24/01/2017 5:27 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2017 8:26 PM IST

In Their Approach To Muslim Voters, SP And BSP Have Exchanged Places

Mayawati is the new Mulayam.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

There are only two Hajis [Haj-returned] in Uttar Pradesh, it used to be said of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. Mayawati never tried to be the sole spokesperson of Muslims. Her approach to Muslims was always more opportunist than long-term, just like her approach to all sections of society other than her Dalit vote-bank.

Mulayam Singh Yadav's politics was well-known as M+Y, the Muslim and Yadav combination that did well in the elections. Mayawati's caste formula has been Dalit plus anybody. Sometimes there's a greater accent on Brahmins, this time on Muslims.

The tables have turned. This time, Mayawati is clear about the D+M formula, Dalits and Muslims. The 20.5% Dalit population along with 19.3% Muslims make a formidable combination. She says as much openly to Muslim voters. If only they'd listen.

"In almost all the 403 seats, BSP has around 24-25 per cent of its Dalit vote bank which comes to around 50,000 to 60,000 voters in every assembly segment. If the Muslim vote bank is added to it, then no one can defeat the BSP candidate," she claimed while giving her winnable statistic.

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Akhilesh Yadav isn't seeking Muslim votes alone, he wants everyone's votes — just like Mayawati used to.

Mayawati is pitching herself as the ultimate messiah of Muslims in a way she has never done before. She is projecting herself so strongly as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindutva that she doesn't mind losing upper caste Hindu votes. In fact, she is hoping to benefit from Hindu-Muslim polarisation – like the Samajwadi Party used to.

Mayawati is pitching herself as the ultimate messiah of Muslims in a way she has never done before.

The Samajwadi Party's new face, Akhilesh Yadav, is making a clear break from his father's policy of wooing Muslims with identity politics. Like Mayawati of the past, he is balancing his pitch to Muslims with his pitch to Hindus, especially upper castes, who usually vote for the BJP.

Secularism Versus Development

The Samajwadi Party's Muslim face is Azam Khan, but only for the national media. In UP, it is well known that Azam Khan's influence is limited to Rampur and the neighbouring areas in Rohilkhand. Like Lalu Yadav in Bihar, it was always Mulayam Singh Yadav who was the 'protector' of Muslims from the threat of Hindutva.

What has the Akhilesh Yadav government done for Muslims, I ask a party spokesperson. "Have you seen the re-development in Lucknow's old city?" he replies. The Akhilesh government's pitch to Muslims is largely the same as its pitch to everybody else: development.

Mayawati, by contrast, has been busy promising to save Muslims from the BJP. For a year now, she jumps and issues statements against everything the BJP and Narendra Modi do. Her message to Muslims is that she is the one who can save them from the BJP. Mayawati never misses a chance to point out that they saw a large number of riots under the Akhilesh regime.

Mayawati never misses a chance to point out that they saw a large number of riots under the Akhilesh regime.

Akhilesh Yadav's opposition to criminal-politicians like Mukhtar Ansari and Atique Ahmed, and the denial of tickets to them, is not only to improve the image of his party as one of goondas, but also one which overlooks vigilantism by Muslims.

Mayawati is giving 97 of 403 tickets to Muslims this year, up from 61 in 2012. She has also increased the representation of Muslims in the party cadre to reach out to Muslim voters.

When the SP-Congress alliance was announced, Mayawati said, "The BJP was exerting pressure on SP chief and his family through Enforcement Directorate, IT department and CBI regarding disproportionate assets cases, and other weaknesses to join hands with Congress to divide Muslim votes and stop BSP from coming to power."

Booklet War

The BSP has reprinted a booklet it had first issued for the 2012 elections, highlighting what it has done for Muslims when Mayawati has been in power. This wasn't enough. Stung by the criticism by the Samajwadi Party that Mayawati has thrice formed government in coalition with the BJP, the BSP issued another booklet.

The booklet, in Hindi and Urdu, is titled, "Who is the true well wisher of Muslim society? Decide for yourself". It is an eight-page long defence of Mayawati's past alliances with the BJP, which prevent Muslims from trusting her. The opening paragraph says, "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones at others."

It says that it never gave in to the BJP's Hindutva pressures when it formed post-poll coalitions with them, and accuses Mulayam Singh Yadav of hobnobbing with Narendra Modi. It goes to the extent of saying that Mulayam Singh Yadav's political career was born in the 1960's with support from the Jan Sangh.

Pawan Kumar / Reuters
Mulayam Singh Yadav.

