“Bewakoofi hai (It’s foolishness),” Qutubuddin, a middle-aged man, sitting at a small eye clinic in the Partawal Bazar market, declares on Saturday afternoon, in frustration over the exclusion of the Congress from the SP-BSP-RLD mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party announced Akhilesh Singh as the alliance candidate for Maharajganj Lok Sabha seat, under which Paniara falls, hours to go for the nomination deadline to end.
However, the frustration of Qutubuddin and friends Syed Ali and Nasrullah — who are reluctant to express their voting preference — is not on that count alone. Across constituencies won in 2009 by the Congress, the Muslim community is weighing its choices, holding out until the last minute, in a bid to ensure that their votes count when the numbers are added up for the Lok Sabha. In this calculation, sometimes practical considerations are deciding their vote; at other times, the lingering hope that 2019 won’t be 2014 — when not a single Muslim MP had been elected from Uttar Pradesh, in a state where they constitute about 20 per cent of the population.
In this toss-up, the Congress is inching ahead, on the belief among the community that ultimately, it stands the best chance of dislodging the BJP at the Centre.
“What can the Mahagathbandhan do? This is an election for the Central government. The SP is good for Assembly elections,” says Mohammed Kajjan of Kothi town market who, in his 50s now, has stopped running his tonga. His vote is for the Congress Barabanki candidate, Tanuj Punia, son of senior leader P L Punia. Others around him nod, but add that they might switch to the gathbandhan should its candidate look stronger in the last lap.
At Mungishpur in Faizabad constituency, that votes on May 6, Akbar Ali, who is in his mid-30s, says 2009 winner Nirmal Khatri of the Congress is not the community’s first choice now. “The Congress is not in a position to win,” he adds. “Voting for the Congress will amount to wasting my vote. Should I vote for the SP candidate, they will support the Congress anyway in government formation at the Centre.”
However, Farzand Ali and his friends are not so sure at Bairia in Kushinagar constituency. “The gathbandhan is too much of a push and pull. R P N Singh, the candidate of the Congress, is reliable,” says Ali, who is in his mid-60s, while admitting that with the SP will stir up at least confusion among Muslims in the seat.
Reasons Abdul Mahmoud, in Kathautia Alam village in Domariaganj constituency, “The SP and BSP are regional forces. What can they do with their 20 seats in Parliament? They will at best trade for best bargain on the basis of our votes for government formation. Why not then vote directly for the Congress?” Domariaganj votes on May 12.
However, others in Kathautia Alam like Mehfooz Ahmed, Masroof Ahmed and Syed Ali are not sure it’s this black and white, but won’t commit on if this means support for BSP candidate Aftab Alam.
Across other Lok Sabha constituencies too, such as Unnao, Akbarpur, Dhaurahra, Bahraich, Shrawasti, Gonda, Faizabad and Kushinagar, some of which voted on Monday, the Muslim community is debating between Congress and gathbandhan candidates. “The Congress candidate (Krishna Patel, of Congress ally Apna Dal) doesn’t inspire confidence. So we will have to vote for the SP this time,” says Ajmal Khan, at Pipra Ram in Gonda. Ajmal, who is in his mid-40s, had voted for the Peace Party in 2014 and says had the Congress put up its own candidate this time, the story could have been different.
The Peace Party, which had polled about 1 lakh votes in Domariaganj and Shrawasti Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014, seems to hold no attraction for Muslim voters this time. Apart from the above two seats, it had then shown a base among Muslims in Gonda and Bahraich.
Apart from R P N Singh and Punia, the other strong Congress candidates in these seats, as much for the Muslim chatter about them, seem to be Annu Tandon (Unnao) and Jitin Prasada (Dhaurahra).
However, everyone is watching to see whether this will translate into strengthening of the Congress, which had fallen to two seats and 7.3% vote share in 2014, or a weakening of the gathbandhan. Or that ultimately, it will mean the same thing come counting day, May 23.