28 September 1999

Elections 1999: UP Muslims turn to Congress, but with heavy heart

28 September 1999
The Times of India

UP Muslims turn to Congress, but with heavy heart

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

GONDA: Sitting amidst neat piles of vests and underpants in a small shop in this nondescript mofussil town three hours north of Lucknow, Mohammad Qadir declares that he will vote for a candidate whose record of work is the most promising. ``The party does not matter. Last time, we voted for Kirtivardhan Singh of the Samajwadi Party but he has not done anything for Gonda. This time, Muslims here seem inclined towards the Congress but there are some who will vote for the BJP as well because of Atalji's reputation''.

If Qadir is upset with the SP for fielding a bad candidate, Muslims elsewhere in UP seem to be making a more fundamental reassessment of Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav's politics. In the past two Lok Sabha elections, Hashmatullah Ansari, a typist in Faizabad, voted for the SP. Now, he says, Mulayam is unlikely to get his support. Although the rujhaan (inclination) of Muslims in Faizabad is now towards the Congress, he said, he was not particularly happy about this. ``We haven't forgotten all the riots and killings that took place during Congress rule''.

Khalid Raza Kidwai, a lawyer and former SP activist was less circumspect when asked about the SP. ``Mulayam Singh only knows how to take and not give support'', he said, a reference to the SP's failure to back a Congress government at the Centre. ``It seems to me Mulayam is in league with the BJP. In fact, I blame him equally for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He played politics. His language was aggressive. Unhone Hinduon ke dharm ko thes pahunchaya. Aam Hindu bhi uthejit ho gaya. Ordinary Hindus got incited. He helped to make Ayodhya a big issue''.

Haji Mahboob Ahmad of Ayodhya, a plaintiff in the Masjid-Mandir dispute, agrees: ``By his words and actions, Mulayam awakened a militant Hinduism. For example, he had no need to stop the parikrama in 1990. That was a turning point in the attitude of ordinary Hindus in UP''. Many Muslims -- not just in Faizabad but elsewhere in the state -- have reached the same
conclusion: if the BJP used Ram to consolidate a Hindu votebank, then Mr Yadav used the Babri Masjid to bind the Muslims hand and foot to the SP. ``Beech mein aam aadmi pis
(the ordinary man got crushed in between)'', said Akhtar, a Gondashopkeeper.

The prime beneficiary of this disillusionment has been the Congress, which has overcome the stigma of having presided over the demolition of the Babri Masjid. ``Jo hua so hua'', said one Muslim man in Allahabad. ``Sonia to bedagh aurat hai (Let bygones be. At least Sonia is untainted)''. Others say they will vote for the Congress this time because Mrs Gandhi has rejuvenated the party and given it a fighting chance.

And yet, it would be incorrect to say that Muslims are deserting the SP en masse and flocking towards the Congress.

While the overriding aim of most Muslims is to defeat the BJP -- not so much because of the Babri Masjid as for the lack of development, civic services and job opportunities -- there is confusion about which party is most likely to do the job. In most constituencies, Muslim voters appear badly divided. As with Hindus, issues of caste and class are perhaps more important than religion. In general, poorer Muslims such as weavers or wage labourers remain loyal to the SP while better educated, economically secure Muslims are turning towards the Congress. In seats
where the Bahujan Samaj Party came second in 1998, the elephant symbol is also exerting a definite pull on Muslims.

A visit to Revadi Talab, a small mohalla of Muslim weavers in Varanasi where the clatter of looms competes with conversation, sets to rest the idea that Muslims are a monolithic `votebank'. At one end of a skein of silk threads stretched on bamboo poles down the length of a lane, a man said he was going to vote for the Congress, while members of his workshop clustered at the other end said they would vote for the SP. A vegetable seller sat proudly behind a BSP
banner, while the neighbouring shop displayed a small pink CPI leaflet.

When the question of `fatwas' is raised, a group of men sipping tea from thumb-sized kullads in Badi Bazaar all laughed incredulously. ``Who listens to fatwas these days?'', one said. ``It's each person for himself. One day Bukhari tells us to vote for the Congress, another day for SP. Why should we keep changing our mind whenever he changes his?''. ``Who is Bukhari to us when we don't even listen to our local qazi'' said another. In the end, said Aziz mian, his rheumy eyes filled with resignation, nothing matters. ``In the old days we used to have netas. Now we have chors,
dakus, pindaris and even nachaniyas (actors). Some years ago, we might have believed that voting would lead to some improvement. Not now. But what do we do? We are Indians. If we don't vote, what will we do, where will we go?''.

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