Communal and polarisation have always been the two buzzwords of every election in North India. These words have popped up in just about every newspaper report on the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. It is a phenomenon in which Hindus vote for a candidate because the candidate is Hindu, and Muslims vote for a candidate because the candidate is Muslim. In this sense, electoral contests begin to resemble “war minus the shooting”, an Orwellian phrase often quoted in the context of a sporting competition between two nations.

I experienced communal polarisation as the Samajwadi Party candidate from the Thana Bhawan Assembly constituency in West Uttar Pradesh. Overnight, Hindus and Muslims were shrewdly and wickedly divided to vote for candidates who symbolised the pride of their respective communities.

I am a professor of Zoology at Lucknow University. I belong to the Jat community. In 2012, amidst the hectic Assembly campaign, I was among a group of University teachers who met Akhilesh Yadav to congratulate him for successfully opposing the Samajwadi Party’s decision to join hands with DP Yadav in the election. Among other things, DP Yadav is infamous for his muscular approach to politics.

The young Samajwadi Party leader invited us for an interaction with him later that day where he heard some of us articulate different perspectives on development. We were also introduced to two young alumni of Harvard University, Vinod Yadav and Mehul Jain, who were deeply engaged with Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign. To me, Akhilesh Yadav came across as a person who is undoubtedly different from other politicians, both in style and substance.

This impression was reinforced in 2013, when I met Akhilesh Yadav again after the heinous communal riots of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which is my native place. By then, he was Uttar Pradesh chief minister. I trace the origin of my nomination as the Samajwadi Party candidate from Thana Bhawan for the 2017 Assembly elections to this meeting.

Thana Bhawan is arguably among the most communally polarised constituencies in Uttar Pradesh. Its current MLA is Suresh Rana, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader who is among the people accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots case.

Dive into electoral politics

On January 19, after delivering a lecture at the University, I checked my mobile phone – it was inundated with missed calls and congratulatory messages on being fielded from Thana Bhawan. For my friends and well-wishers, my name in the list of candidates signified success in politics. However, I was faced with the challenge of bridging the Hindu-Muslim or, more specifically, the Jat-Muslim divide existing in the area since the 2013 riots. If anything, the divide has only grown wider because of local incidents and the BJP’s bogus claims of a Hindu exodus from the nearby town of Kairana. I thought I’d work with zeal to restore communal harmony in my native place, and help develop it as well.

I am a novice in electoral politics, but I have a rich experience of public life and the politics of agitation during my student days. Between 1988 and 1991, I headed a successful agitation under the banner of the Joint Action Committee, an inter-University students’ organisation, to raise the upper age limit for the Union Public Services Commission examination, as also for reforming it, in the interest of rural youth.

In 2005, along with friends, I formed the Kisan Jagriti Manch, which was to act as an interface between farmers and the government. The Manch successfully raised economic concerns of farmers at various levels through seminars, meetings and street agitations.

Yet my past experience of the politics of agitation did not prepare me for electoral politics. To begin with, many of my good friends were not as welcoming of my candidature as I had expected them to be. And that was because either I did not subscribe to their ideologies or their party affiliations were different from mine. On the other hand, I made new friends, those who stepped forward to assist in my campaign.

I began to face problems as soon as I initiated my campaign. To begin with, the district president of the Samajwadi Party, Kiranpal Kashyap, annoyed with my candidature, revolted, resigned and locked the party office. He convened a meeting of the district party unit and directed it to oppose me in favour of other candidates.

Revolt in SP unit

My constituency consists of two important municipalities – Jalalabad and Thana Bhawan, where the Samajwadi Party has some following. But party leaders, Jahir Malik, ex-chairman of Jalalabad municipality, and Intezar Ali of Thana Bhawan decided to oppose me on the pretext that their support to a Hindu candidate would deprive them of Muslim votes in the next municipality elections. Though technically a Samajwadi Party candidate, the district unit’s opposition meant that I was reduced to fighting the elections as an independent.

My electoral planks comprised restoration of communal harmony and development. On paper, you could say the electoral demographics suited me as my constituency has 90,000 Muslim and approximately 40,000 Jat voters. In other words, I could hope to get a chunk of Jat votes because I belong to that community, and a share of Muslim votes by virtue of my being the Samajwadi Party candidate.

