That’s the poll tone in western UP: you hear it in Hindu-Muslim divide, in Modi’s silence.
The staff club of the Aligarh Muslim University is the hub of tea, smoke and rage against the Samajwadi Party. There is talk, here, of the AMU Teachers’ Association campaigning against Mulayam Singh Yadav in Azamgarh. On April 8, the AMUTA appealed to all “Muslim and secular voters” to vote carefully, to defeat not just the “communal” forces responsible for Gujarat 2002, but also to punish the “pseudo secular” guilty of Muzaffarnagar. In February, the AMUTA had opposed the SP chief’s visit to the campus. The communal rioting the SP government presided over last year has been a turning point in the relationship between the university and the leader it was the first, the story goes, to affectionately call “Maulana Mulayam”.
Step away from the campus’s stately structures and leafy spaces, and this election seems to play out differently, even in Aligarh. Take a walk up the mostly-Muslim Uppar Court market in the old city area, set on an incline and bordered with shops crammed with biscuits, bangles and locks, and every conversation underlines the same impression: There is a draining of Muslim anger against the SP.
Here, the blame for Muzaffarnagar is assigned to the local administration. Or, the accountability question is shrugged away wearily — riots have happened before, and hasn’t the minority community always paid the more terrible price? Travelling through ground zero in Muzaffarnagar, too, you sense the Muslim voter making his peace with the party that has most conspicuously courted pro-minority credentials in UP.
And so what if the rioting that took a toll on both communities led to the large-scale displacement of Muslims to relief camps that, seven months later, are crowded with those who were made victims many times over, first by the riots and then by continuing failures of justice, relief and rehabilitation. For now, they say, the focus must be on defeating the party that Narendra Modi’s candidature and the Muzaffarnagar danga have heaved to frontrunner position. It is another matter that, in many places, the BSP could gain more from this calculation than the SP — because its candidate has the advantage of a fixed and transferable “core” vote and because, in the end, candidates’ strength could matter more than party loyalty.
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But splayed out between the AMU campus and Uppar Court is the incredibly constricted choice before western UP’s Muslim electorate, which votes today: On one end, the educated, middle-class (non-voting) section’s anger against a government that betrayed its fundamental promise to secure the life and liberty of the minority. On the other, in the face of a greater fear, the less privileged voters’ helpless return to the SP. From one end to the other, the subject doesn’t change from security.
At a time when in Delhi and elsewhere, discussions and debates parse the strands of the Modi package that is said to be seducing voters across the country — the failures of the Congress-led UPA, a yearning for change, aspirations for more decisive governance — and when the BJP manifesto is being examined for the number of column inches it assigns to “development” versus “identity”, this election in western UP, home to a Muslim population far above the state average, is a reminder that the Modi mix is not as sanitised or wholesome as it is promoted to be, and that there is more give and take than is made out between “temple” and “economic growth”.
In the campaign for western UP, anxieties stoked by Modi’s prime ministerial candidature and the Muzaffarnagar riots were feeding each other in unchecked ways. Amit Shah’s vicious talk of “izzat (honour)” and “apmaan (insult)” and “badla (revenge)” was echoed in the local BJP candidates’ campaigns that sang exultantly, threateningly, of their leader’s machismo. “Sadak nahin, swabhiman”, declared BJP candidate and riot-accused, Sanjeev Ballian, in Muzaffarnagar, as supporters roared “Har, har, Modi”.
The coarsening was visible on both sides, as much in the speeches of the BSP’s Muzaffarnagar candidate, Qadir Rana, also a riot-accused, and in the Congress’s Saharanpur candidate Imran Masood’s swaggering talk of “lathi (stick)” and “goli (bullet)” before his arrest for hate speech against Modi, as in the fevered whispers of “love jihad” and vile videos featuring meat, bearded men and Modi, circulating anonymously.
In an election as polarised as this one, the apparent tempering of Muslim anger against the SP only signals the emptying of choice for the minority community — except the negative one of defeating the BJP. Stories abounded in Muslim mohallas of a community on edge and a decision on hold. It will be taken just a day before voting, some said, or only after 2 pm on the day, and it will be based on final assessments of candidates’ relative strength vis a vis the BJP.
This is not the way it always is. Reports of tactical voting by the minority community — a euphemism for an anxiety-riddled negative decision intended solely to defeat the BJP — have been grossly exaggerated. They have underestimated the divisions in the “Muslim vote” and the difficulties of organised collective decision-making, quite apart from the fact that they have often been based on miscalculation, with parties like the BSP reaping the anti-BJP vote only to join hands with it after the poll.
This is not the way it was meant to be. The Indian electorate is feted today for becoming more demanding and aspirational, for nudging parties to move on from the language of grievance and resentment, or condescension. Barely two hours down the road from Muzaffarnagar, a more assertive and confident electorate, including minority groups, tried out an untested and unconventional formation in Delhi, gave the AAP a chance. Yet, a vast section of voters in western UP is being forced back into guarded decisions based on fear. It is being compelled to retreat from the middle ground or any political experimentation — there has been little or no mention of the Peace Party in this election, which made a notable splash in 2009.
In a Hindu-Muslim election featuring the riot and Modi, the shared concerns have become background noise — the lurching, pot-holed state highway and road in these parts of UP, or the power supply, more regular these days, but which will, everyone says, go back to its erratic ways once elections are done. Corruption and price rise and the lures of the “Gujarat model” count, but only to set the stage for a bout in which community takes on community, after beating down caste.
Narendra Modi or the BJP couldn’t have done this alone. If Muslim insecurities have been stoked by Modi’s candidature, and if Hindu grievance is spilling over, it is also because the SP government has practised a version of “secularism” that forced both communities to the edge. The aam Hindu feels discriminated against in UP — calls are made, many complain, “from above”, to thana and tehsil, to let off the Muslim accused, or to extend special favours. The aam Muslim complains of entrenched religious bias in the administration that is whimsically countered by acts of political patronage or the grant of symbolic largesse — not by the institution of impartial processes, which is the rightful due of equal citizens.
Yet, Modi must take responsibility for the brutal communal campaign for western UP in his name. To challenge it, to be true to the promise he seems to make in his own speeches that by and large skirt Hindutva themes, he would have to address the Muslim community, speak to it directly. By remaining unseeing, as his lieutenants and footsoldiers actively stoke insecurities and hate, he lets them, and the ghosts of 2002, do the talking.
Should Modi win the mandate, if western UP is any indication, India’s next prime minister will be someone who is feared and rejected by voters that make up its largest minority. Not because he failed to persuade them, but because he chose not to.