In elections over the past two decades, Muslims in each constituency of Uttar Pradesh have voted strategically, picking the party they believe most likely to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party. Muslims are focussed on undermining the BJP electorally because they justifiably feel that the party, once in power, will target them.

With 80 Lok Sabha seats, Uttar Pradesh is a politically important state, and is likely to determine whether the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will win a second term in the upcoming general elections.

It is time, however, for Muslims in the state to alter their political behaviour to vote ideologically instead of strategically. Most often, based merely on their gut feeling, many Muslims in Uttar Pradesh alter their voting decisions the night before elections. When Muslims vote strategically, their votes get divided and lose their power. This is because they do not have a scientific method of establishing which party is most likely to beat the BJP, as psephologist Sanjay Kumar told in a recent interview.

SP-BSP-RLD alliance

The likelihood that Uttar Pradesh’s Muslim voters will change their minds at the last minute in the upcoming elections receded somewhat after the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal announced they would contest the polls together in the state.

These three parties enjoy the support of, at least, one sizeable social group. The Bahujan Samaj Party has a formidable base among Dalits, particularly Jatavs; the Samajwadi Party among Yadavs; and the Rashtriya Lok Dal can count on significant numbers of Jats.

Each of these parties acquires an edge in their pockets of influence because all of them, in varying degrees, have the support of Muslims, who constitute 19.2% of Uttar Pradesh’s population. Psephologists estimate that in any allance, 85% of voters will transfer their loyalty from one constituent to another. On paper, then, Jatavs, Jats, Yadavs and Muslims could combine to give the alliance ample muscle to fight the BJP.

In the 2014 elections, which saw a BJP wave because Narendra Modi was the prime ministerial candidate, the three allies together accounted for 42.7% of the vote share in Uttar Pradesh. In that election, the BJP bagged 42.3% of votes and won 71 seats. It ally, the Apna Dal, bagged another two seats.

The BJP’s vote share is likely to decrease this time. Nevertheless, at least arithmetically, the upcoming election is expected to witness a fierce battle between the Opposition alliance and the BJP and its allies in Uttar Pradesh, more so because of the nationalistic fervour that the confrontation between India and Pakistan has generated in recent days.

Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav hands Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati a bouquet of flowers on January 12, the day the two leaders announced their alliance for the 2019 elections in Lucknow. (Photo credit: Akhilesh Yadav/Facebook).

Congress enters the fray

However, the entry of Priyanka Gandhi into the equation as the Congress general secretary for the Uttar Pradesh East threatens to turn the assumption that strategic voting by Muslims has been rendered redundant because of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance.

The Congress is miffed that the three allies were only willing to leave the Gandhi family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareili for the party to run from without a contest and has decided to seriously target at least 25 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, apart from contesting from other seats.

The Congress’s strategy in Uttar Pradesh – of which Priyanka Gandhi is an important part – revolves around luring Brahmins back into its fold. Members of this community have long wielded immense political power in Uttar Pradesh and are said to be disenchanted with the Adityanath government, which is seen to favour Rajputs. This strategy has the potential to draw Muslims to the Congress too as they usually do not vote for a party until it has a dominant social group supporting it, as well as numerically smaller backward caste groups.

The February 14 terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, and the ensuing confrontation between India and Pakistan has, however, thrown the Congress strategy into disarray. There is a fear that nationalistic fervour could limit the expected desertion of Brahmins from the BJP.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi in Lucknow on February 11, 2019. (Photo credit: AFP).

From this perspective, strategic voting by Muslims could hurt the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance, largely because the average victory margin nationally has been shrinking. Barring the exceptional 2014 elections, it was down to around 8% over the four preceding Lok Sabha elections, according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. This means a runner-up with 3 lakh votes is on an average just 24,000 votes behind the winner.

A split in Muslim votes would help the Congress only if it has a Hindu community backing it. For instance, in 2009, when the party surprised everyone by winning 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, it had polled 25% of Muslim votes and 31% of Brahmin votes, according to Centre for the Study of Developing Societies data.