"Over countless dead bodies, the BJP and the SP get together behind the scenes for communal polarisation to practice their politics," it reads.

In response, the Samajwadi Party issued a booklet in December. Titled "Nai Umang" or 'New Zeal', this booklet is only in Urdu. It seems they don't really want non-Urdu readers to read it.

This booklet says nothing about Mayawati or the BSP, asks Muslims to keep faith in the Samajwadi Party, and highlight development work for Muslims. It highlights the redevelopment carried out in Lucknow's old city. It claims to have helped Muslim students do well in competitive exams, aid to Muslim educational institutions, graveyards and so on.

The arrests of Muslims on terror charges, especially from Azamgarh, was a big issue in the assembly 2012 elections.

It has only one controversial subject, the claim that the Akhilesh government helped release 5,000 innocent Muslims jailed on false terrorism charges. Rights activists say that many Muslims aren't in jails on terror charges even across India, and that the Akhilesh government has done little to get those who are in jail released.

The arrests of Muslims on terror charges, especially from Azamgarh, was a big issue in the assembly 2012 elections. Like the high number of Hindu-Muslim riots during the Akhilesh regime, the Muslims languishing in jails doesn't seem to be an issue this election.

The Samajwadi Party is distributing this booklet in madrasas, mosques and dargahs across the state. It plans to put out another such booklet.

From Mulla Mulayam To Bhaiyya Akhilesh

Until recently, the BJP was seeking to cause Hindu-Muslim polarisation in UP by taking up the issue of triple talaq. Prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah themselves raised the issue in their speeches in UP.

The Congress, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav all issued statements opposing any tinkering with Muslim personal law. Mayawati made the strongest statement, even invoking Sharia law. Akhilesh Yadav maintained silence.

Akhilesh Yadav avoids Muslim-specific messaging as far as possible. When he helps with development around a Muslim shrine, he also announces similar development around a Hindu temple. To counter the Modi government's announcement of setting up a Ramayana museum in Ayodhya, Akhilesh Yadav announced the establishment of a bhajansthali to promote the preaching of the Ramayana. Akhilesh Yadav wants Muslim votes, but he also wants Hindu votes.

Pawan Kumar / Reuters
Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav.

Months before APJ Abdul Kalam died in 2015, he was invited by Akhilesh Yadav to Lucknow to give suggestions for UP's development. The chief minister also took Kalam to Kannauj to inaugurate a solar plant. After Kalam's death, Akhilesh renamed a university after him. That's as clear messaging as possible: Akhilesh Yadav's Muslim politics wants to be like APJ Abdul Kalam, celebrated but acceptable to even the right-wing Hindu.

His father Mulayam Singh Yadav recently said Akhilesh didn't want a Muslim director general of police, referring to current DGP Javeed Ahmed. The charge is entirely believable. A Muslim DGP is the sort of red-flag to the BJP voter Akhilesh Yadav would have liked to avoid. Indeed, one of the BJP's main campaign pitch in UP is the perceived discrimination against Hindus.

Akhilesh Yadav's campaign managers openly tell you they have been trying to avoid Hindu-Muslim polarisation as that would help the BJP, as it did in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Mayawati would be happy to see Hindu-Muslim polarisation, as she saw Muslim consolidation for the SP bring Akhilesh Yadav to power in 2012. She has openly said, on a number of occasions, that she lost the 2012 election because Muslims 'betrayed' her.

Manifest Design

Akhilesh Yadav is clearly trying to shift his party to the kind of secularism practiced by politicians like Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, who are secular but don't wear secularism on their sleeves to avoid making the communal-secular binary the primary political discourse. Ironically, Mayawati used to believe in this until recently, but the upper caste betrayal of the BSP has led it to become like 'Mulla Mulayam'.

Akhilesh's shift from Mulayam is evident in the difference between the Samajwadi Party's 2012 and 2017 manifestoes.

Akhilesh's shift from Mulayam is evident in the difference between the Samajwadi Party's 2012 and 2017 manifestoes. The section on minorities in the 2012 manifesto was titled, "The protection of the interests of minorities" whereas the same section in 2017 is titled, "Programmes for minorities". The 2012 manifesto promised reservations for Muslims, getting innocent Muslims out of jail, and so on. The 2017 manifesto avoids the word Muslim, and promises jobs and skill development for minorities. There's an umistakable shift from paternalistic protection to economic empowerment.

The Muslims of Uttar Pradesh will decide this election which path they prefer, the one of identity politics or that of secular development.

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