telangana and Maharashtra under his party banner, was turned away when he approached the BSP to form an alliance. “We would have agreed for an alliance even if she was giving us one seat,” one senior AIMIM leader told me. According to a BSP coordinator, Mayawati felt that she would put off her Brahmin support base if she agreed to such a partnership, because Owaisi is seen as a radical Islamist leader.

These fine vote-bank calculations apart, Mayawati is also known to have a general distaste for fighting elections as part of coalitions. This is in part because her first three stints as chief minister  were cut short by differences with her allies—the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. “Kanshi Ram was always in favour of coalitions, Mayawati never,” the Muslim BSP leader said. The Delhi professor close to Mayawati recounted that she once told him, “Kanshi Ram said that he wants to show the political parties that the bus can run, so he took on coalition partners as co-travellers. But now that the bus is continuously running, we don’t need more passengers but our people who have faith in us.”

Some BSP ideologues believe that the party’s success or failure at building a Dalit-Muslim alliance will have repercussions far beyond the upcoming election. “It is a final test to see whether this kind of alliance is possible in India or not,” the senior professor said. “The Dalits will vote for this alliance. The question is whether Muslims would or not.” If Muslims reject the idea, he argued, “Dalit voters could see it as a sign that their political fortunes don’t lie with the BSP.” This “would mean that polarisation on the basis of religion is here to stay. The failure of this alliance would give a new lease of life to the BJP’s project of Hinduisation of Dalits.”

Correction: the print version of this story mistakenly described Mulayam Singh Yadav as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh during the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The chief minister at the time was Kalyan Singh. The Caravan regrets the error.

This is an extract from “The Mission,” the cover story for the February 2017 issue of The Caravan. The story is currently available to subscribers, and will be published in full on the website later this month.