The Bahujan Samaj Party bagged 18% of Muslim votes and the Samajwadi Party 30% in that election. Muslims, who usually vote for the Samajwadi Party in large numbers, did not do so that year because they were angry that the party had inducted former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, on whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992.

Things changed in 2014, when only 10% of Muslims voted for the Congress, 18% for the Bahujan Samaj Party and 58% for the Samajwadi Party. On the face of it, it does not seem that Muslims voted strategically in 2014 given the high percentage of Muslim votes the Samajwadi Party logged. But a different picture emerges once the pattern of Muslim voting is contrasted with that of other social groups.

That year, 72% of Brahmins, 77% of Rajputs, 71% of Vaishyas, 79% of other upper castes and 77% of Jats voted for the BJP. It can be argued that had Muslims resisted the temptation of voting strategically out of their desire to defeat the BJP, the Samajwadi Party’s share of Muslim votes could have ballooned over the 70% mark. That would not have necessarily increased the Samajwadi Party’s seat tally, however, given the popular sentiment in favour of the BJP.

In a tight contest, it matters even more for Muslims not to scatter their votes. The community should remember this as its members do not seem to be proficient in reading the direction of the political wind. For instance, in 2007, the Bahujan Samaj Party won the Assembly elections, but only 17% of Muslims backed it. In 2012, the Samajwadi Party won the 2012 state polls, but only 39% of Muslims voted for it.

It is useful to contrast the 2007 and 2012 voting patterns among Muslims with that of the upper castes. In 2007, even though the BJP was not even within sniffing distance of seizing power in the state, 44% of Brahmins, 46% of Rajputs and 52% of Vaishyas voted for it. In 2012, these figures slid to 38%, 29% and 42% respectively. The BJP came a poor third that year, bagging 47 Assembly seats, just 10 ahead of the Congress.

These statistical details should convince Muslims of the advantages of voting ideologically. Every time the BJP comes to power in Uttar Pradesh or at the Centre, the upper castes get a fat share in power. A social group prone to switching its loyalty at the last minute will never be taken seriously by political parties.

A group of Muslim men stand on the side of a street as they wait to see a car convoy carrying BJP candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi on May 8, 2014. (Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP).

A tactical understanding?

With the post-Pulwama situation altering the electoral architecture, the Congress is reportedly mulling the options of either entering the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance if more than two seats are given to it, or having a tactical understanding with it.

A tactical understanding will involve the alliance fielding weak candidates in constituencies perceived to be pro-BJP or where the upper castes are numerous, to give an advantage to the Congress. This electoral technique could persuade the upper castes to vote for the Congress, something they are unlikely to do if the party’s allies represent the lower or middle castes, which the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal do.

But a tactical understanding of this story could give a rude shock to the Opposition alliance, which, obviously, cannot announce that its choice of a candidate in a constituency is aimed at helping the Congress win. Candidates, regardless of their chances of winning, will want to get the greatest number of votes they can garner.Such a scenario is bound to confuse voters.

All these factors explain why Muslims should opt for ideological voting. In that case, the Congress cannot be their first preference, because of the pronounced right-wing shift in its politics. The Congress has emphasised the Hindu and Brahmin identity of its leaders, has imitated the BJP’s politics over the cow, and invoked the National Security Act in Madhya Pradesh against traders suspected of ferrying cattle to the slaughter house.

Its leader, CP Joshi, declared that Rahul Gandhi will build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, as did former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Worse, it has not even cared to counter the hatred against Muslims, for instance, by visiting the victim’s house or organising peace marches to repair the strained communitarian relationship.

Indeed, the Congress has increasingly becoming BJP minus hate.

This could be reason enough for Muslims to vote for the Congress in states whose politics is bipolar, or where the Congress is an alliance system, such as in Bihar. It is the reason why Muslims should not vote for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi, where a strong third party or a formidable anti-BJP formation exists.

A Muslim voter exits a local polling station after casting his ballot in Varanasi on May 12, 2014. (Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP).