Muzaffarnagar riots: Another thorn in Congress’ skin

By Hemant Abhishek | Updated: Sep 20, 2013, 10:33 AM IST

Hemant Abhishek

Religious riots never just happen, they are stoked.

Independent India’s history stands testament to the fact that riots are stoked for political mileage, electoral gain, and territory marking. Today’s Indian voter is wiser from years of experiencing how his countrymen have had their emotions exploited and bloodshed in the name of religion. But he is still naïve enough to fall for it over and over again. The Indian politician on the other hand knows the spoils at stake – seizing the moment could land him in power. On the contrary, the failure to do so comes with the shudder-evoking proposition of warming the opposition benches of Parliament for the same passage of time.

With general elections around the corner, a case of eve-teasing snowballed into communal riots in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district recently. And the communally volatile state that has a telling effect on the numbers in Parliament attracted politicos like flies to manure. Kawal village, where three persons were killed on August 27, became center-stage to Indian politics for a fortnight as every political party active in the region vied to make the most of the Jat-Muslim bad blood.

The Samajwadi Party government in the state was blamed for inaction and detractors claimed that the government’s allegiance lay with one of the two factions in contention. Those who had earlier blamed CM Akhilesh Yadav for teaming up with the BJP when the latter planned a yatra in Ayodhya, began seeing patterns in the flare-up and charged at windmills swearing they were ogres.

With the BJP and SP emerging as the likely beneficiaries in the run-up to the polls, Muzaffarnagar may have emerged as yet another blow to the Congress-led UPA government in the Centre that has already been wounded by the onslaught of corruption charges, rising inflation, meek reply to border skirmishes, etc. And while the Prime Minister and the head of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, did pay a visit to the riot-hit areas two weeks after the first reports of violence came, the Congress will require more than a face-saving exercise if it wishes to come up with a decent performance in the state in the 2014 elections.

Reassessment of alliance

Before the 2012 Assembly Elections in the state, Congress had felt that it had almost all its flanks secured. In the Jat and Muslim dominated Western region it had allied with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal to lay claim to the Jat votebank. But that didn’t work despite an aggressive campaign by the Gandhi family. Muslim votes were bagged by Samajwadi Party, largely due to the presence of Azam Khan who holds sway over the minority community in the region.

Congress will have to reassess its alliances in the upcoming election in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots. Right after the riots Ajit Singh, like the leaders of the BJP, was stopped by the UP government from entering Muzaffarnagar. His presence in the districts would’ve helped him consolidate his closeness with the aggrieved Jat leaders.

The BJP - the party that has cashed the Ayodhya’s Ram Temple issue far too often for it to work again - would sit atop the Muzaffarnagar pedestal and look westwards towards 7, Race Course Road. This situation when seen in retrospect with the fact that the Muslim votebank sits comfortably in SP’s backpocket and Mayawati’s firm grasp over the Dalit population, paints a precarious picture for India’s grand old party.

SP & BJP turning UP into a two-horse race

In the light of Muzaffarnagar riots, the BJP was never going to miss a chance to put the state’s Samajwadi Party government or the Congress-led Centre in the dock. As it took Congress bigwigs two weeks to visit Muzaffarnagar, BJP took up the cudgel against UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi questioned the mother-son duo who are Members of Parliament from the state, as to why “those that visited Gujarat during the 2002 riots", shied away from UP for so long. Congress retaliated by alleging BJP state head Amit Shah of incitement. "We have to see the person who has been made in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, who is an expert in such things. The Judicial Commission going into the violence should go into this aspect as well," said party spokesman Meen Afzal. This name-calling will peak in the next few months in the run-up to polls.

Also noteworthy are the names of those who have been charged for fanning tensions in the area - Bahujan Samaj Party’s MP Qadir Rana and MLA Noor Salim Rana, SP’s Rashid Siddiqui and Congress’ Saeedujjama – video footage of their vitriolic speech in Muzaffarnagar on August 30 earned them a booking. BJP’s Sadhvi Prachi spewed venom from the Jat Mahapanchayat’s dais. They made most of the situation at hand, while Lucknow lay siege on the state borders stopping anyone from Delhi and Centre from capitalizing on the chaos.

Riots are no good for the Congress

With General Elections and state Assembly Elections in five states just around the corner, the polarization of religious sentiments may not augur well for the incumbent powers at the Centre. BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ poll-plank emerged stronger from both Ayodhya (1992) and Godhra (2002) and with 80-odd Lok Sabha seats at stake in UP, a swing of Hindu voter sentiment could only spell doom for the Congress in 2014. During the 2012 state Assembly Elections, Congress had made all efforts to put up a good show in the state and that included fielding its ‘trump card’ Rahul Gandhi in the campaign. But that didn’t do much good to the party and only dented the possible chances of Gandhi scion carving his niche on the national stage. The immediate transfer of party leadership (and the proverbial crown) was postponed to a further date.

Allegations of inaction on Centre’s part

Had the Congress strongly chided the state government’s inaction against the rioters, and taken proactive steps to douse the communal flames, it would’ve helped them redeem their battered image on all fronts and in the long run kept alive their hopes of putting up a good show in UP. But that isn’t to be.