For the first time in years, Maharashtra’s Muslims are being wooed by Hindutva parties. Politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena are going to masjids, doing padyatras in Muslim areas and treating Muslim voters as if they actually mattered.

“This election has increased goodwill between the communities,” said Masood Peshimam, a lawyer from Kalyan, near Mumbai. “Let’s hope this atmosphere stays even after the elections.”

That, of course, depends on whether Muslims ‒ who form 10.6% of the electorate in the state ‒ do actually vote for the Hindutva parties. But they are likely to do so in larger numbers than usual because Muslims are disappointed that the so-called secular alliance of the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress has done little for the community in the 15 years that it has ruled the state. That was obvious from the report of the Mehmood-ur-Rahman committee set up in 2008 to inquire into the status of Muslims in Maharashtra. It showed that 60% of Muslims live below the poverty line. They are discriminated against and do not trust the state police.

The state government’s announcement in June of reservations for Muslims didn’t really help.  It announced that 4.5% of government jobs and seats in educational institutions would be reserved for Muslims, even though the Mehmood-ur-Rahman committee’s recommended 8%. In addition, the categories of Muslims declared eligible for reservation did not tally with those who are truly backward.

 List of grievances

Even though the list of Muslim grievances against the Congress-NCP is long, just six months ago, community leaders were urging Muslims to set these aside and vote for “secular forces” and to keep out “fascist forces”. However, now that Narendra Modi has become prime minister, it appears that few Muslims are about his Bharatiya Janata Party ruling the state.

The reason for this sea-change is two-fold. First, the split in the two state’s main alliances ‒ the Congress and NCP on the one hand, and Shiv Sena and BJP on the other ‒ means that there is no longer a secular bloc battling a saffron bloc. With each party on its own, it’s every candidate’s record within the constituency that counts. Also, since every constituency is witnessing a five-cornered contest (with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena also in the fray), the victory margin might be only a few thousand votes. Candidates have no option but to woo every voter.

This has come as a refreshing change for Muslims. More important is the realisation after the Lok Sabha results that a party can come to power at the Centre without their votes. Now these very parties that ignored them and won nevertheless have sent out feelers. And many Muslims are more than eager to meet them halfway. “We want to be part of the mainstream,” said Nizam Qazi, the  Konkan convenor  of the Maharashtra Muslim Sanghatan, a federation of NGOs of Marathi-speaking Muslims, that has pledged support to the BJP.

The Sanghatan’s support could ensure the few thousand votes needed for a victory in constituencies with significant Muslim presence. There are five such seats in Ratnagiri district, said Faquir Mohammed Thakur, the chief convenor of the Sanghatan. In return for support, said Thakur the BJP has promised to fulfil three of the organisation’s demands: legislation to get back Waqf properties that have been usurped by individuals and the Congress-NCP government; implementation of the recent Supreme Court guidelines on undertrials who have been in jail for years (many of whom are Muslims accused in terror cases); and the filing of an Action Taken Report on the Mehmood-ur-Rahman committee recommendation.

 Making assurances

The first two assurances were also made by the Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray at a meeting he held with one faction of the Maharashtra Muslim Sangahatan, headed by Ateef Ahmed Dasedar. Dasedar’s team is now campaigning for Shiv Sena candidates such as Ravindra Waikar and Baburao Mane, both of them accused in the 1992-‘93 Mumbai riots.  The irony is not lost on Dasedar, who mumbles excuses about “mob mentality” and “Congress’ failure to control the riots”.

Interestingly, for the first time, Marathi-speaking Muslims are projecting themselves as Maharashtra’s original Muslims, distinguishing themselves from Mumbai’s Urdu-speaking North Indian Muslims, who Dasedar claims have dominated Muslim politics in the state despite being a minority. But this time, the usual spokesmen of Mumbai’s Urdu-speaking Muslims have also failed to declare the BJP and the Sena as pariahs.

Amid all this, the entry of Hyderbad’s Majlis e Ittehad ul Muslimeen, which is contesting 24 seats, has changed the atmosphere.  The party that originated with the violent Razakars, who supported the Hyderabad Nizam against India in 1948, is known for its aggressive communal politics.  Last year, party leader Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested on charges of sedition and provoking communal enmity for speeches he made in Andhra Pradesh. In its electoral debut in Maharashtra in 2012, it won 13 municipal seats in Nanded, appealing to minority outrage over four Muslim youth from the area who were arrested on terror charges. But Nanded’s voters soon tired of them

In Mumbai, the speeches of Akbaruddin Owaisi and  elder brother and Lok Sabha MP Assaduddin,  who freely use  religion  to highlight the injustice done to Muslims, and portray themselves as martyrs for their community,  have created a hysteria among Muslim youth. They see Akbaruddin Owaisi as “their Modi”. Even older Muslims acknowledge that only the Owaisis are speaking up for Muslims.

Rejecting vote-bank politics

Not all Muslims are pleased. “Vote-bank politics had no place this time,” said Farooq Mapkar  who was  shot by the police during the 1992-’93 Mumbai riots and charged in a false case. “We were judging the candidate’s work. Now, if the MIM, because of its communal campaign, causes the defeat of those non-Muslim candidates who have worked for us, they will refuse to work for us again. They’ll blame us for voting only for our own community. The MIM will go back to Hyderabad, we will have to deal with the poison they’ve filled in the minds of our youth.’”

Fazal Sha’d, founder of the Bombay Aman Committee, who has worked long for Mumbai’s riot victims, is also worried about the MIM  “isolating Muslims from regional and national mainstream parties”.

Abu Azmi, chief of the Samajwadi Party, had successfully used the same tactics when he contested the 1999 Maharashtra assembly polls. He was then seen as the Muslims’ answer to Bal Thackeray. Today, he stands discredited. His MLAs have left him, and his followers have seen through his rhetoric, knowing it will not translate into any useful work for his constituents.

Since the Emergency, wherever Muslims have found a secular option to the Congress, they’ve voted for it, be it in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh or Delhi. They’ve wanted to teach the Congress a lesson for treating them as a vote-bank. This time, there are no secular options, yet, so deep is their disgust, and their desire to be accepted as citizens whose votes count, that they are ready to take a leap into the dark.