Karnataka election

Among Karnataka’s Muslims, the Siddaramaiah factor could trump anti-incumbency against Congress MLAs

Muslims form 13% of the state’s population but account for just 5% of Assembly seats.

It was 3 pm on Friday and 35-year-old Erfath Sultana stepped up the pace of rolling beedis. Her hands moved quickly as she picked the beedi leaves, spread tobacco on them, rolled them and tied them with a thread. She has to meet her daily target of rolling 1,000 beedis before going to bed. Only then can she sell it to the local contractor the next morning and collect her weekly wages.

Sultana is a resident of Beedi Colony, a slum that lies 6 km from Mysuru city. More than 1,000 Muslim families live in this colony, which acquired its name because a large chunk of its residents are beedi workers.

Sultana could have finished her work by 3 pm had she not had to clean the open drain that flows in front of her single-bedroom home with asbestos roofing. “The stench gave me a headache, so I ventured out to clean it,” said the mother of three.

Last year, Sultana spent her hard-earned money – she earns Rs 180 for every batch of 1,000 beedis she rolls – to buy six stone slabs to cover the drain. Since then, she has been rolling the beedis sitting on the slabs.

Sultana’s work was further delayed by the steady stream of political workers from the Congress, Janata Dal (Secular) and Social Democratic Party of India to her home to canvass her vote for the Karnataka Assembly elections slated for May 12.

Beedi worker Erfath Sultana has decided not to vote in the upcoming election.
Beedi worker Erfath Sultana has decided not to vote in the upcoming election.

Beedi Colony falls under the Narasimharaja Assembly constituency in Mysuru district. More than 45% of the voters in the constituency are Muslims. Barring the 1994 Assembly polls, Muslim candidates have won all elections here.

Sultana is disappointed with them. “We are poor,” she said. “Political parties need only our votes. They will never do good things for us.”

Listing her grievances, she said, “If they consider us human beings, they should have put slabs on this open drain. We get water once in three days. If they are serious about our lives, they should have provided us water on all days.”

She said she has decided not to vote this time.

Poor representation

According to Syed Tanveer Ahmed, editor-in-chief of Karnatakamuslims.com, a news website that aims to ensure Muslim involvement in governance, among other things, Muslim voters can be decisive in at least 19 constituencies. “Muslims form more than 30% of the electorate in these constituencies,” he said. Ahmed said the figures were based on an analysis of National Sample Survey data and a survey conducted by his organisation.

Regions in red represent constituencies with a sizeable presence of Muslim voters.
Regions in red represent constituencies with a sizeable presence of Muslim voters.

Muslims constitute close to 13% of Karnataka’s population, according to the 2011 Census. In the 2013 elections, 11 Muslims were elected to the Assembly – 4.9% of the 224 seats in the House.

Muzaffar Assadi, professor of political science at Mysore University, said the backwardness of the community is a major reason for the non-emergence of Muslim leaders. “The socio-economic conditions of Muslims have not improved despite affirmative action by governments,” he said. “The community literally remains in ghettos.” Besides, political parties have for long treated Muslims as a community whose votes they can take for granted, he added.

Children fetch water from a public tap in Ghousia Colony in Mysuru. The colony gets water once every four days.
Children fetch water from a public tap in Ghousia Colony in Mysuru. The colony gets water once every four days.

A Congress leader in North Karnataka, who is Muslim, attributed the community’s under-representation to the party not giving enough tickets to Muslim candidates. In 2013, the Congress gave 18 tickets to Muslims and nine of them won. “We gave 50% results,” he said. “If you give us 30 tickets, we will win 15. The problem is you are not giving us tickets.” He said the situation was the same in the Janata Dal (Secular). Political parties fear Muslim candidates will not be able to get the votes of other communities, he said. Part of the problem lies with the candidates, he claimed. “Only Muslim votes are not enough to win,” he said. “You should be a person who can take other communities along.”

But Assadi has a different view. He said political parties often believe that Muslims do not attract votes. “The electorate views Muslim candidates with suspicion and it lessens their winning chances,” he said. “The stereotype is working against potential candidates.”

This time, the Congress has fielded 17 Muslim candidates while the Janata Dal (Secular) has given tickets to eight Muslims. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen has offered its support to the Janata Dal (Secular). The Social Democratic Party of India, the political arm of the hardline Islamist organisation the Popular Front of India, is contesting three seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party has not fielded any Muslim candidate.

Homes in Mysuru's Ghousia Colony abut open drains and piles of garbage.
Homes in Mysuru's Ghousia Colony abut open drains and piles of garbage.

Split in votes

In Narasimharaja, sitting Congress MLA Tanveer Sait is in a four-cornered contest with Abdul Majeed KH of the Social Democratic Party of India, Abdul Azeez Abdullah of the Janata Dal (Secular) and Sandesh Swamy of the BJP. Sait, the minister for primary and secondary education in the Siddaramaiah cabinet, has won four times on the trot here, starting with the bye-election in 2002, which was held after the death of his father and senior Congress leader Aziz Sait in 2001. He followed it up with victories in 2004, 2008 and 2013.

