The Bharatiya Janata Party’s historic Lok Sabha election success in Uttar Pradesh has influenced its two main rivals in the state, the Samajwadi Party and Congress, to field fewer Muslim candidates for the 11 assembly seats that go to the by-polls on Saturday.
The by-elections, necessitated as sitting MLAs from these seats were elected to the Lok Sabha, are likely to be a three-cornered battle among the BJP, SP and Congress. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which could not win even a single seat in the general elections, is not contesting the by-polls.
Both the Congress and SP seem to have shown little faith in Muslim candidates. The two parties, say sources within these, aren’t confident the community could provide winnable candidates in the state’s communally polarised environment. Uttar Pradesh has seen several communal clashes in recent months.
SP’s lone Muslim candidate is Nawab Jan Khan for the Thakurdwara seat, which falls under the communally sensitive Moradabad constituency. Sources say the party withdrew its other Muslim candidate, Shabbir Ahmed Valmiki, from the Balha reserved seat (in Bahraich constituency), bowing to ground-level analysis that suggested increased tension between Dalits and Muslims. By comparison, of these 11 constituencies, the party had fielded three Muslim candidates -- for Saharanpur Nagar, Balha and Nighasan -- during the 2012 assembly polls.
Similarly, the Congress has this time fielded Muslim candidates for the Thakurdwara and Bijnore seats. In the 2012 assembly elections, it and its alliance partner, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, had fielded four Muslims -- from Saharanpur, Thakurdwara, Sirathu and Bijnore -- of these 11 seats. RLD had contested the Bijnore seat.
At least five of the seats going to polls on Saturday are in Western Uttar Pradesh, which saw the Muzaffarnagar communal riots a year ago, and have an average 20 to 25 per cent Muslim population.
Both SP and Congress had fielded Muslim candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections for the Saharanpur, Bijnore and Moradabad constituencies. Thakurdwara assembly constituency is part of the Moradabad Lok Sabha seat.
According to sources in SP, Azam Khan, its most prominent Muslim leader, has been requested by party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to stay away from canvassing for party candidates in the by-polls. Khan’s name hasn’t figured among the 23 ministers who have been made in-charge of the 11 assembly seats and the lone Lok Sabha seat of Mainpuri that go to polls. During the Lok Sabha elections, the Election Commission had booked Khan for his ostensibly offensive speeches.
Even aside from the mainstream political parties, fewer Muslim candidates have turned up to contest for these 11 seats. That might be because of the overall lack of interest in the by-polls.
Only 118 candidates are in the fray across the 11 seats, compared with 223 in the 2012 assembly elections. The number of Muslims candidates has dropped from 36 (16 per cent) in 2012 to 13 (11 per cent) this time.
Party leaders in both SP and Congress, who did not wish to be named, admitted to polarisation of votes along religious lines in the state. This polarisation has chipped away the Samajwadi Party’s ‘MY’ (Muslims plus Yadav) electoral formula.
Zafarul Islam Khan, editor of the Milli Gazette, says fewer Muslims being fielded by parties like the Congress and SP was understandable. “One cannot blame them when the atmosphere in Uttar Pradesh has become communally polarised and vitiated, particularly now, with Yogi Adityanath leading the BJP campaign. These parties also need to ensure that their candidates win,” Khan said. He said it was probably the assessment of these parties that Muslims might not make for winnable candidates in a polarised atmosphere.
Of the 11 seats, 10 were won by BJP candidates in the 2012 assembly elections and the Rohaniya seat by Apna Dal’s Anupriya Patel. Rohaniya seat falls in the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, which elected Narendra Modi as its member of Parliament. The 11 assembly seats going to polls are Saharanpur Nagar, Bijnore, Thakurdwara, Noida, Nighasan, Lucknow East, Hamirpur, Charkhari, Sirathu, Rohaniya and Balha (SC).
Image: Muslim women, who were displaced by deadly religious strife last year, stand in a queue to cast their votes in Palra village of Muzaffarnagar during the general elections in 2014. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters