In Muzaffarnagar town, Atar Singh, 65, is a long-time Bahujan Samaja Party worker. “This time the Bahujan Samaj Party is sure to win the elections,” he said in a matter of fact tone. “You see, unlike in 2014, this time both the Dalits and the Muslims will vote for Behenji. She has rallied these two communities behind her”.

Singh made his point with the gentle zeal of an idealist, echoing his party’s position in this election. The main thrust of the BSP’s strategy in the 2017 Assembly elections has been to fashion a Muslim constituency to add on to its core Dalit vote bank. Mayawati kicked off her election campaign in September 2016, addressing large rallies in Agra, Azamgarh, Saharanpur, Allahabad and Lucknow – all places with large numbers of Muslims – and made a pitch for the community’s votes. Closer to the election she pulled out her trump card: a fourth of the BSP’s candidates in the polls would be Muslim, the highest ever such figure for any major party in any Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.

This pitch, of course, made waves both in political and intellectual circles. Dalits are 21% of the state’s population and Muslims make up 19% – totalling up to 40%. In contrast, the Samajwadi Party today rules Uttar Pradesh with 29% of the popular vote. And the coming together of two of India’s most oppressed communities to form a political coalition is naturally a progressive dream.

While the theory seems rosy, the situation on the ground is far more complex. Dalit-Muslim social tensions, Mayawati’s failure to communicate and her image as an exclusively Dalit leader all mean that a Dalit-Muslim alliance for this Assembly election might end up remaining a pipe dream.

The riot act

Muslims and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh match each other in economic development and share physical living space in the state’s crowded urban spaces. In times of Hindu-Muslim communal violence, this results in Dalits and Muslims often fighting each other in the streets – a little reported or studied event.

Kullan Devi, a Dalit Balmiki leader from Muzaffarnagar town, accuses the BJP of instigating Balmiki men during communal riots.

The bloody Moradabad riots of 1980 – for which some observers put the death toll at around 2,000 – was sparked off by small-scale skirmishes between Muslims and the Dalit Balmiki caste. This situation continues right up till today in Uttar Pradesh. While the 2013 Jat-Muslim violence in the districts of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar was well reported, what fell between the cracks was that the period also saw Balmiki-Muslim riots in Shamli town. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, data accessed by the Indian Express showed that 90% of all communal incidents in UP had Dalits and Muslims as antagonists.

While Dalits and Muslims have been part of the same electoral collation under the Congress right till the 1980s, that was under upper caste leadership. Dalit-Muslim social tensions would tend to get magnified in the BSP, where Dalits lead the party. In Jaroda village, for example, which saw Muslim-Dalit skirmishes in 2016 over rights to an area claimed by Muslims as a cemetery, the Muslims are keen on voting for the Samajwadi Party. “Jhagde ke baad to BSP ko kabhi nahin (Will never vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party after the clash),” said Mohammed Taseem, a farmer in Jaroda.

Under the Dalit hood

These Dalit-Muslim tensions are one reason that the Bharatiya Janata Party actually does rather well amongst non-Jatav Dalits. Jatavs (also called Chamars) form the core group of the Bahujan Samaj Party and is the caste from which the party’s leadership, Mayawati included, is drawn. While Jatavs form around 56% of the total Dalit population – and mostly stand by Mayawati – the other half is a floating vote. In Muzaffarnagar, Kullan Devi, a Samajwadi Party leader in the Balmiki neighbourhood of Aab Kari, is aware of the BJP’s interest in her community. “Every time there is a Hindu-Muslim riot, our boys are plied with alcohol and sent to fight the Muslims,” claimed Devi. “And then the BJP comes in once the fight has started, to save our boys. That’s the only time they ever think about Balmikis. That’s the only time we become Hindus.”

In June 2013, a few months before the Jat-Muslim riots, Hukum Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Kairana, alleged that the Samajwadi Party government was favouring the Muslim perpetrators accused of the rape of a Balmiki woman. In the September 2013 riots, the BJP raised the charge of Muslim favouritism again, demanding that the Balmikis arrested for rioting be released.

These fractures in Dalit identity make it highly unlikely that Balmikis and Muslims will vote together in western UP, given that the tensions raised by the 2013 riots are still quite palpable. In the eastern part of the state, the BJP has repeated Dalit outreach by adopting the mythical Raja Suhaldev, a king now claimed by the Dalit Pasi caste. Legends have Suhaldev fighting the Muslim Turks when they invaded the region in the 11th century.

Mahinder Singh, a Jatav Dalit from Bijnor, claims that lots of Jatavs voted for Modi in 2014 – a perception that makes some Muslims uncomfortable with following the Jatav-dominated BSP's lead in the current polls.

Radio silence

Ek baat to hai,” says Mohammad Amir, owner of a small eatery in Khalapar, the largest Muslim neighbourhood in Muzaffarnagar city. “Mayawati Kaanoon vyavastha tight rakhti hai. Danga nahin hone deti.” It’s true that Mayawati keeps a tight grip on law and order – she doesn’t allow riots to take place.

This is a widely held notion amongst Muslims of western Uttar Pradesh, as is the realisation that the Samajwadi Party played at least an enabling, if not an active, role in the 2013 riots. What is paradoxical, though, is that this does not directly transfer Muslim votes to the Bahujan Samaj Party.

One reason for this is Mayawati’s failure to use modern methods of communication to build voter bases outside of her Jatav core. Her primary channel of communication is still the BSP party machinery and her massive rallies – neither of which are great for reaching out to new voters. She is also not very television friendly – a significant weakness in 2017.

Muslim leadership

Moreover, the Bahujan Samaj Party has done little to build a middle Muslim leadership that could help the party reach out to the community. There is no BSP equivalent of the Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan in western Utter Pradesh, for example. Her gambit to give tickets to a large number of Muslims might also be ineffectual given the top-down nature of the party. Forty three per cent Muslim, Bijnor district, where the BSP has fielded six Muslim candidates, has a lukewarm reaction to Mayawati. “Everyone knows in the BSP only behenji calls the shots,” said Mohammad Anwar, a shopkeeper in Bijnor town. “So what is the point in nominating so many Muslims? They won’t be able to help the community, will they?”

In Budhana constituency, Muslims accused Mayawati of stifling Kadir Rana, the local BSP leader whose wife is contesting the Assembly election. The BSP party leadership had clamped down on Rana’s efforts to intervene in the 2013 violence. “When we needed a leader he didn’t say or do anything; now he wants our vote,” says Mohammad Shariq, a land-owning Muslim Jat, who plans to vote for the Samajwadi’s Pramod Tyagi.

This lack of communication means that Mayawati is pigeonholed as a Dalit leader with little to offer to Muslims, by way of development. “The BSP did stop riots, I agree, but stopping riots isn’t everything,” said Mohammad Akhlaq in Bijnor. “She only worked for Chamar Pera when she was chief minister.” Chamar Pera is the city’s main Jatav neighbourhood.

Deepak Kumar, a Jatav from Muzaffarnagar supports the BSP but also agrees with BJP positions like the alleged Hindu exodus from Kairana.

Opinion polls, for what they’re worth, have mostly written off Mayawati in the present election. Maybe driven by the perception that her pitch is not working, Mayawati does seem to be attempting a course correction. She has, for example, announced that she would stop building statues of herself. Statues worked great for Ambedkarite Dalit pride but don’t play well outside her core base. The Bahujan Samaj Party is also working to communicate better with Muslims. While the party was largely silent after the 2013 riots, it has, of late, started to make forceful appeals to purely Muslim issues such as communal violence as well as personal law. There is also an attempt to make a mark on social media, with BSP handles trending #DangaBoltaHai (“riot speaks for itself”), an ironic riff on the Samajwadi’s slogan “Kaam Bolta Hai”, or work speaks for itself.

Is this rear-guard action, though, too little, too late?