Aziz Sait had represented Narasimharaja six times and been defeated only once by the BJP’s Maruthi Rao Pawar. That defeat, in 1994, was attributed to the presence of another Muslim candidate – Abdul Azeez Abdullah of the Karnataka Congress Party, which later merged with Congress – who had captured more than 7,000 votes. Aziz Sait had lost by a narrow margin of 1,451 votes.

The BJP’s Sandesh Swamy is hoping for a 1994-like scenario this time around too, with a split in Muslim votes eventually working to his advantage. A former mayor of Mysuru, he joined the BJP in March after the Janata Dal (Secular), of which he was a member then, denied him a ticket to contest from Narasimharaja.

Also confident of a win is the Social Democratic Party of India’s candidate Abdul Majeed. “People want to free the constituency from the clutches of the Sait clan,” he said. “We had campaigned only for a month last time, but we could finish second. This time we are well-prepared. We will open account in Karnataka Assembly.”

The Janata Dal (Secular) candidate, Abdul Azeez Abdullah, is no stranger to the constituency. He had earlier served the Congress for a long time and even managed Tanveer Sait’s campaign in 2013. He joined the Janata Dal (Secular) in February following differences with Sait. “People want to unseat a non-performing legislator,” he said.

Tanveer Sait did not respond to Scroll.in’s repeated requests for an interview.

Quazi Arshed Ali, author of the book Karnataka Muslims and Electoral Politics, said a split in Muslim votes in constituencies like Narasimhraja might benefit the BJP.

“This can happen in Gulbarga North. Muslims form 50% of the electorate in that constituency,” he said. “The main contenders are Kaneez Fatima of the Congress and Nazeer Hussain Ustad [of the Janata Dal-Secular]. The BJP’s Chandrakant Patil may gain from the vote split.”

In the eight constituencies where the Janata Dal (Secular) has fielded Muslim candidates, the voting preferences of the community might be swayed by the perception gaining ground that the party could ally with the BJP in the event of a hung Assembly.

The Siddaramaiah factor

In Narasimharaja, there is clear anti-incumbency against the Congress’ Tanveer Sait. But there is also a factor that might work in his favour: the popularity of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

In the vicinity of Beedi Colony are two other Muslim-majority slums, Ghousia Colony and Shantinagar Colony. Most of the men here work in automobile repair and tyre shops or drive auto rickshaws while the women roll beedis at home. The slums lack basic amenities. Many homes are in danger of collapsing at any time. Residents get drinking water once in four days. In front of the homes are open drains and piles of garbage, which are cleared only once a week.

Shabana Begum (centre) of Ghousia Colony does not support the sitting Congress MLA from Narasimharaja constituency but wants to see Siddaramaiah back as chief minister.
Shabana Begum (centre) of Ghousia Colony does not support the sitting Congress MLA from Narasimharaja constituency but wants to see Siddaramaiah back as chief minister.

In Ghousia Colony, 32-year-old Asma Banu, a beedi worker, said she does not want to vote for Tanveer Sait. “He ignored us all these years,” she said. “He is not accessible for the people here. We do not get permission to meet him when he comes to Narasimharaja. Shouldn’t he be addressing our problems genuinely?” She asked, “How can we vote for such a candidate?”

But Banu is in a dilemma. She wants to see the Siddaramaiah government back in power. She knows Sait’s defeat will hamper Siddaramaiah’s chances. “I don’t want to see a BJP chief minister,” she said. “Siddaramaiah is a saviour of Muslims. We are safe under him. He gave us food safety. I think I will end up voting for Sait.”

Shabana Begum, who also lives in Ghousia Colony, echoed Banu’s views. “If I vote for Congress, it is not for Sait,” she said. “It is for Siddaramaiah who is facing a lot of flak from the BJP for being pro-poor and pro-Muslim.”

Hussain at his Zam Zam pan shop in Narasimharaja constituency.
Hussain at his Zam Zam pan shop in Narasimharaja constituency.

Thirty-five-year-old Hussain, who runs the Zam Zam pan shop in the area, said Sait had failed as an education minister too. “He did not bring development in my constituency. He did not reduce fees in private schools. He did not improve the quality of government schools.”

And whom will he vote for? “Siddaramaiah may be a good chief minister, but he is equally responsible for keeping a non-performer in his cabinet. So I am not going to vote for Sait,” said Hussain, who sends his daughter to an English medium school in Narasimharaja.

However, Congress member and daily-wage worker Asif Pasha, who lives near the entrance to Beedi Colony, said Sait would win even though he is not popular among the slums’ residents. “He should have performed well,” he added.

Congress worker Asif Pasha in front of his house in Beedi Colony in Mysuru.
Congress worker Asif Pasha in front of his house in Beedi Colony in Mysuru.

According to political analyst and faculty member at the Azim Premji University A Narayana, Siddaramaiah remains popular among the disadvantaged sections, including Muslims, because of his government’s welfare programmes. “The amount of money spent on social welfare programmes, such as food security, is massive,” he said. “No previous state government had implemented such programmes.”

As a result, Narayana said, Siddaramaiah’s popularity might help legislators like Tanveer Sait tide over their anti-incumbency. “There is no anti-incumbency wave against the Siddaramaiah government,” he said. “I am expecting constituency-level anti-incumbency. It will be interesting to see if Tanveer Sait wins from Narasimharaja despite being unpopular, riding on Siddaramaiah’s popularity.”

Photographs by TA Ameerudheen

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