Counter-polarisation in favour of Mukhtar Ansari, who was struggling to retain his seat, reflects a larger pattern in which anti-BJP votes get consolidated towards one candidate.
Mau (Uttar Pradesh): Amidst a high-pitched campaign, polling in Mau ended on March 4. In the fray were the gangster-turned politician Mukhtar Ansari, who is contesting from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Altaf Ansari from the Samajwadi Party, and Mahendra Rajbhar from the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) – which is fighting the 2017 polls on eight seats in Poorvanchal as an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Known for the dominance of bahubali (strongman) Mukhtar – who is in jail on charges of murdering his rival bahubali Krishanand Rai – Mau has been a political hot-seat in eastern UP. It has remained in the media limelight because Mukhtar is considered to have great influence over a substantial number of Muslims across the region, comprising the districts of Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Jaunpur and Ballia. Such is his influence in the region that he has been winning the Mau seat since 1996 – twice as an independent candidate – although his vote share in 2012 dropped drastically when he had floated his now-dissolved party, called the Qaumi Ekta Dal (QED).
However, this time, he was struggling. His vote share in 2012 was only 31% in comparison to the 45% and above in his previous victories. As a measure to ensure his clout does not dissiate, he had first tried to merge his QED with the SP last year, with Shivpal Yadav’s support. But Shivpal’s nephew, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, soon intervened. He first blocked the merger and then gave SP’s ticket to another popular candidate, Altaf Ansari. This forced Mukhtar to finally merge his party with his erstwhile party, the BSP. Mayawati, in keeping with her social engineering formula of 2017 to unite Muslims and Dalits, welcomed Mukhtar and his family with open arms to consolidate her party’s position in eastern UP.
With the SP aligning with Congress, however, the mood among a large section of Muslims started to drift towards Altaf Ansari, who began to be seen as a non-controversial leader.
“A large section of Muslims were fed up of an absentee MLA for the last 10 years. That Altaf was from the Ansari community helped him consolidate further,” said Chirag Azmi who runs a regional Urdu newsletter called Bunkar ki Duniya.
What Azmi was hinting at was the larger caste dynamic within the Muslim community in Mau and adjoining regions. Most Muslims in the Mau seat belong to the weaver community called Ansaris – a part of what we often understand as pasmanda Muslim. Considered lower in the social hierarchy, Ansaris are poorer than the elite Ashrafs.
Despite being numerically much stronger, the Ansaris were always led by the Pathans and Milkis, belonging to the Ashrafs, in Mau. The two groups have a disproportionate influence over resources and wealth among Muslims of the region. At one time, the Ansaris were attached to the Communist Party of India (CPI) which won the seat many times in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mukhtar, despite having ‘Ansari’ attached to his name, is a Milki. With his growing influence as a bahubali in the years following the Sangh Parivar-led Ram Janmabhoomi movement and implementation of the Mandal commission report, which granted Ansaris reservation, the community switched their loyalties towards Mukhtar in a communally-polarised political context. Mukhtar used his power to get government contracts and tenders, and became influential in the process. But he never used his power to address the structural problems of the declining weaving industry in Mau, famous for its sarees.
Yet, in all these years, he retained his acceptance because he redistributed some of the huge wealth he amassed during his tenure through his different businesses in philanthropic activities. He began to be seen as a Robin Hood-like figure.
This time, however, Akhilesh chose an Ansari against Mukhtar. “Altaf is not only seen as an accessible leader, but also as one who may take up issues of the weaving industry. Most bunkars get a pittance for the immense amount of work they put in to make one single saree,” said Jalees Ansari, a trade unionist and a saree distributor in Mau.
How Modi turned the tide?
With a growing perception that the SP-Congress combine is a formidable force to take on the BJP in the region, Muslims were drifting towards Altaf.
The BJP, on the other hand, seemed excited because of this new splintering among Muslim votes. It has fielded its ally SBSP’s candidate Mahendra Rajbhar, who comes from a ‘most backward’ but numerically strong Rajbhar community. The BJP was hoping that with a split in the Muslim vote, it would win the election with the support of Rajbhars and its traditional base of upper caste Hindu groups. The BJP’s calculation was based on the idea that its OBC vote base outweighs the SP’s vote base in the region.
However, that was not to be. On February 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Mau to address a large gathering. In a direct attack, he likened Mukhtar to the film Bahubali’s protagonist and presented Mahendra Rajbhar as Kattappa, a character in the film who kills Bahubali, with his election symbol, a walking stick, as his weapon.
He said that although in films bahubalis can be entertaining but in real life they are not. He pitched the BJP as the only party in UP which will root out strongmen. At the same time, he indirectly attacked the Yadavs by accusing the SP of running an anarchist regime in the state.
This energised the BJP’s cadre, who in subsequent days of campaigning became aggressive and abusive in their pitch for support. For BJP members, it was a fight to defeat the Muslims. “A large number of youth and upper caste showed unusual aggression. They rode motorbikes, shouting at the top of their voice. The elderly BJP supporters sat on tea shops and other kiosks and predicted BJP’s three-fourth majority. They were trying to create a superficial wave, while there was none,” said Muhammad Asfaque, a weaver in Mau’s Sadar Chowk.
The BJP’s attempts to polarise the election led to a sort of counter-polarisation. “Most Ansaris decided to vote for Mukhtar, who already had a support base, instead of taking a risk on Altaf, who was a relatively new leader,” added a political analyst in Mau, Vijay Shankar Upadhyaya.
As a result, he said, the Mau election had an undercurrent of a forward-backward fight if one wants to interpret it that way, although on the face of it 2017 election is not like that.
He added that while such a polarised election may be damaging in the long-term for electoral democracy, as yet again it pushed the weavers’ issues on the back burner, such a consolidation of anti-BJP votes comprising of Muslims, Yadavs and a substantial section of other OBCs has happened in many seats in the region.
“While such counter-polarisation worked in favour of Mukhtar in the Mau Sadar seat, where he is the sitting MLA and considered to be a strongman, it has worked the most for the SP-Congress combine,” Upadhaya said.
The Wire talked to many Ansaris and Yadavs in Mau who confirmed Upadhyaya’s hypothesis. The Ansaris said that they would eventually go along with Mukhtar although with a heavy heart.
Such complex caste equations will end up playing a major role in the 2017 polls, which makes it strikingly different from 2014 when a Modi wave among a cross section of communities helped the BJP sweep the parliamentary election.
If the trend in Mau is proven true, then the Modi hardsell may not be good news for the BJP, which has otherwise clearly emerged as a credible alternative to the SP and BSP after almost two decades. The prime minister, on whose name the BJP is fighting the election in Poorvanchal and who has increased his rallies from 15 to almost 30 during the campaign, may well end up damaging the party more than profiting it.