Friends Aafaque Ahmed and Dinesh Yadav, both middle-aged, are partners in Saraimeer Medical Hall, a medicine store in Saraimeer, Azamgarh, in Lalganj constituency. Referring to opinion polls and the “Narendra Modi wave”, Aafaque says confidently, “Lehar ulajh gayi hai. BJP ke andar bhi lahar bhatak gayi hai.” Dinesh Yadav concurs and speaks of how much Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party has done, like ensuring more hours of electricity.
The Yadav-Ahmed partnership here is a symbol of the larger political connect Muslims in UP have formed since the late 1990s with large sections of Hindu caste groups and communities, which has been shutting the BJP out since its phenomenal 58 seats in 1998.
This time, the shrill BJP campaign, now blatantly about sharpening the communal faultlines, has filled Muslims with disquiet that their biggest trump card, their vote, may not count.
In the four or five eastern UP seats surrounding Varanasi, a concern that haunts Muslims is not so much the prospect of the BJP appearing a strong contender as the route it has taken to gather votes — pull out the maximum possible “Hindu” votes, with no genuine appeal to the Muslim vote, so that even if “they” vote, they are trumped by the sheer size of those voting as “Hindus”.
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The one time Muslims felt wooed and important was during elections, even in the communally turbulent 1980s and 1990s. They mattered, simply by voting. Said to impact at least one-fifth of the UP seats with a 18.5 per cent share in the population, the Muslim voter was wooed by almost all parties but the BJP.
In the Congress and then the SP and the BSP’s appeal to them, cross-community alliances were being forged. The Congress’s hunt for the Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim combined vote meant Muslims could hitch their interests onto a larger spectrum’s, as they could later during the SP’s hunt for the OBC-plus-Muslim vote.
In the BJP’s loud posturing with the RSS taking centre stage openly, Muslims are concerned not by the thought of not having enough representation, but about not mattering at all.
Sitting in his New Bombay Hair Cutting Salon in Mirzapur, Chand Mohammed Barber, 25, as he calls himself, says he has stopped watching TV as there is too much bluster. “We don’t want a Muslim to contest from here. Just someone who can take everyone along.”
Says Zulfiqar Ahmed, a weaver in Varanasi taking a break as the power trips, “In the past 12 or 13 years there has been a tradition of Hindus and Muslims working together in relative peace. Now, with someone like Modi deciding to come here, what message is he trying to convey to us? It’s not his vikas, but what he did in 2002 that will get him the vote.”
Says Nasir Ahmed, a former Varanasi councillor with the SP, “It’s in the BJP’s interest to make this Hindu versus Muslim. But that has grave consequences on how this closely knit part of India functions.”
Mahboob Hasan, 27, a supplier, emphasises the Muslim vote has been spoilt for choice since the Ram Mandir agitation days. But in recent times, with the choice being projected as split, he is not sure who the main beneficiary will be this time. “The decision will be made one or two days before polling as always, so that the best-placed candidate can be backed.”
Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, the Mufti-e-Banaras and imam of the Gyanvapi mosque, steers clear of expressing a preference for either the Congress’s Ajay Rai or Arvind Kejriwal. “We are just asking all to vote and express themselves. That’s what we can do.”
Another young Muslim speaks of how “in Gujarat, Modi has not bothered about facilities for Muslim areas, or even how well-off Muslims live. Is this the ‘Gujarat model’ he wants to import? To ensure that despite retaining the right to vote, we get isolated and become invisible?”