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February 7, 1998


Bombay's Muslims confused by SP's tie-up with Congress

Syed Firdaus Ashraf

The seat adjustment between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party in Bombay, under which the Congress will contest three of the city's six seats, leaving two for the SP and one for the Republican Party of India, has thrown the Muslim community in a tizzy.

That the community continues to be angry at the Congress for one, failing to prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid and two, for protecting it during the Bombay riots of 1993, is a fact.

That Muslims of the city, wholeheartedly voted for the SP in the last parliamentary election thus causing the defeat of the Congress in all the six city seats, is a fact.

Today, naturally, the SP's tie-up with the Congress has resulted in confusion in their minds.

Says Asghar Ali Engineer, chairperson, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, "Muslims in large numbers voted for the SP in the last election to teach the Congress a lesson. That resulted in the division of secular votes and an easy victory for Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena candidates. So, they are unclear as to whom they should vote in the general election."

The SP, which had no significant presence in Bombay till recently, managed to win 21 wards in last year's election to the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the country's richest civic body. In the 1995 assembly election, it managed to win two assembly seats from the city, one more than the Congress.

"Mulayam Singh Yadav, president of the SP, turned out to be a messiah in Bombay after he challenged the BJP's supremacy in Uttar Pradesh. However, the SP's decision to go for a seat adjustment with the Congress has taken all of us by surprise. I think because of this seat adjustment, the Muslim community may vote for Congress if only to prevent the BJP-SS sweeping Bombay," says Maulana Riyaz, vice-president, Ulema Council, a body of Muslim religious organisations.

Agrees Syed Ziauddin, an advertising executive, "At present my community is confused as to whom to vote for. The Janata Dal has also fielded its candidates. Moreover, the Sonia factor is also playing an important role among Muslim women voters in Bombay. Even I am confused as to whom I will vote this time."

Like in Uttar Pradesh, where the JD and the SP are fighting each other, in Bombay too the JD has fielded candidates against the Congress and the SP, prominent among them being veteran trade union leader Sharad Rao from Bombay South Central, and former inspector general of police Aftab Ahmed Khan from Bombay North West.

"There are chances that some Muslims may vote for Khan because he is a Muslim and had done a lot of good work for the community during the Bombay riots," adds Ziauddin.

However, Abu Asim Azmi, president of the SP's Bombay unit, dismisses this view and says Muslims will not vote for the Janata Dal or any other centrist party "because they know they have no chances of winning."

"It is only the SP and the Congress party in Bombay which can challenge the Sena-BJP alliance," Azmi says.

In the last general election, three of the six Congress candidates in the city lost mainly because of the division in the 'secular' vote. Muslims, who are a crucial factor in these three constituencies, along with the Dalits in Bombay voted for the SP candidate, Akhtar Rizvi in North West, Marzban Patrawala in Bombay South and B C Kamble of the Republican Party of Inda from Bombay North Central, thus making it easy for the SS-BJP candidates to win.

The BJP's Jaywantiben Mehta won Bombay South bagging 44.68 per cent votes. Murli Deora, the sitting Congress MP, came second bagging 37.21 per cent of votes whereas the SP managed to bag 15.52 per cent of the votes. Together they polled more votes than Mehta.

The same holds true for Sharad Dighe, the Congress candidate from Bombay North Central. He bagged 30.30 per cent of the votes whereas the RPI's Kamble bagged 18.72 per cent of the votes. The Sena's Narayan Athawale won the seat by bagging 47.92 votes, less than the votes polled by Kamble and Dighe.

In Bombay North West, Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Sena bagged 45.40 per cent of the votes, while the Congress's Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar bagged 32.89 per cent votes and Akhtar Rizvi of the SP bagged 17.57 per cent votes, together amounting to 50.46 per cent.

Former chief minister Sharad Pawar had admitted then that the Congress lost in 10 parliamentary constituencies in Maharashtra, because the Muslims did not vote for the party.

In fact, the SP, which was an insignifcant force in Bombay till 1994, influenced six Muslim League councillors to rebel against party leader G M Banatwala and join the SP, after which it quickly grew in strength among the community.

Alarmed at the possibility that the Muslim vote may not play a positive role on the saffron alliance's chances, the Shiv Sena too has been making open overtures to the community. Thus, recently, Muslims were allowed to hold a large, international ijtema, a stone's throw from the home of Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, with the local administration pulling out all stops to facilitate this convention.

More recently, Thackeray's surprisingly placatory stance on the Babri Masjid, that it should be converted into a national monument and must not be allowed to remain a symbol of communal discord, has astounded one and all, but none more than Muslims themselves. Apart from this, the Sena has been harping on the fact that there have been no communal riots in the state in three years of its rule.

But there are sceptics to this atypical stance. "By stressing that there were no riots in Bombay for the last three years the Sena is indirectly stating that if they do not win the election there will be riots all over the city," says Riyaz.

Avers Engineer, "Under no circumstances will Muslims vote for the Sena. The wounds of the Bombay riots are still fresh in their minds, and nothing can make them forget that the riots were masterminded by the Sena."

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