[New York Times] How to Woo Muslim Voters in Uttar Pradesh

Men cheering for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, at his rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on March 2.
Men cheering for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, at his rally in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on March 2. Credit: Sonia Paul

LUCKNOW, India — As Narendra Modi gains momentum as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, attention is turning to Muslim voters in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh, who have been regarding him warily because of ties to right-wing Hindu groups that have attacked Muslims.

Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament at stake in the national elections, the most of any state in India. Muslims make up around 18 percent of the nearly 200 million people in the state and have historically provided support for the governing party in New Delhi, the Indian National Congress, and the regional Samajwadi Party, which is currently running the government in Uttar Pradesh.

Regional parties dominate Uttar Pradesh and could siphon off votes from either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress so that neither gets an outright majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has won the parliamentary seat of the Lucknow district for the past several terms. Other districts in Uttar Pradesh are less settled.

Winning over Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh requires a more complex strategy than just fielding a Muslim candidate, because they don’t vote as a bloc and they don’t base their vote solely on religion.

“One problem is that we don’t know how people actually vote,” saidRaphael Susewind, a political anthropologist who has studied Muslim identity and electoral politics in Lucknow, in an interview last autumn. “We do know how Muslims vote. But that doesn’t tell how Sunni or Shiites vote.”

The Shiite-Sunni strife comes into play in places like Lucknow, where the division between the two communities is wide. Sunnis will do what Shiites don’t, and vice versa.

The Shiite population is also generally regarded as more affluent and business-oriented than the Sunni population, and for that reason might be inclined to support the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Susewind said.

Maulana Yasoob Abbas, spokesman for the All India Shia Personal Law Board, an organization that represents the Shiite community in India, said that some Shiite Muslims supported the B.J.P., but “not 100 percent.”

“Every party is looking at the vote bank,” he said. “We’re still looking at the candidates and trying to figure it out.”

Mr. Abbas said his organization would announce its endorsement for prime minister in the next couple of weeks.

S.M. Sabih, 38, an Urdu newsreader for All India Radio, said the Muslim vote would depend largely upon the mandate of clerics, who have their own political interests and don’t always align with the Muslim candidate.

“Whoever the religious leaders support, the Muslim community will support,” he said.

Prashant Bhatt, who works for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election management team for Uttar Pradesh, said voting based on caste and identity would also be among the biggest hurdles for the party. Uttar Pradesh has a significant Dalit, or lower caste, population, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has its stronghold in the state, was formed to represent members of the lower caste.

“People don’t cast their vote,” Mr. Bhatt said. “They vote their caste.”

But the bribes that plague every election season overshadow the credibility of party workers, politicians, religious leaders and polling companies alike, said Syed Husain Afsar, an editor for anUrdu news site that attracts a predominantly Muslim audience. He said it was too easy to pay people to attract votes, or to create an illusion that voters, including Muslims, are swinging toward one candidate more than another.

“This is a play of money,” he said. “It is very difficult for the common voter to find out what is the truth and where the lies start.”

Mr. Modi clearly isn’t waiting around for Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh to sift through the news reports and polls to make up their minds. He has visited the state eight times since announcing his candidacy last autumn. Local influencers are also doing their part to help his party.

On the evening of Feb. 28, a trickle of people, mostly men, made their way to the third floor of the crumbling Lucknow Municipal Corporation building in the center of the city. A few members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent group of the Bharatiya Janata Party, had arranged what they called an “interactive session” with Muslims in Lucknow before Mr. Modi’s rally the following Sunday.

Community members at a meeting, sponsored by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, about Muslims and secularism at the Municipal Corporation building in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb. 28.
Community members at a meeting, sponsored by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, about Muslims and secularism at the Municipal Corporation building in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb. 28. Credit: Sonia Paul

The meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m., but the organizers postponed its start until after the evening namaz, or Muslim daily prayer, to ensure a wide turnout. About 65 people were seated in the room when the meeting started just after 7 p.m., climbing to 92 at one point. In between, three members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh talked to the crowd about secularism in India.

“It’s as if the Ku Klux Klan decided to have an interaction with the blacks,” said Mohammad Rashid, 49, a Sunni activist and writer in Lucknow. He was sitting in the back of the spacious room where the meeting was held, quietly munching on cloves and watching a man wearing a topi, the kind of hat often worn by Muslims, walk down the aisle, shaking hands with people.

“There would be a certain percentage of black people attending that meeting,” Mr. Rashid said. “I’m sure they wouldn’t be there with an open mind or because they have a natural inclination toward the Ku Klux Klan. They would be there because someone’s benefit is attached …” His voice trailed off. “I mean, there are so many reasons. For a friend’s sake, maybe.”

Mr. Rashid said he attended the meeting to hear what the Hindu organization had to say, and because his friend had helped plan it. When asked whether he would support Mr. Modi, he didn’t say yes or no. He only sighed.

“Well, he’s a reality,” he said. “I can’t deny it.”

Tariq Durrani, a Sunni Muslim who has been a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter for the past two decades and one of the organizers of the meeting, said he had to take the fact that anybody showed up as a success even though the turnout was much smaller than what he had hoped for.

“Because you are working on very nonfertile ground,” he said, chuckling. “If one seed germinates, it’s more than enough.”

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow. You can find her on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece was originally published on March 6, 2014, on the New York Times.

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