Probably the most visibly divisive and vote bank-oriented politics in Bihar, after that over caste, is for the Muslim ballot. Right from PM Manmohan Singh to even the BJP, the tug of war for the Muslim vote in Bihar is truly and frankly, a naked affair and not muted as some would have you believe.
The importance of Muslims voting and changing a party’s fortunes at the Bihar hustings can be gauged from the fact that the otherwise away-from-votebank-politics Manmohan Singh chose to call for regime change from Araria district, which has about 60% Muslim population and goes to poll in the first phase.
"People should be wary of forces that try to divide society, and should also be wary of those who side with them," was, of course, a veiled reference to Nitish Kumar who has been super sensitive with regard to his secular image.
The PM only followed in the footsteps of his party boss. Sonia Gandhi held her first rally in the poll-bound state in Kishanganj which constitutes 67% Muslims. She attacked Nitish for not being able to set up the Aligarh Muslim University there and tore into his claims of funds spent on minority welfare in the area.
The gherao of Nitish by his rivals on communal issues is because he has been projecting himself as the ‘messaiah’ of Muslims through words, actions and even symbolisms. Not just that, even the BJP has appealed to the community that, hold your breath, there is nothing to be scared of it!
Ram Vilas Paswan of LJP, which is in alliance with the RJD, has gone on to declare he would make a Muslim a Deputy CM if voted to power. He had been the architect of the failure of the February 2005 election when his demand for a Muslim CM demolished Lalu’s fickle victory.
So why this scramble to capture a particular community’s interest? If you believe the incumbent CM, then this poll is about development issues and not caste or religion. You wish.
With its share in the vote pie being a healthy 16-17%, the Muslims are being wooed by all parties. And why not – it is with their contribution that Lalu Yadav remained in power for fifteen years. Muslims and Yadavs who form about 27% of electorate made the ground on which the fodder-scam hit grassroots leader forged his empire. He calls them his MY which is not only an acronym but in Hindi means mother.
Not only that, the Hindu vote is so fractured and fragmented amongst the various castes and classes, that getting a pulse on the arithmetic becomes a very difficult Math problem for the leaders. Various antics are played out to win over the Dalits, Mahadalits (36% share in votes), Upper castes (15%), OBCs, Extremely Backwards Castes…the list goes on.
The funda, therefore, is to go for one solid bloc of votes.
Nitish has this funda quite clear in his mind. His main problem is that he is the partner of a party which is seen as being anti-Muslim and the architect of several communal riots and issues in India. But they catch the upper castes and so the electoral realities have forced their marriage with JD(U) to go on, albeit with major ups and downs.
These ups and downs have been engineered by Nitish and his party. He has made it clear to the BJP – and the general public – that he will not let saffron poster boy Narendra Modi and the fire-spitting Varun Gandhi campaign in his state. He got so irked at an advertisement about Modi’s help to Kosi flood victims, that not only did he condemn it but even returned the Gujarati largesse.
It led to a major spat between the old allies earlier this year but now all seems to be well. The BJP did not even harp on the Ayodhya verdict to keep Nitish in a good mood after reports emerged he had opened a back channel with the Congress.
Nitish had reason to be angry; he has carefully cultivated the Muslims to get a hold on that elusive wining formula. He got the 1989 Bhagalpur riots cases re-opened and had someone like Kameshwar Yadav indicted. The riots were a consequence of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, a message in itself. He also helped two prominent community leaders Ali anwar and Dr Ezaj Ali get nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He reached out to the backward Pasmanda Muslims who constitute 15% of population and provided them with pension schemes for Bhagalpur victims, scholarships and quotas in panchayats.
He is, therefore, at once dividing the base of Lalu-Paswan and creating a new one for himself.
And he is not alone. The Congress has made all the right noises in campaigning. It is aware that the Muslims tend to vote for it but Lalu spoils their chances. Going alone in tandem with Rahul Gandhi’s revitalising strategy, the party hopes that the disillusioned votes from the minority community will come its way.
So the Grand Old Party which has only 10 seats in the Assembly has appointed a young Muslim called Mehboob Ali Kaiser as its state chief. It has given 48 tickets to Muslims till now with 35% in the first phase itself. The party also fought off an attack from Nitish wherein he alleged that the Centre was not responding to his requests on funds for madrassa education reforms.
And then there is Lalu – who is very scared as has been evident from what he has been saying. “Congress is out to finish me” ; “MY will uplift me” and even – “Zara pairon mein ghungroo bhandha de aur phir meri chaal dekh le”, literally begging for a second chance in his often mocked style. Apart from that he has nominated only 27 Muslims from the so far 145 candidates and, sources revealed, is not sure about his fortunes in the first two phases where minority vote will matter the most.
It is surely a make or break moment for him who seems to have lost his command on the ground and caste realities. He has joined forces with kabhi friend-kabhi foe Ram Vilas Paswan who promises to bring in the Dussadh Dalits by the dozen. The latter has been busy rejecting the Ayodhya verdict and hugging Kashmir separatists.
But the biggest ploy from the duo has been the lure of making a Muslim a Deputy CM, along with the already declared LJP state chief Pashupati Kumar Paras. They also promise other goodies like reservations in jobs etc. And as the polls progress, Lalu is sure to remind Muslims, once again, that he got LK Advani arrested during his Ayodhya rath yatra. The latter, meanwhile, has jumped in the poll fray only on the last day of canvassing after speculations that he was keeping away to placate the minorities.
All that is OK but are the Muslims paying heed to the special attention? Skim the pages of any Urdu publication or go to any Bihar mohalla, it is general issues like inflation, crime, infrastructure etc. that are keeping Biharis hooked across caste and religion.
Whether religious identity or Bihari identity is an issue will probably be answered only through a post-poll break down of the results.