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The Scramble Begins


Minority votes will be crucial in UP and Bihar which account for 120 Lok Sabha seats. It could well determine the final outcome of elections 2014. Seema Mustafa reports
SEEMA MUSTAFA | Issue Dated: September 1, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Kishtwar violence | Communal violence | e Jamaat e Islami | RSS | Hindus | Muslims | 2014 Lok Sabha polls | UPA | Congress | BJP | Jayalalithaa | Nitish Kumar | Narendra Modi |

Kishtwar in Jammu and Kashmir is one of those rare places where both Hindus and Muslims had worked out their communal differences to live in relative peace and harmony. Despite the push and shove by communal outfits active there, like the RSS and the Jamaat e Islami, Hindus refused to move out of the largely Muslim majority area and the Muslims insisted on maintaining admirable levels of communal harmony.

Until of course now, when the Right Wing extremists had their way and Kishtwar dissolved into violence that spread to other parts of Jammu as well.

It is more or less clear now that while the provocation triggering the violence was small, days and weeks of baseless rumours had sought to make a mockery of faith and trust. The people reacted to the rumours and came out in a display of anger and hate that has left sane voices depressed, and communities polarized.

Kishtwar, in fact, followed the same pattern that has been visible in incidents of communal violence in India since Independence. This clamour intended to create distrust and suspicion are spread through the targeted areas, that then eventually go up in flames as communities fight pitched battles at the slightest provocation.

Both Hindu and Muslim extremist outfits are usually very active and look upon the violence as the most effective means to achieve the consolidation of their respective votes.

The high stakes surrounding the 2014 general elections will make the ground volatile, as political parties scramble for the last vote. Communal violence will thus be a weapon used for polarizing communities and consolidating votes by the political players and their backers in what will be a tense election, with the Congress striving to retain power, the BJP adamant to get Narendra Modi in as prime minister and the regional leaders determined to hold the vote in their respective states and emerge as potential leaders of coalition governments.

It is clear that there will be no pre-poll alliances with the elections throwing up four possible formulations. A Congress-led government, a BJP-led government, a regional party-led coalition supported by the Congress or a regional party-led coalition supported by the BJP.

The poor performance of the UPA government has dramatically reduced the Congress party’s chances of a third term, thereby leaving the ground wide open for the BJP and/or the regional parties that have all started their campaign in one way or the other.

The Left that does not expect to improve its performance in West Bengal in 2014 will not be able to play the catalyst for a Third Front government, and as a result any regional coalition that is cobbled together will have to rely on the BJP or the Congress for support. Hence, the importance of seats as political parties play a deadly blind man’s bluff with the sole intention of winning the game.

It is also clear that none of the regional parties are willing to support a Modi-led BJP at this stage for fear of the losing the minority and secular vote. Even AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa who had openly praised Modi in the past, has now struck an electoral distance from the BJP, preferring to work with the Left in Tamil Nadu instead.

Janata Dal(U) chief minister Nitish Kumar snapped ties with the BJP on this issue, even though the decision is giving him sleepless nights particularly with a rash of communal incidents that are driving away the upper caste vote from his party. The BJP, thus, will have to get a minimum of 200 votes to secure reasonable alliances and come to power with Modi as prime minister.

Lesser numbers might still bring the BJP to power but it will have to sacrifice Modi for a more acceptable leader like LK Advani as prime minister, or in the worst case scenario even support a regional coalition.

The RSS that is now clearly mentoring the installation of Modi in the top seat is sagacious enough to know that 200 parliamentary seats cannot come the BJP way without a wave. This is what Modi himself is trying to generate by targeting the media and the middle class that usually are the trend setters of opinion. But given the dynamics of Indian polity, and the rise of regional forces, this opinion can be blunted in the states. Hence the need to polarize votes in a manner where caste considerations are obliterated by communal considerations and votes are divided on the basis of religion. This can only be done through incidents of communal violence, and while one can easily predict that these will increase as the elections draw near, it is difficult to say at this stage whether these will yield the desired results in terms of more votes and more seats in the Lok Sabha.

The Muslims are an important vote in this scenario. The Congress is optimistic that in the national elections, the minorities fearing the emergence of Narendra Modi will turn to it regardless of their disillusionment with the party. This is one of the reasons behind the assessment that the Congress was supporting the rise of Modi, to emerge as the sole secular national alternative.

Inaction on all fronts, bar an occasional strong statement from leaders like Digvijay Singh, has been the Congress version of secularism in the hope that the rhetoric will bring in the minority vote even in states where there are viable regional alternatives.

