What are UP's Muslim voters up to in this Lok Sabha election?

Uttar Pradesh's Muslims have, over the last few years and until this election, been caught in a dilemma as they have not been able to consider any one party in the state their benefactor.
Muslim women show their fingers, which were marked after they cast their votes, at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 general elections.
Muslim women show their fingers, which were marked after they cast their votes, at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 general elections.FILE Photo | AFP

Till about a decade ago, the voting behaviour of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh used to be a decisive factor in about two dozen Lok Sabha seats. The main political parties in those elections, such as the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, whether in alliance or separately, used to bank heavily on the support of Muslims.

This used to be the norm from the 1970s till the general election of 2014, when the Narendra Modi wave made all such factors redundant. Riding high on it, the Bharatiya Janata Party got the majority community to vote in such numbers so as to make the Muslim "vote bank" irrelevant.

However, ten years of BJP rule at the Centre has taken away much of the wind from beneath that wave. With two phases of polling having already been completed in the state, the significance of the electoral heft of Muslim voters has once again come into play, with both the SP-Congress alliance and the BSP renewing their efforts to wrest Muslim support.

UP's Muslims have, over the last few years and until this election, been caught in a dilemma as they have not been able to consider any one party in the state their benefactor.

Earlier, in the heydays of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party used to be their go-to party since the late former CM had made the welfare of Muslims nothing short of a sacred political pledge for himself and his party. But as Akhilesh Yadav inherited the party in 2017, he very quietly shelved the pro-Muslim policy and started pursuing a brand of ambivalent-- often so-called "soft" -- Hindutva.

In the recent past, Akhilesh vociferously backed the construction of a statue of Parashuram, the deity revered by Brahmins, proposed the construction of a huge Krishna temple in Vrindavan, inaugurated a Lord Krishna statue in Saifai, and generally avoided having Muslim leaders in his core team of the Samajwadi Party after the jailing and subsequent sidelining of Azam Khan.

All this changed ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

In order to counter the charge of ignoring Muslims, Akhilesh skipped the consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, visited the family residence of late Mukhtar Ansari in Ghazipur to pay condolences (albeit belatedly) and risked disaffection in the party by ignoring upper caste Hindus for key bye-elections.

Muslim women show their fingers, which were marked after they cast their votes, at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 general elections.
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Mayawati, meanwhile, had appeared to be softer towards the BJP in the beginning, but her Bahujan Samaj Party has still stuck to fielding Muslims in key elections in the past few years, and the trend is highly visible in this year's list as well.

The party's candidates for 54 seats so far includes 14 Muslims.

Then there is the AIMIM leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, who had declared his intention to fight from all seats in collaboration with Apna Dal (K) and some smaller parties with much fanfare, but the initiative seems to have lost steam.

The Muslim vote in UP

According to several estimates, Muslims account for 19% to 23% of the state's population.

Based on figures from various organisations and development programmes, the districts with a high Muslim population (above 25%) are: Rampur (50.57%), Moradabad (47.12%), Bijnor (43.04%), Saharanpur (41.95%), Muzaffarnagar (41.30%), Amroha (40.78%), Balrampur (37.51%), Bareilly (34.54%), Meerut (34.43%), Bahraich (33.53%), Shrawasti (30.79%), Baghpat (27.98%), Ghaziabad (25.35%), and Siddharthnagar (29.23%).

Polling was completed in the first phase on April 19 in eight constituencies -- Saharanpur, Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Nagina, Moradabad, Rampur and Pilibhit. The eight constituencies where voting took place on April 26 were Amroha, Meerut, Baghpat, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahar, Aligarh, Gautam Buddha Nagar, and Mathura. Of these 16 constituencies, at least 11 constituencies have a Muslim population above 20%.

There are indications that in these two phases, Muslim voters may have resorted to voting to bring about a change, and the candidate's faith may not be a factor.

This has been often referred to as "tactical voting," where the sole aim is to ensure the defeat of a candidate whose party is considered to be apathetic to Muslim interests.

Advantage INDIA bloc?

In this case, voting to ensure the BJP's candidates’ defeat could have led Muslim voters to support either the SP-Congress INDIA bloc, or the BSP. It appears that the community could have preferred the former in most places, while the BSP could be preferred only in places where the INDIA combine is thought to be weaker.

This is endorsed by Professor Hilal Ahmad, a veteran political analyst and social scholar. He says that Muslim voters appear to be in favour of the INDIA bloc, regardless of the result.

"In many districts, there have been reports of voters, including women, having voted in favour of the SP-Congress combine,” he said, but added emphatically that the Muslim voter is totally silent with no proclamations from community leaders whatsoever.

This, however, does not mean that the results will be follow the same pattern in all the Muslim-dominated seats.

For the record, the 2014 Lok Sabha election saw the BJP winning at least eight such seats, including Amroha, Bijnor, Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar, Nagina, Rampur, Saharanpur and Sambhal. But in 2019, the SP-BSP fighting in alliance, won 15 seats including in Muslim-dominated Amroha, Bijnor, Moradabad, Rampur and Sambhal.

Another fact to be remembered is that despite general perception that Muslims were voting against the BJP, the party succeeded in getting a percentage of the Muslim votes in the 2022 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. This came out in a post-election survey by CSDS-Lokniti which suggested that least eight per cent of the Muslim votes went to the BJP.

Also, the BJP has gone into the 2024 election in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal which has been favoured by Muslim voters in its stronghold areas. Even during the campaign for the first phase, BJP leaders accompanied RLD leaders in Muslim-dominated areas.

Muslim women show their fingers, which were marked after they cast their votes, at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 general elections.
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All this could mean, on the one hand, that Muslims are disillusioned that no party has shown faith in them, but rather than abstaining, they will vote for the candidate considered to be the BJP's strongest rival.

On the other hand, they could also accept the BJP candidate for the simple fact that the state has a BJP government headed by Yogi Adityanath and no purpose may be served in getting identified as a non-BJP voter till 2027 (when the next Assembly election is scheduled).

According to Anshuman Shukla, a veteran political analyst and columnist, although Muslims have increasingly voted in a unified way, political and social mobilisation has highlighted divisions along sub-identities like caste and sect among them.

This explains the BJP's outreach -- and success -- with Pasmanda Muslims, a term that includes backwards, Dalits and tribal Muslims.

According to many researchers, the held belief of Muslims voting en bloc may not be completely true, an idea also suggested in a study Mapping Muslim Voter Behaviour in India by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Even some Muslim scholars agree that Muslims are increasingly getting divided along caste and sectarian lines, an example of which is the lukewarm response to Asaduddin Owaisi after he announced his decision to contest in UP with the Apna Dal (K).

Anshuman Shukla says that "even though figures show that Muslims could play a crucial role in deciding the result in more than 25 seats in UP, the results will show a different picture."

Muslim women show their fingers, which were marked after they cast their votes, at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, during the 2019 general elections.
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