February 22, 2017

India: Voting choices are based on needs, greed and security | Irfan Engineer

The next assembly elections in UP will begin from 11th February 2017 in
several phases. The Samajwadi Party in alliance with Congress is hopeful of
second term under the leadership of the incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh
Yadav. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav recently emerged victorious in the
family feud sidelining his uncle Shivpal Yadav and leaving no option for
his father but to hand over predominant role in running the Party to him.
The SP-Congress alliance is campaigning on the programme of development.
The SP traditionally relied on the Muslim-Yadav social alliance with some
other OBC also being mobilized. Akhilesh seemed to have won over the bulk
of support of the Yadavs as well as Muslims along with a section of youth,
campaigning on the issue of development, implementation of welfare schemes
like distribution of laptops, service of ambulances for the sick etc.

The BJP, which had won in 71 out of the 80 Lok Sabha Constituencies in the
year 2014 in 16th General Elections and two more for its alliance partner –
Apna Dal, is fighting a tough challenge to win majority or near majority in
this election, let alone repeating its performance in the General
Elections. The BJP is trying every trick in the book – rubbishing the
claims of development done by the SP Govt. and asserting that it alone is
capable of developing UP.

There seems to be a neat division of labour within the BJP. Prime Minister
Modi talks of development agenda in order to win over the youth. The Prime
Minister also arouses aspirations of the people through *jumlas* to make a
point that those benchmarks were not achieved by the incumbent Govt. and
that his Party would fulfil them. For example, number of jobs, investments,
infrastructure like roads, electricity etc. Other BJP leaders and RSS –
ideological parent of the BJP – indoctrinated leaders have been kicking up
every possible issue to communally polarize the electorate since a while in
run upto the Assembly elections. BJP MP Hukum Singh claimed that Hindus
were forced to migrate out of Kairana, a Muslim majority town in Shamli, by
Muslim gangsters and their extortion racquet. Sakshi Maharaj has been
problematizing higher population growth rate of Muslims which, according to
them would demographically marginalize Hindus. Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana,
BJP MLAs from western UP stigmatized Muslims as cow slaughterers and
supported the lynch mob of Dadri killing Mohammed Akhlaq and seriously
injuring his son. They have been stigmatizing Muslim youth as eve-teasers,
entrapping Hindu women into marital alliances for sexual exploitation and
demographic advantage. BJP leaders have been exploiting the issue of triple
talaq and promising Uniform Civil Code as a measure to “Hinduize” the
Muslims. BJP has raised the issue of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in order to
assert the political hegemony of “Hindus” undermining the Constitutional
pledge of equal citizenship.

Demonizing the Muslim community has led to high occurrence of communal
violence in UP. The state of UP has the dubious reputation of highest
number of communal violence every year and particularly as election
approaches. There were several instances of communal violence, particularly
in the western region of UP since 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots which resulted
in 64 deaths and displacement of about 150,000 Muslims. In the year 2016,
of the 8 deaths were reported in media monitored by CSSS in communal riots
all over India. As many as 6 took place in UP alone. UP also returned
highest number of incidents of communal violence reported in the media in
the year 2016 – 18 out of 62. Most of these riots were in Western UP.
Communal violence had led to rupture in the social fabric in Western UP,
particularly between the jats and the Muslims. BJP leaders have been
accused of abeting, instigating and/or leading the riots, e.g Sangeet Som
in Muzaffarnagar and Ismaria Choudhary in Bijnor riots.

Projecting Muslim community as an existential threat to Hindus, the BJP
intends to position itself as the defender of “Hindu interests” and
mobilize votes of all castes without jeoperdizing caste based hierarchy and
hegemonic interests of elite of upper castes. In fact, by posing Muslims as
existential threat to Hindus, the BJP undermines the struggle of the dalits
and the oppressed sections of OBCs for equality and blunts their
consciousness despite having equal political rights guaranteed by the
Constitution. The BSP is trying to achieve social alliance of Dalits and
Muslims by distributing large number of tickets to Muslim leaders – over 98
out of 403 seats (more than 24% of seats) even though Muslims constitute
19% of the population.

*Visit to Western UP*

Our visit to Western UP on 4th and 5th February 2017 was undertaken to
understand the electoral process, mobilization of communities and its
impact on inter-relations between various communities. The exercise was
neither to survey nor to predict electoral outcomes. We visited and talked
to members of various castes and communities in groups to understand their
perspectives and issues they thought were important influencing their
voting choices.

The notion that Muslims constituted one community or the community behaved
as a vote bank melted away in no time. The community neither voted as a
vote bank in last elections nor did it appear it would do so in this
election. The Muslim community is as diverse as any other community is –
along caste lines as well as class lines and their electoral choices are
influenced by their social location and not only on their religion. In the
last Assembly elections, Suresh Rana, BJP won the Assembly elections from
Thana Bhavana Constituency in Shamli District even though Muslims
constitute about 55% of the electorate with a narrow margin of 265 votes!
Muslim votes were divided between Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Abdul Waris Khan and
Samajwadi Party’s Kiran Pal. The Muslim community is divided along caste
lines as well. Muslims are from Rajputs, Jats, Gujjars, and other backward
biradaries among Muslims.

