Muslim Factor, a Two-Way Street in India Polls

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Jawed Naqvi

The starched white muslin kurta and Rayban sunglasses flirted with the searing heat, indicating the dress code of an archetype Muslim middleman from the political elite of new Awadh. The polished black SUV the gent alighted from confirmed a shifty political lineage, the narrow strip of saffron sticker with Narendra Modi’s picture on the rear window betraying the car owner’s political alignment in Uttar Pradesh. After the passenger hurriedly waded into a private Muslim congregation in Unnao, the driver whispered his name but pleaded not to mention it.

The gentleman had driven from Lucknow where his fellow co-religionists have sworn to support Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the elections. The aba-amama donning Shia cleric Kalbe Jawwad belongs to a renowned family of Lucknow’s Shia clerics. He was photographed recently tying a sacred thread – the imam zamin — on the wrist of Mr Singh to assure the BJP leader success in the elections.

The fifth phase of the seven-stage polls takes place on Monday (May 20) and Lucknow, Amethi and Rae Bareli are among the important constituencies from the 49 in the fray.

Traditionally, Shia clerics of Lucknow have owed allegiance to Iranian peers, which would be odd if Kalbe Jawwad also did. Given the traditional standoff between Iran and Israel, particularly given the current assault on Gaza, the maulana does seem to have shaken off any inhibitions of supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in the knowledge that he is a close friend of Benjamin Netanyahu.

For those with a sense of the past, Unnao is remembered as a hub of anti-colonial rebellion. Its proximity to Kanpur spurred countless men from Unnao to join the forces of the Maratha Peshwa Nana Sahib in the battle of Bitur on the banks of River Ganga in Kanpur. The Indian side lost. Anti-colonial revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad is also linked to Unnao, as are a bevy of Hindi and Urdu litterateurs.

Abutting Unnao is Mohan, which lends its name to Maulana Hasrat Mohani, the rebel member of India’s constituent assembly and a bug bear for the leaders of the Muslim League of which he was a member together with his equal commitment to the communist party. The Maulana was a member of India’s constituent assembly and had famously refused to sign the constitution saying it did not adequately reflect his suggestion to model Indian republic on the USSR. “Gandhi ki tarah baith ke kaatenge kyun charkha? Lenin ki tarah dein na kyun duniya ko hila hum?” The lines are ascribed to Hasrat Mohani. (Why weave the yarn like Gandhi, and not stage a world changing revolution like Lenin?) The Unnao of yore is sadly remembered currently for a horrendous rape carried out allegedly by a political satrap of the BJP. The malaise appears to stalk the party. Both Unnao and Kanpur, where the Communist Party of India was founded a hundred years ago, are part of the 62 seats of 80 the BJP holds in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP under Modi continued the Atal Bihari Vajpayee tradition of keeping a few Muslim ministers in the cabinet up until 2019, when he dropped all of them. The discarded luminaries included a high-profile former editor of several English newspapers and magazines. Now bereft of them, Mr. Modi has been targeting Muslims in his toxic election speeches but, intriguingly, has also said he would fail in his job if he thought communally of Muslims. He even recalled Muslim neighbours in Gujarat who shared food with him during Eid. Assisting him in his efforts to woo a section of the Muslim voters, are Muslim candidates ostensibly set up to cut Muslim votes from the opposition. There is a belief that Hyderabad-based predominantly Sunni Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen is leading a pack of such vote-cutters though its leaders deny the charge.

The opposition INDIA group appears better placed to garner critical Muslim votes. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, known for Muslim-baiting for much of its history, has found allies in the minority community. There is a Mamu factor at play there, representing Maratha and Muslim alliance. In Bihar, Lalu Yadav’s team has gone beyond the MY factor of Muslim-Yadav pact, picking up newer caste coalition partners along the way. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has got solid support of Muslim voters. The flip side to this bonhomie is that public wooing of Muslims by a party produces a potential constituency of worried Hindus, ready to be snapped up by the BJP.

Courtesy Dawn

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