PHULPUR, Uttar Pradesh -- Mohammed Riyaz, a 29-year-old teacher in Phulpur is angry at the Samajwadi Party (SP) and its leader Akhilesh Yadav.
So angry, in fact, that in a conversation with HuffPost India on March 9, two days before the by-polls were held in the Lok Sabha constituency of Phulpur, he said that he had made up his mind to vote against the SP, which has since its inception had the support of the Muslims and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Uttar Pradesh.
Riyaz declared that he and his friends in the Muslim-dominated area called Mullana would vote for Atique Ahmed, an independent candidate, who was fighting the election from his prison cell in the district jail of Deoria. Even though he is the prime accused in a murder case, and has at least 40 criminal cases pending against him, Ahmed is regarded as a Robin Hood-like figure, doling out his own money to poor people whether it is a for medical emergency or a wedding.
Ahmed had won the seat from Phulpur as a SP candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. In 2016, however, when Yadav was trying to showcase a "clean" image of himself and his party, the 44-year-old leader had refused Ahmed a ticket to run from Kanpur in the 2017 Assembly polls.
Ahmed's decision to jump into the fray as an independent candidate, last month, immediately triggered speculation that he was planted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to split the Muslim vote in the crucial by-poll.
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Over two steaming cups of tea, Riyaz told me that irrespective of whether his vote ended up benefitting the BJP, he wanted to send a strong message to Yadav ahead of the 2019 polls.
"Don't you see? It's only a question of eight months before the general election. It won't matter who comes to power for such a short duration and it is a good opportunity to send a message to Akhilesh Yadav," he said.
When I asked him about his message, Riyaz said, "We don't want to be used for votes and we want to be taken seriously. If not, 2019 will be a disaster for the SP."
His friend chimed in with a slogan that was doing the rounds, "'Pehle Bhai (Ahmed), Phir Safai' (first brother, then cleaning)."
We don't want to be used for votes and we want to be taken seriously. If not, 2019 will be a disaster for the SP.
When I checked back with him on March 13, in a phone conversation, Riyaz said that he had voted for the Congress Party instead of Ahmed and all his friends had voted for the SP.
"The winds changed at the last moment. There was a lot of confusion. People were planning to vote for Atique but then there was a meeting with the chairman (SP's Mansoor Alam) just one day before and people changed their minds," the teacher said.
"Although, there is anger at the SP, most Muslims ended up voting for them because they believe it was the only way of beating the BJP," he said. "All of us, at the end of the day, wanted to beat the BJP."
All of us, at the end of the day, wanted to beat the BJP.
It probably didn't help the BJP that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath chose to declare, "I do not celebrate Eid, I am a Hindu and I am proud of it," even as political parties were still campaigning in the by-poll constituencies of Phulpur and Gorakhpur.
When I asked Riyaz why he had not voted for the SP after the "winds changed" in his area, he said, "I told you before, I'm angry at the SP. I'm still angry. The Congress seemed like an okay choice. Its candidate is a local man."
So, why not just vote for Atique? " Well, when everyone else changed their minds, it didn't make sense for me to do it on my own. It's an election, you never know who you're going to vote for until you do."
The Congress candidate Manish Mishra, a Brahmin, whose father J.N. Mishra has served as the personal secretary of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, ended up losing his deposit in the by-poll.
It was the SP, backed by the BSP, which pulled off a stunning victory in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-poll, which was pegged as a forerunner of the 2019 election.
Not only did the SP-BSP combine beat the BJP in the hotly contested seat of Phulpur, where the BJP had triumphed in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the regional parties also took down the BJP in Gorakhpur, a seat which Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had won five times in the past two decades.
The results today will only deepen speculation of a SP-BSP tie up for the 2019 general election. The SP and the BSP, an exponent of the Dalits, were routed by the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2017 Assembly election.
When I asked him why he was so angry with the SP and its leader, Riyaz said, "We feel that our vote does not matter to them. Nothing was done for the Muslims when the SP was in power."
Political analysts say that Muslims in UP are angry for several reasons. Many are still upset at how Akhilesh has dealt with his father and the founder of the SP, Mulayam Singh Yadav, widely regarded as defender of the minority community against the BJP and the Hindu nationalist agenda which is at the heart of its politics. Others feel the former chief minister did little to further their interests in the first three years of his tenure and then embarked on the Modi-style of development in the final two. And there are some who are upset at the manner in which Yadav has humiliated and publicly broken with Muslims leaders like Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari, another Robin Hood-like figure, a five-time lawmaker and the prime accused in a murder case.
Yadav is facing quite a challenge.
On the one hand, the SP leader needs to continue driving his party on a path that is relatively free of crime and corruption. Despite SP's electoral losses, his efforts to reinvent the party have endeared him to the public, especially the younger generation. On the other hand, Yadav needs to protect his core vote, which his elders have cultivated, nurtured and pandered to for 25 years.
Rajesh Mishra, a political sociologist, who headed the sociology department at Lucknow University, believes there is a sense of "relative deprivation" among the Muslims in UP. "Muslims had a lot of umeed from the SP in the 2012 election and that is why they threw BSP into the dustbin. But that wasn't the case in the 2017 election in which many Muslims voted for the BSP," he said. "Loyalties can be fleeting and Akhilesh should be aware of that."
In the aftermath of the 2017 Assembly election, the BJP claimed that it had made inroads into the Muslim community. But data analysis showed that BJP in fact benefitted from the lack of strategic voting by Muslims, whose vote was split between the SP and the BSP. The latter fielded an unprecedented 97 Muslim candidates.
Athar Husain, director of the Centre for Objective Research and Development in Lucknow, said that the anti-Akhilesh sentiments are an "aberration."
Ultimately, Husain said, Muslims wanted a "sense of security" from the government of the day, which, in his opinion, still makes the SP their best bet.
"By and large, Muslims still see him as the only secular leader who can fight the BJP ideology. I think even Mayawati has accepted that. He will get the Muslim vote in 2019."
Riyaz, however, isn't sure. "Let's see what happens," he said.
By and large, Muslims still see him as the only secular leader who can fight the BJP ideology.
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