Talking to various Muslim and Jat members of the community, it appeared
that they have put the communal riots in 2013 behind them. The Jats said
they were misled by the BJP leaders and recalled long history of fraternal
bonds between the two communities. They remembered participation in each
other’s marriages, last rites and festivals and had shared cultural ethos.
The shared cultural ethos includes keeping women in veil (the nature of
veil may change), no marriages within the village, restricted liberties to
women, etc. Both the communities were mobilized together on issues faced by
the farmers.

The members of Jat community were perturbed by the demonetization in
particular and marginalization of the peasantry in general. The fundamental
issue for them was un-remunerative minimum support prices for farm produce
or lack of it. Waiver of loans did not attract the Jats we talked to, on
account of their inability to pay back loans as the incomes of the farmers
had taken a big hit in the last 2-3 years. The Jats were certainly not
inclined to support the BJP. They seemed to be divided on whom they would
vote for – Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) seemed to the choice of majority but
some were also supporting Sudhir Panwar, SP-Congress alliance candidate and
a Jat himself.

The Muslims we talked to too seemed to have at least for now, and for the
purpose of this elections, put the communal conflict and violence
associated with it behind them. They too, like the Jats did not buy the
propaganda that demonetization would ultimately lead to benefits of any
significance to the nation or the economy and underlined the hardships
caused by the measure. We talked to two groups of Muslims – one were group
of Rajput Muslims and some dalit Muslims. The Rajputs were staunchly
supporting the Rashtriya Lok Dal party and desired Jat-Muslim unity to
revive the RLD’s fortunes as in the past.

However, there was equally strong voice in favour of SP-Congress alliance
supporting the developmental work done by Akhilesh’s Govt. When asked what
development the Govt. had done, they pointed out towards distribution of
laptops, ambulance service, electric supply and better roads. Abdul Waris
Khan’s supporters were equally confident that Muslims would vote for them.
Waris Khan is a Rajput Muslim contesting from the BSP. In the last
elections in 2012, Waris Khan lost to BJP’s Suresh Kumar Rana but polled
50001 votes whereas Suresh Kumar polled 53,719 votes and Ashraf Ali Khan of
RLD had polled 53454 votes. Waris Khan won in 2007 contesting on RLD
ticket. In 2012, Suresh Kumar of BJP won only by a thin margin of 265 votes
as Muslim votes were divided between Waris Khan and Ashraf Ali Khan – both
being Rajput Muslims.

The poorer and labouring class Muslims seemed to be supporting the BSP –
seen as a dalit party. The upper caste Rajput Muslims nurture a separate
community feeling and solidarity with the land owning Jats and Rajputs when
there is absence of communal polarisation whereas they seek solidarity of
the backward caste Muslims when communal polarization is heightened.

When we visited SP-Congress alliance candidate – Sudhir Panwar’s (a Jat)
election tent in Thana Bhawan, we saw Jats, Muslims, Sainis in the tent
planning for election campaign. The Muslims in the tent were sure
overwhelming majority of them will be voting for the Alliance. The Jats in
the tent too were confident of the Jats voting Sudhir Panwar who was
contesting on the plank of communal harmony and peace as one amongst many

When we visited the upper caste Hindus – Sainis and Rajputs, their issues
in the elections were different than the Muslims or Jats we met. They were
problematizing regional issues. Western UP was kept backwards by the ruling
dispensation as they were largely from the Eastern UP. They felt left out
of the development agenda of the state. All the jobs went to the youth from
Eastern UP and particularly to the Yadavs and Muslims. All the state
contracts, educational institutions, and other institutions were cornered
by the other regions being represented by the politicians of the ruling
clan in general and Yadav-Muslims in particular. They felt alienated and
marginalized from the state power (though they appeared much better off in
reality). The youth problematized reservations in jobs, education and other
affirmative action. To them it was unfair discrimination against the upper
caste youth and reservations should only be based on economic criteria.
They supported BJP and trusted that BJP’s victory would lead to development
of Western UP on priority basis as political leaders from the west would
dominate. There was no talk of justice or equality – only perceived
injustice *and* aspiration of reversing the equations – belief that BJP’s
victory would lead to reverse discrimination. Now *they* needed to benefit
from political nepotism with *their* leaders being in power. According to
them, demonetization was a good action though it temporarily led to
problems. In the long run, demonetization would check corruption, black
money and counter terrorism.

The above discourse shows that no community or caste is a vote bank. There
is diversity and voting choices are dependent on variety of factors,
including religious, socio-cultural and economic factors. Social location
of the individual influences voting choices and not religion alone. There
are three factors that can influence voting choices – need, greed and
security. Those whose basic human needs are not met, they are dependent on
welfare. State provides only a tiny fraction of social welfare needed by
large sections of poor in the country. Through whom social welfare can be
accessed may determine the choice of the needy voters – dalits, adivasis,
landless, etc. Those whose needs are fulfilled, need social networks to
access their aspiration for upward mobility and more riches and privileges.
Which social network helps this objective may determine electoral choices
for some. Victims of communal and caste violence and high handedness of
security forces vote for the party or leader that promises security to
them. These factors were playing the voting choices of the people we met
and interacted with.

[Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai]