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Jockeying for the Muslim vote

By T V R Shenoy
February 10, 2006 11:46 IST
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Mulayam Singh Yadav was, as those with long memories may recall, the defence minister of India from 1996 to 1998. The joke in South Block was that he was more interested in the conquest of Lucknow than of Lahore! So what has led the Samajwadi Party boss to threaten to table a no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha following the Manmohan Singh ministry's decision to vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting?

There is a simple answer: Muslim votes. The Samajwadi Party and the Left Front are absolutely delighted with the current turn of events. We can expect the Election Commission to announce the polling dates in West Bengal and Kerala very soon. The Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha still has some way to go but the political situation is so fluid that the jockeying for position has already begun.

The vote against Iran might not have made a particularly catchy election issue, but recent events have conspired to make it otherwise. I refer, of course, to the Cartoon Riots that have spread across the world. They have, once again, made it clear that there are some issues that concern Muslims across the globe irrespective of nationality. A large section of Muslims -- perhaps even the majority -- now seem to believe that the 'West' is conspiring against Islam, thus making the Danish cartoons and the efforts to rein in Iran seem part of a larger 'conspiracy.'

This perception leads both Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Marxist comrades to believe that the Congress has blundered. If the United States is anti-Muslim, and the Manmohan Singh ministry voted with the Americans against an Islamic power, then the Congress is itself inimical to Muslims. That is the logic that the Samajwadi Party and the Left want voters to believe.

As far as West Bengal is concerned this may be the first truly fair election since 1977, with the Election Commission determined to be as strict as it was in neighbouring Bihar. Personally, I think the Left Front will still romp home but the Marxists are taking no chances. Kerala should be, if anything, an even safer bet for the Left given the truly pathetic performance of the Congress-led United Democratic Front ministry. But margins of victory are traditionally small in Kerala, and every vote counts.

Conspiracy theories about a 'Christian West' manoeuvring to target the world of Islam carry a lot of resonance in southern India. I was in Bangalore

last week, and was surprised to hear a friend tell me that the Congress was secretly against Muslims. He was very serious about it, giving me a breakdown of the Congress leadership in the south.

The two chief ministers who have led the UDF ministry in Kerala are Christians, namely A K Antony and Oomen Chandy. Antony is in charge of Karnataka, which is also represented in the Congress Working Committee by Margaret Alva and Oscar Fernandes (Christians both).

The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasekhara Reddy, is a Christian, as is CWC member N Janardhan Reddy. Vayalar Ravi, who joined the Union Cabinet in the recent reshuffle, is married to a Christian. And so on and so forth. As my interlocutor put it, rather bitterly, south of the Vindhyas the only 'minority' recognised by the Congress is the Christian segment.

I am fairly certain that the same compilation has been made by the CPI-M. Marxist cadres are already spreading the word in Kerala that Mani Shankar Aiyar was shunted out of the petroleum ministry because he was pushing for the gas pipeline from Iran, thus inviting American wrath. Sonia Gandhi's 'neglect' of Muslim leaders from southern India and her government's friendship with the United States are really two sides of the same electoral coin.

The campaign to spread this impression seems to be faring quite well in Kerala (where I spent 10 days last week). But I honestly cannot say how much of an impact it will have on the election. The Antony and Oomen Chandy ministries made such a name for themselves for non-performance that it is hard to believe that any additional unpopularity would make much of a difference!

But if all this pleases the Left and Mulayam Singh Yadav, such talk goes down badly with the DMK and the Muslim League. Both parties are already enjoying the fruits of power, meaning berths in the Union Council of Ministers. Both also count, to a lesser or greater extent, on Muslim votes. With Prakash Karat and Mulayam Singh Yadav both raising the tempo about the Manmohan Singh ministry being 'pro-American' -- by implication 'anti-Muslim' -- the DMK and Muslim League are scared of guilt by association.

I am absolutely sure that we shall hear more, a lot more, about the American influence in Delhi, until the elections are held in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. But there is no truly serious debate about foreign policy in the future. The true aim is the Muslim vote.

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