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Mulayam's battle for the Muslim vote

April 3, 2007

It sounds eminently logical that in these days of liberalisation and globalisation and swanky malls and the anti-quota mood amongst vocal Indians, earthy politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati should talk about development, education and environment in their election speeches and work for it.

At least, that's what the Congress mascot Rahul Gandhi is trying to do during his 'padyatras' in the dusty towns and villages of UP.

But, the pundits who know all about nuts and bolts of Uttar Pradesh politics insist that the state is not yet ready for discourses on development. They say such discourses will simply have to wait for another one or possibly two elections.

At any rate, it is becoming clear that election 2007 in UP is all going to be about Mayawati versus Mulayam, Brahmin versus Muslims and the BJP's hackneyed Hindutva cliche versus Congress's skewed secularism. Since it is all about the Indian election miracles should have some space and that can be that the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party, both caste-ridden parties, fail to emerge as the largest party in the election.

Mayawati and Mulayam are in a way well-placed for waging their focused campaign. Their sole target is the UP electorate. Their aim is to gain power in Lucknow and to somehow hold it till 2012.

While the BJP and Congress have to carry the burden of a heavier agenda. For these parties, there is life beyond the upcoming UP state election.

In the event of a hung assembly, the BJP and Congress will tread carefully in cementing their respective alliances in Lucknow.

The Congress has to contain SP and ensure Mulayam's defeat because it will help in next Lok Sabha elections. Past experience and common sense suggests that a non-Mulayam government in Lucknow means less seats for SP in the Lok Sabha and presumably more seats for the Congress in 80 constituencies if Muslims turn their back on the SP.

Because of this, the post-election scenario will be more exciting in Lucknow than the current election campaign.

The first vote in the UP state election will be cast in five days. Right now, Yadav and his men are cajoling the powerful Muslim 'Maulvis' and leaders who have hold on Muslim voters. Mulayam's biggest challenge is to keep the anti-incumbency to a minimum and to ensure that the Muslim vote is not divided amongst many parties.

The Jamat-i-Islami, Nadwatul Ulema, the religious leaders of the Deoband seminary and Milli Council play a major role deciding which way the Muslim community votes.

It has been reported that the Deobandis will not support Mulayam this time. And as had happened in the last election, the Nadwatul Ulema , Milli Council and Jamat leaders will ensure that community will vote for the candidates who can defeat the BJP or who is surely winning.

In the UP election it is very important to pose as the party that is set to win. Many caste blocks including Muslims are likely to go with the winner on the day of voting.

But the equations vary from constituency to constituency. It is not invariably the case that Yadav's Samajwadi Party is fielding the best candidate to give the BJP a run for their money.

Naturally if there is a weak BJP candidate, the Muslim vote could go for either BSP or Congress candidate.

In this complex jigsaw puzzle, Mayawati has added a further twist by giving tickets to 110 candidates belonging to Other Backward Classes and to 61 Muslims, who belong to what is traditionally considered to be Mulayam's 'vote bank'.

At the same time, she is not relying on Thakurs this time as she did in 2002.

Also when the controversy over Prophet Mohammed's cartoon erupted some months ago, she was quoted as saying that Muslims have tendency to favour fundamentalists. This outrageous statement didn't go down well among Muslims.

Although Thakurs and Muslims are upset with her, Mayawati may still succeed in sowing some seeds of confusion within the SP's traditional 'vote bank' by her decision to put up a large number of OBC candidates.

Apart from the skirmishes that Mayawati has laid on his path, Mulayam also has to contend with the possibility, however remote it may seem at the moment, of a soft-Hindutva wave emerging in the absence of any big issue agitating the mind of the UP electorate.

He isn't taking chances. Recently, he decided to take a dip in Sangam of Allahabad during Kumbh Mela. He also started visiting temples with TV cameras and media in tow.

Mulayam is a born fighter and he is slogging hard to save his gaddi. The horrific Nithari killings took place under his rule and one would have thought that the crime wave sweeping UP would take its toll and SP's fortunes would plummet.

But, it may not be entirely correct to think so.

A recent survey, which the BJP has ridiculed, done by a media group suggests that Yadav's party may actually gain 3 per cent additional votes in the upcoming election as compared to 2002, when he got 145 sets and 26 per cent of the vote share.

SP's leaders in New Delhi caution that it is injudicious to make judgments on the basis of UP's image in the media and among bloggers.

Shahid Siddiqui, SP MP, says, "Even our competitors concede that our workers spread over the nooks and corners of UP are our strength and that our strong network remains intact".

"Indeed, as a political party, the SP is well-placed to rely on a well-oiled organisation. Secondly, what you have not reported is how we made roads and highways, and that the unemployed youth are given a monthly allowance of Rs 500, or that a girl child is being taken care of by various schemes and that the factor of development work is working in our favour," he added.

When asked about the law and order situation and the kidnappings of children, SP leaders say without blinking, "Yahan kab laav and arder achcha tha?" (When was it that law and order was good in UP?)

In the last five years more than 6,000 Yadavs have been inducted into the police force. The empowerment of Yadavs is visible in society.

Yadavs have developed a vested interest in retaining power and Muslims would be wary of Dalit-Brahmin combination that Maywati's party has offered to the voters.

In the battle to retain power, Mulayam is also struggling with minor and medium irritants like Sonelal Patel's Apna Dal, V P Singh and Raj Babbar's Jan Morcha Alliance, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Nationalist Congress Party, the CPI and smaller players like Kaushal Kishore's Rashtravadi Communist Party, Dev Kumar Yadav's United Communist Party and Masood Ahmed's National Loktantrik Party.

Apna Dal has been impressive in the Allahabad-Gorkhpur area and have tied up with the BJP. Mulayam's confidant Beni Verma has also floated a party at the last minute and he is putting up candidates in the Gorakhpur division. This will also damage SP prospects.

However, Mulayam's biggest worry remains the Muslim voters.

Yaqub Kureishi, who became known during the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, is still a minister in the Mulayam government but he is contesting against the SP candidate and has extended his support to a front floated by his brother. He has been ignoring the anti-SP utterances of Yaqub as well as Beni Prasad Verma's demand to drop another minister Waqar Ahmed Shah.

Mulayam is so insecure these days that he does not want to take the risk of annoying Muslims leaders. He is relieved that no party has taken up the case of ill-gotten wealth against him in Supreme Court. This explains why image-conscious Amitabh Bachchan is also in the field with his catch line in advertisements -- UP main hai dam, kyonki jurm hai yahan kam -- contributing whatever little in service of his "elder brother" Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Text by Sheela Bhatt and Nirmal Pathak

Also see: Coverage: The battle for Uttar Pradesh.

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