In May 2018, the Lok Sabha seat of Kairana and the Assembly constituency of Noorpur, both in communally-sensitive western Uttar Pradesh, were up for bye-polls. The two incumbents had died mid-term.

In a charged speech during a campaign tour days before the elections, Chief Minister Adityanath hit out at the Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. “[He] doesn’t have the courage to come here and campaign. His hands are stained with the blood of Muzaffarnagar riot victims,” he said, referring to the communal clashes in the area in 2013 that had left over 60 dead.

The Samajwadi Party was contesting the Noorpur seat and was backing the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a western Uttar Pradesh-centric party, in Kairana.

Adityanath’s comment invoked a sharp reaction among the cadres of the Samajwadi Party, according to a senior party leader closely associated with the campaign. “Initially, we thought he [Akhilesh Yadav] should respond by going to Noorpur,” said the leader.

But Yadav did not go to either place. This despite the fact that the Rashtriya Lok Dal had previously announced the former chief minister as one of their “star campaigners”.

Yadav’s absence was deliberate, said the Samajwadi Party leader. “We had the RLD with us,” he said, implying that the party was confident of courting Jat voters, the core constituency of the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

As for the other large community in the two seats, the Muslims, “they were going to vote for us only”, the leader said, with the Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress not in the fray. “If Akhilesh ji would have gone, Muslims would have turned up in large numbers in the rally and the visuals would have been splashed everywhere,” he said. “That is exactly what the BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata Party] plan was as it would have led to counter-polarisation of Hindu voters.”

Shedding an image

Samajwadi Party ended up winning in Noorpur and the Rashtriya Lok Dal in Kairana. But more importantly, the 2018 bye-polls revealed what would become the Samajwadi Party’s calculated political strategy to shed its image as party reliant on Muslim votes. The party’s rationale for this attempted image makeover is that its earlier avatar – as an outfit that heavily leaned on the support of Muslims, next only to Yadavs – was providing fodder for the BJP’s Hindutva politics, according to its leaders.

In the last couple of months, with the Assembly elections in the state imminent, this posturing has become all the more pronounced. Yadav has visited a slew of Hindu temples, time and again proclaiming that he was a “bigger” and “better” Hindu than the leaders of the BJP. Political observers have also noted a conscious attempt on Yadav’s part not to share stage with Muslim leaders too often.

Political journalist Radhika Ramasheshan in a recent column, remarked that Yadav has been trying to “match, if not outdo, the BJP on religiosity”. “Gone were the days when the SP assiduously and openly courted Muslims,” Ramasheshan wrote.

This was starkly evident in the absence of any significant protest by the party as its most influential Muslim leader and nine-time legislator Azam Khan was arrested by the BJP government in February 2020. Khan and his family have had over a hundred criminal cases slapped against them.

While Khan was reported to be upset over this seeming desertion, Samajwadi Party leaders insist it was a well thought-out move. “Azam Khan sa’ab knows very well that his problems will not be solved if Akhilesh ji hits the street in his support,” said a close aide of the Yadav. “They will be solved when we come back to power and for that to happen, what we are doing is necessary.”

Hilal Ahmed, a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the Samajwadi Party had little choice but to underplay its appeal to Muslims. “Hindutva is the dominant narrative of politics currently,” Ahmed said. “So in every decade of Indian politics, you have to follow the rules of the game, whether socialism, secularism, etc. Hindutva is the new game now – so they have to follow it.”

Yet, Ahmed pointed out that there are other ways in which the party can retain Muslim support. In addition to the Hindu outreach at the “narrative level”, Ahmed said, “at the constituency-level, there would be different kinds of configurations and bargains with local influencers of the community.”

In a photo from 2014, Azam Khan (in a black cap) is seen with Akhilesh Yadav's father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the founder of the Samajwadi Party. Photo: AFP

Muslim anxieties

Regardless, the Samajwadi Party’s Hindu posturing has not been lost on the state’s Muslim community, which accounts for around 20% of its total population.

Many Muslims this correspondent met in Uttar Pradesh appeared to be uneasy with the Samajwadi Party’s seeming Hindu appeasement. “Netaji’s secularism was unquestionable,” said Afag Khan, a former politician with the Jan Morcha party in Unnao, referring to the Samajwadi founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. “But we can’t say the same thing about Akhilesh with certainty.”

Such apprehensions are frequently voiced by Muslims supporters of the party. A long-time Muslim worker of Samajwadi Party in its bastion of Etawah said it could pay for taking Muslim voters “for granted”. “The calculation is that there is no alternative, but the Congress’s open support during the time of anti-CAA-NRC violence has endeared it to many people,” he said.

In December 2019, as the ferment against the amended citizenship rules and a proposed National Register of Citizens reached Uttar Pradesh, the state police came down heavily on Muslim protesters. At the time, sections of the community believe, the Congress was the only major political party that did not shy away from siding with them even as other opposition parties kept a safe distance.

In Etawah, expressing bitterness with the Samajwadi Party, 28-year-old Mohammad Akram, who runs a juice shop, said: “People say it is a Muslim-Yadav party. But it is Yadavs who got everything under them. We are only remembered at the time of voting.”

Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which has also joined the electoral fray in Uttar Pradesh, is hoping to cash in on such anxieties. The campaign plank of the firebrand leader, who is a member of Parliament from Hyderabad, is that the Samajwadi Party had over the years thought of Muslims as a vote-bank and little more.

Asaduddin Owaisi addressing an election meeting in western Uttar Pradesh's Meerut

The rise of Hindu fundamentalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made Owasi’s brand of identity politics alluring to a section Muslims, lending him a more national profile in recent years. Electorally, though, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s record remains patchy. While the party managed to secure five seats in the Muslim-majority Seemachal region of Bihar in 2020, the party failed to open its account in West Bengal earlier this year.

Leaders of the Samajwadi Party insist neither Congress nor AIMIM pose a threat to it. “The target of the larger sections [of Muslims] is to get rid of the BJP,” said Rajeev Rai, a spokesperson for the party. “For that we are doing what we have to do. We don’t want to play on the pitch laid down by the BJP.”

Not everyone buys that. Arshi Khan, who teaches political scientist at Aligharh Muslim Univeristy, said Samajwadi Party was certainly not charting its own path, he said. “Akhilesh is doing what he is because he will lose the Hindu vote if he doesn’t do so, owing to the culture that has been created,” said Khan, alluding to the religious polarisation that marked the state’s current politics.

But Khan agreed that the party remained the “most acceptable” among all other alternatives to most Muslims. “Muslims are hurt by the changes taking place within the SP, but not to the extent that they will reject it. That is largely because there is no other choice.”