The victory of Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate Dimple Yadav in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat by-poll with a record margin is politically significant. The SP ranks are celebrating the victory, hoping that it would act as a launch pad for propelling Akhilesh Yadav into national opposition politics and create momentum for a credible performance in the 2024 LS polls. But many observers feel that the defeat of the SP candidate in the by-poll for the Rampur Assembly seat would have greater political ramifications.
For the BJP, the victory in Rampur is no ordinary victory. It is not just winning the Rampur seat for the first time, but winning in a seat where a big majority of the voters are Muslims. The 2011 Census put the share of Muslims in Rampur district at 50 per cent. Within the district, the Rampur assembly segment is a Muslim-concentrated area, with the share of Muslim voters at least 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher compared to the district average.
Winning this seat with a Hindu candidate, Akash Saxena, is all the more significant for the BJP. That he has won with a huge margin of almost 34,000 votes shows that beyond the core Hindu votes, a sizeable section of Muslims also voted for the BJP. The Rampur by-polls have blown the conventional wisdom that Muslims would never vote for the right-wing BJP in sizeable chunks. This calls for an explanation.
For the SP also, the Rampur defeat is no ordinary defeat. It has blown the myth that the core M-Y alliance in SP’s electoral forays is unassailable. In June 2022, the SP lost the Lok Sabha by-polls for both Rampur Lok Sabha constituency as well as Azamgarh, which used to be held by Akhilesh Yadav earlier. Both the seats witnessed by-polls as Azam Khan and Akhilesh Yadav gave up their Lok Sabha seats to contest UP Assembly elections.
No lessons taken
Rampur and Azamgarh were the strongest bastions of the Samajwadi Party and SP leaders attributed both defeats to sharp communal polarization. The BJP candidate in Azamgarh, Dinesh Lal Yadav, defeated the SP candidate, Dharmendra Yadav, by 8,679 votes. Besides upper caste Hindus and a section of Yadav and MBC voters, the Dalits, who earlier used to vote with the Muslims, voted for the BJP. Interestingly, a section of socially-lower sections of Muslims — Dalit or lower OBC Muslims like Ansaris, called Pasmanda Muslims as per the new narrative — also voted for the BJP as per local reporters. But at that time, it did not become a big issue.
The polling percentage in both places was very low — 49.43 per cent in Rampur and 41.39 per cent in Azamgarh. Local activists in Rampur were of the opinion that Muslims did not come out in large numbers to vote for SP, especially in Muslim-majority Rampur Assembly segment, and this was interpreted as personal resentment against Azam Khan. Still, SP leaders should have taken it seriously and come up with a suitable response to set their own house in order by instilling confidence in the Muslim community and overcoming their fear psychosis. They seem to have failed miserably.
Subsequently, the administration convicted Azam Khan in a hate speech case. By that same criterion, Yogi Adityanath or BJP ministers of state at the Centre, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti or Giriraj Singh, or, for that matter, Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM or his brother, should have been convicted in 100 cases. Strangely, the dispensation of justice took a one-sided character. Normally, one would have expected the majority of Muslim voters to vote for Azam Khan’s hand-picked Mohammed Raja in a sympathy wave. Instead, a sizeable chunk of Muslims did quite the opposite and voted for the BJP. Why? What is the Muslim psyche behind this accommodation with the “enemy”?
The Federal spoke to some Muslim leaders and activists in UP to understand the mood of the community and two major themes emerged. First, Yogi is not using a carrot-and-stick approach to get Muslim votes. Rather, he is using only the stick to terrorize them into a fear psychosis and political submission. Second, the BJP is also adopting the divisive tactics of pitting Pasmanda Muslims — lower caste and Dalit Muslims — against Qureshi and other elite Muslims. And this has started yielding some early results.
BJP’s new strategy
In Rampur, this time, fear was the key. While they were already in a defensive mood, Muslims have gone totally into a shell now. Veteran freelance journalist Bhasha Singh told The Federal, “There were reports that Muslims would be prevented from voting, and so there was a huge deployment of police in Rampur. Locals sent fax messages to the Election Commission, but nothing was done. SP was clearly giving a walkover to the BJP by not challenging this murder of democracy in Rampur. Muslims were helpless”. The young firebrand leader of SP, Richa Singh, admitted to The Federal: “Though it was already known that the Muslims would be prevented from voting, we were not proactive.”