But there are some ruthless regional players as well like Mulayam Singh Yadav who is entirely dependent on the Yadav-Muslim combination for victory in Uttar Pradesh, and will support and perhaps even work for the religious polarization of votes in Muslim-dominated constituencies in the hope that his Samajwadi Party will emerge as the main benefactor.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar whose stock with the Muslims had risen since the last elections, was hoping to benefit from the minority vote by dropping the BJP but at the moment reports suggest that his arch rival Rashtriya Janata Dal and Laloo Prasad Yadav are in revival mode. Besides, given the play of forces against him Nitish Kumar will be kept busy by communal forces in dousing flames of discord as the elections approach. Signs of it are already apparent in Bihar.

It almost seems that the Muslims remain a factor in the elections just because of their numbers, and the fact that their votes can determine the results in several states and parliamentary constituencies. They are certainly not in the reckoning because of considerations of secularism, with political parties now looking straight at the numbers and not at the constitutional declaration of India as a secular democracy.

A senior bureaucrat recently pointed out that the violations of the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) by Pakistan would help the BJP in consolidating its vote bank, in what can be seen as a clear admission of the propaganda linking Pakistan to the Indian Muslims and in that context establishing the latter as a supporter of terrorism.

This not-very-subtle approach by the Right Wing forces in India has led to the arrests of hundreds of Muslim youth all over the country, adding to a sense of frustration and anger that will impact on the electoral choices of this vote bank.

It is an established fact that the Muslims do not like to close their options in a parliamentary election. Except for the one inalienable fact that they will not vote for the BJP, the minorities take care to examine each and every secular political party before coming to a decision. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to a lesser extent will be the field where the 2014 electoral battle is going to be played out. In both these states the Muslim vote is crucial to victory, and will be wooed assiduously by all the non-BJP parties in the fray.

In Uttar Pradesh, with 80 parliamentary seats, the scales are not tipping as yet. The Muslims, despite occasional doubts, are actually attached to the Samajwadi party and as the late CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet once told this writer justifying his party’s support for Mulayam Singh at that time, “It is not a question of what games Mulayam Singh plays or does not play, he has a highly secular organization and that should not be allowed to break.”

BSP leader Mayawati who did secure the Muslim votes to become chief minister of the state earlier, is aware that the minorities will not easily switch sides unless they are completely disillusioned with the Samajwadi Party which does not appear to be the case for now. After giving her party a chance once, the minorities preferred to go back to the Samajwadi Party where they are more comfortable.

There is still a slight hangover amongst the Muslims for the Congress party, but given the arrests of the youth and the Congress failure to take any measures for minorities’ welfare and security, it is unlikely that even the specter of Modi will drive them into the arms of the Congress as Digvijay Singh and others are clearly hoping.

In Bihar the Muslim vote has the choice of the Janata Dal(U), the RJD and of course the Congress. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was able to draw the minorities vote despite his alliance with the BJP during the last election through special gestures such as action against those responsible for the Bhagalpur communal riots of 1989, and is optimistic that this support will strengthen now that he is broken the alliance on account of Narendra Modi. However, Laloo Prasad Yadav is trying hard to revive his fortunes and reports suggest that the minorities are looking at him and possibly the Congress again.

The BJP is working hard to ensure that the Muslims do not consolidate behind the Janata Dal(U), but these are early days and given Nitish Kumar’s tenacity and ability to take bold decisions, he could still emerge from the 2014 battle with the minority vote in his pocket.

It must be remembered that the Muslims do not vote as a block in India, and are guided like the other voters by local and national factors. Security remains a major issue for the minorities, however, and the growing incidents of communal violence, arrests of innocent youth, and the state conducted profiling of the community where it is unable to even get a house on rent in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, will have a decided impact on their electoral choices.

The Batla House incident in Delhi had its reverberations in Azamgarh where several Muslims were arrested and interrogated in connection with the shootout in which two Muslims were killed and two arrested. One police officer was killed as well.

There is growing insecurity about the fact that large sections of the corporate world, the media and the middle class of India are supporting Modi despite the large scale violence in Gujarat under his watch. Several senior Muslims, of whom at least two had been involved in the independence struggle, all questioned this support for Modi, wondering how development could compensate for “rank communalism.” This insecurity will make itself felt on polling day, with the minorities in all likelihood voting for the parties in their respective states that they see as most likely to defeat the BJP that has become a euphemism for Narendra Modi.

The Congress might not benefit from the vote because of all its other omissions and commissions that impact on the Indian electorate in its entirety - namely corruption, spiraling prices, non-governance and a poor leadership. Regional parties could be strengthened as a result, sharpening the likelihood of a coalition government at the Centre under a regional leader. The BJP thus might find its efforts to create a wave- like condition obstructed by the regional parties that have a dominating presence in crucial states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

In other words, it is all up in the air until the people register their verdict, except for the one fact that despite its tall claims the BJP will not be getting the Muslim vote in any part of the country. There is no doubt about it in anyones mind and certainly not in the mind of BJP's star campaigner.  

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017