Stepping up its campaign to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the Samajwadi Party (SP) has been engaged in several outreach programmes to woo different communities.
What has however been evident so far is that the SP has not been making similar moves to reach out to Muslim voters in the state.
In the SP’s assessment, this could be attributed to the “TINA (there is no alternative) factor”. The reason why the Akhilesh Yadav-led party is not seen making efforts for outreach to the Muslim community, according to several SP leaders, is that the party remains confident that Muslim voters do not realistically have any choice other than backing the SP “if they want to oust the BJP from power in Uttar Pradesh”.
While the SP has formed alliances with five smaller parties for the UP polls, focusing on their support bases among non-Yadav OBC communities, it has not joined hands with any party which has a supposed base among Muslims in the state. It was made clear some time ago when Akhilesh refused to ally with Assaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. The key reason behind it, the SP leaders maintain, is that the party did not want to polarise the majority Hindu votes in favour of the BJP.
The Muslim community constitutes about 20 per cent of UP’s population, but given the prevailing communal situation, no Opposition party is overtly talking about them, fearing backlash from the majority community in the state.
A senior SP leader said that it is part of the party’s strategy not to talk about Muslim issues openly ahead of the elections as it fears communal polarisation among Hindu voters in favour of the BJP. “The party’s internal surveys have showed that it will get support from Muslim community which wants to overthrow the BJP from the state. The SP fears that if it becomes too vocal about Muslim issues, it will lead to polarisation among the Hindu community in UP,” said the leader.
The SP leader said the party organised training camps for its rank and file across UP last year in which local leaders were made to understand that the public discourse on Muslim issues needs to be kept in check if the party wants to form its government in the state.
“Everyone knows that the SP will be better for Muslims than the BJP, and that is why the Muslim leadership within the party has also agreed with the strategy formed by the party top leadership. During the training camps held last year, the local leadership was made to understand that it must stay quiet on Muslim if it wants to form government in the state,” the leader said.
In the last couple of years, Akhilesh has also refrained from raising Muslim issues in the state. While it was the SP that had helped the community following the CAA-NRC protests in 2019, in which 19 people had died in violence, by announcing a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the families of the deceased, the party has since preferred to remain quiet on various issues related to the community.
So, while the SP has been targeting the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government over various issues related to Brahmins, backward communities and Dalits, it has chosen to keep mum on issues like the state’s anti-conversion law and the renewed demands for a temple at the disputed site in Mathura. Akhilesh has also not joined issue with senior BJP leaders when they have made critical remarks against the Muslim community during their campaign in recent days.
On the other hand, the SP chief has not shied away from showing off his Hindu credentials. He has frequently visited temples during his visits to various districts in the last few months.
Earlier this month, Akhilesh offered prayers at the temple of Lord Parshuram built by one of his party’s Brahmin leaders in Gosaiganj area in Lucknow. Similarly, he also visited a Hanuman Temple in December during his visit to Rae Bareilly district.
Asked if this will lead to the party losing support from the Muslim community, SP national spokesperson Abdul Hafeez Gandhi said, “The Samajwadi Party believes in inclusive politics. We are conscious of the Muslim aspirations and will include these in our poll manifesto. While other parties are making big promises we have delivered on our promises whenever we have formed government. In the past, we have given adequate representation to Muslims in the SP government from 2012-17. This time also we will field Muslim candidates to ensure their adequate representation. Our tallest Muslim leader Azam Khan is in jail due to misuse of power by present government led by Yogi Adityanath.“
The SP spokesperson also said, “Other SP Muslim leaders are campaigning and reaching out to the voters. They are working on the ground for several months and are getting a very good response. Another aspect is that the SP does not want voters to be polarised on religion and caste and forget about the real issues which are inflation, unemployment, police atrocities, law and order and women safety.”
Another SP leader said that in order to get rid of the perception that the party only works for Yadavs and Muslims, it has also pushed several Yadav leaders along with Muslim leaders to the background.
“The party wants to shed the image that it is a pro-Muslim and pro-Yadav party and does not work for other communities,” the leader said.
A source in the SP said that about 50 Muslim candidates will be fielded by the party for the upcoming polls in seats where the Muslim community has a sizeable population. “These seats will be in Moradabad, Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Mau, Rampur, Bahraich, Balrampur and western UP districts like Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and Meerut, where Muslims have a sizeable population,” said the source.
In the 2017 UP Assembly polls, the SP had fielded 57 Muslim candidates, when it had allied with the Congress and contested 311 seats. Of these 57 candidates, 17 had been elected to the state Assembly. In the 2012 Assembly elections, the SP had fielded 78 Muslim candidates, of whom 43 had been elected.
In the 2017 polls, altogether 24 Muslim candidates were elected to the 403-member UP Assembly, when the BJP had won the elections with a landslide.
In 2012, the Muslim MLAs’ figure was higher with 69 Muslim nominees getting elected to the UP Assembly, when the SP had formed government. This was the highest number of Muslim MLAs being elected to the UP Assembly since Independence.
With the BSP remaining silent on Muslim issues and the Congress focusing its campaign on women voters, the SP appears to be virtually certain of garnering the Muslim community’s votes in the upcoming UP polls.
“We expect to get around 80-90 per cent of the Muslim votes this time. That is also because Muslims have realised that voting for any other party will help the BJP,” said a senior SP leader from Eastern UP.
There seems to be a view in the Muslim community that in 2017 the BJP did well and secured more than 300 seats because Muslim votes had got divided among several parties. The BSP had fielded 99 Muslim candidates in the state, the highest by any party. But only five of those candidates had been elected and in several constituencies Muslim votes were divided because of the presence of multiple Muslim candidates in the fray.
With Azam Khan continuing to languish in jail, a new Muslim leader of his stature has not emerged from the SP ranks. While many in the SP believe the party has “abandoned” Khan, several leaders believe that the only choice the SP now has is to try to form its government without making it a poll issue and then “correct the wrongs perpetrated by the BJP government against Khan and his family”. “If we make too much noise about it right now, we will do exactly what the BJP wants, and will polarise the Hindus, helping the BJP,” said a senior leader from the Muslim community.
SP leaders also feel that the media overplays the news of Akhilesh attending Muslim programmes. The party’s Moradabad MP S T Hasan said, “There was one image of Akhileshji at an Iftar where his head was covered. That image crops up every time, whereas Modiji changes his attire every time he goes somewhere — for instance, when he goes to attend a Sikh congregation, he wears a pagdi. But that is not seen by the media. But Akhileshji’s one image where he is wearing a skullcap is circulated every time the BJP talks of the SP being a pro-Muslim party.”
He also said, “Muslims in UP have been harassed under the BJP dispensation at all levels. They know that Owaisi’s AIMIM, BSP, or Congress can’t free them of this harassment regime but only the SP can do it and hence they will vote for us unitedly. And after we form our government, we will ensure their welfare along with all other communities in UP.”