But the revolt of the party’s district unit meant that I had to constitute my own campaign team. I was delighted that my doctoral students, including Muslim women, and my colleagues Mohammed Sirajuddin and Mohammed Arshad arrived from Lucknow and, along with my wife Sangeeta Rani, started campaigning door-to-door, specifically in Muslim areas.

There we were – a novice candidate and a novice campaign team resorting to electioneering that was remarkably different from the traditional style.

Local leaders approached us, with some claiming that they had the capacity to transfer a number of votes to me if I paid them or supplied them with liquor. I turned them down, and I guess they struck deals with other candidates.

Initially, the response to my campaign was overwhelming, partly because the slogans of communal harmony and development had resonance with the electorate. Partly, it was also because of my academic credentials and the fact that I, as a member of the Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission, had persuaded the chief minister to build a bypass and many roads in the area.

The communal game begins

Sensing tough competition, BJP candidate Suresh Rana sought to communalise the election through an incendiary statement: “If I lose this election then sweets will be distributed in Deoband. If I win, there will be curfew in Moradabad and Rampur.” Deoband is counted among the world’s most respected places of Islamic scholarship and Muslims dominate Moradabad and Rampur. A First Information Report was lodged against Rana for his comments.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Javed Rao took to playing the Muslim card. He said Muslims could not feel insecure because they always have the “option of going to Pakistan, but the only option Jats have is to hide in the fields”. In other words, Rao was asking Muslims to assert themselves against Jats through the ballot.

Then, out of nowhere, a video clip emerged showing Kiranmay Nanda, national vice-president of the Samajwadi Party, voice his opposition to any alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal – of which there was a possibility once – on the grounds that it would irk Muslims. This statement resulted in a sympathy wave for the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Jats took to recounting how the Akhilesh Yadav-led state government had favoured Muslims at the expense of Jats, and that Mulayam Singh Yadav had once blocked Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh from becoming the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It is another matter that they couldn’t explain why the Samajwadi Party fielded me, a Jat, from Thana Bhawan.

Communal polarisation

Suresh Rana’s statement against Muslims triggered a communal polarisation. Muslims saw the election as an opportunity to defeat Rana. Therefore, they began to shift to the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Rao Waris, as he had the party’s Dalit votes. In the last election, Rana had won this constituency with a slim margin largely because Muslim votes got split between Waris and the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Ashraf Ali, who later joined the Bahujan Samaj Party. Rao called on Muslims not to repeat the mistake of 2012 and ensure that their votes did not split this time.

The polarisation of Muslims in favour of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Muslim candidate led Hindus to rally behind BJP candidate Suresh Rana, who is projected as the sole speaker of Hindu interests, not only in Thana Bhawan, but in entire Uttar Pradesh. This claim acquired credence because BJP president Amit Shah declared in Thana Bhawan that Rana had been appointed the star campaigner for 100 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, and his defeat would send a negative signal throughout the state.

Thus, a week before Thana Bhawan was to go to polls, the electorate was split into four groups – Muslim voters who were supporting Waris to defeat Rana and to make up for his victory in the last election; Hindus who wanted Rana to triumph because of his advocacy of Hindu interests; Jat voters who wished to retaliate against the BJP and the Samajwadi Party for humiliating Ajit Singh; and a fourth group of people comprising those who favour communal harmony and the developmental politics of Akhilesh Yadav by supporting a candidate who has a clean image and academic credentials.

The fourth group is a new constituency created by the new politics of Akhilesh Yadav. This brand of politics aims to counter communalism by fielding candidates with a clean image and who boast of secular credentials. The other three groups are more or less comprised of a fixed number of Hindus and Muslims who have what you can call a traditional mindset. The number of people belonging to the fourth group is flexible as it includes young and aspirational voters who wish to purge politics of communalism, hate and corruption.

On March 11, when the Electronic Voting Machines will be unlocked, and counting begins, we will come to know which of the four groups polled the most number of votes. But this is not just about winning and losing an election. My election campaign in Thana Bhawan was aimed at initiating people into the new politics of Akhilesh Yadav that sought to counter communal and caste politics by fielding an academician who spoke about communal harmony and development. It is the only way to bridge gaps between communities, and heal old wounds.