Syed Husain Afsar, a journalist of the Urdu daily Rozana Aag from Lucknow, echoed Bhasha Singh’s views, “Muslims in Rampur were threatened, beaten up, and prevented from voting. That is why the voting percentage was so low. There was fear psychosis as people feared anything could happen. Police were brandishing pistols. Women in burqas were being harassed. Men were taken to thanas and beaten. There is no democracy. Might is right.”
A Muslim SP leader based in Lucknow, who did not want to be named, told The Federal, “Yogi’s administration had virtually put the constituency under siege. There was heavy police deployment. Some minor clashes were instigated in some areas and the police lathi-charged. On the eve of the polling day, a tense feeling was created in the entire constituency that something major would happen. By the early hours of polling, the tension was palpable. From many booths, Muslim women voters were sent back saying they could not vote with Aadhaar card as identity proof and that they should bring their voter identity cards. But they were not issued voter identity cards in the first place. When they protested, they were beaten up and sent back to their localities. The news spread like wildfire. Rumours spread fast that those Muslims who go out to vote would be beaten or could even be killed. Almost every locality was barricaded and after a few incidents of lathi-charge, there was an undeclared curfew-like situation and people were not allowed to come out of their houses in many Muslim localities. Due to such a fear psychosis created very early in the polling day, by noon the polling had not even touched 20 per cent. Muslim women and elders stayed inside, and only some youth dared to go out and vote.”
The defensive Muslim
But in a Muslim-majority constituency, why did the Muslims not take to the streets and resist? The answer lies in the peculiar psyche that the Muslims find themselves in. Rehne do (let it be!) and Chod do (leave it!) were the common refrains. Not just Muslim elders, but the entire community seems to have taken a strategic decision not to pay back in the same coin against saffron assaults, as this could lead to something far worse.
Syed Mohammad Shahab, a Congress leader from Prayagraj West, captured the Muslim mood for The Federal. “It is not true that the SP lost. They were prevented from voting. There was terror as voters were being intimidated and prevented from coming out of their houses and stopped from voting on the pretext of possession of only Aadhaar card or the absence of their name in the electoral rolls. Muslims have strategically decided not to make it an issue because they see the EC, the courts and the media as agents of the BJP. There is also no political party standing up for them. Only Rahul speaks against the RSS, but that too is not appreciated in the party, and many local Congress leaders feel he should be more circumspect. He too is being forced to woo the Hindus the very next day by pro-Hindu posturing…he is doing pooja in temples wearing traditional Hindu attire and wearing tilak on the forehead. So, there is no ideological challenge to the BJP.”
There is fear and despondency among Muslims. A defensive mood was gradually crystallizing among the Muslims earlier too, except during the CAA protests which they saw as a do-or-die battle. A similar spirit is conspicuously absent today. A feeling of helplessness has gripped them. They feel that nobody — the Samajwadi Party, Mayawati or Congress — can protect them. General elections might be a different proposition. Why stick our necks out during the by-polls? This was the mood in Rampur.
The Pasmanda Muslims
There is another side to BJP’s strategy. They have taken a leaf out of Mayawati’s Bhaichaara Baithaks (Dalit-Brahman Brotherhood Meets) and Trump’s tea party meets to organize ‘Kichchadi Panchayats’ as Hindu-Muslim harmony meets in Rampur this time. Dozens of such meets were organized. A sizeable number of Muslims — especially poor and lower caste Pasmanda Muslims — participated.
This is a new tactic for Muslim outreach consciously being followed since the October 17 Pasmanda Muslim convention organized in Lucknow. They had originally planned to organize a Pasmanda convention in Rampur as well. But they changed their tactics to organize Kichchadi Panchayats instead. Also, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas, Sabka Vishwas’ was the main poll slogan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and other BJP Muslim leaders were sent for the campaign. As the polling day neared, the party started wielding the stick too, this time using the administration.
When there is mass fear psychosis, any psychotherapy can work only through the political process. What is worrisome is that Akhilesh has reportedly instructed senior party leaders not to talk about Rampur terror for three days until the party articulates a proper response. Instead, he should have rushed to the constituency on the polling day and created a big ruckus, making it a national issue. With a laidback political style of resignation, he cannot instill confidence among the Muslims, Yadavs and other MBCs to come up with a fitting political response to BJP’s strong-arm tactics.
Rampur has sent a very ominous warning signal for the SP. If SP cannot sustain the core Muslim-Yadav vote bank, how can it win majority seats in UP, and how then can Akhilesh Yadav play an effective role at the national level?