Lucknow, India - Arif seems pleased as he drives us around the by-lanes of Lucknow and explains his good humour, ''We are spoilt for choice. All parties want our votes. Earlier there was only one criterion: to keep the right-wing Hindu party at bay. But now we will CHOOSE.''
The Muslim vote is being wooed like never before in Uttar Pradesh. UP, the most important of all states, is home to over 38 million Muslims. All political parties are working overtime to enlist their support.
Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) managed to rope in the support of Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid (the central mosque of Delhi), Maulana Bukhari, who asserts, ''The promises made in the Samajwadi Party poll manifesto had convinced me there is a ray of hope for Muslims, and after talks with Mulayam Singh 'sahab' on the quota issue I came to Lucknow to issue an appeal to the minority community to support the SP''.
Rahul Gandhi, who leads the Congress Party, has already proposed a 4.5 per cent reservation in jobs for backward among Muslims. Mayawati, the incumbent chief minister and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has demonstrated her commitment towards the Muslim community by fielding as many as 85 Muslim candidates this time around. The state chief minister is hoping that her decision to turn the 10,000 madrassa teachers into government employees will reap her rich dividends.
Smaller players like the Peace Party and the Ulema Council have emerged on the state's political scene in a significant way to claim a share of the Muslim vote.
''Muslims have been traditionally voting for the Congress till they felt let down on December 6, 1992, when the Babri Mosque was demolished. And the Congress fortune has nose-dived since then," explains Zahid Qureishi, a lawyer practicing at the High Court.
Reservations for Muslims
Battling hard to retain power, Mayawati has of late made many overtures to the Muslim community, even writing to the prime minister on several occasions, demanding reservations for Muslims on the basis of population.
''The problem with BSP is that if they fall short of the majority, they might align with the BJP and that makes the Muslims suspicious of her politics'', explains Vijay Sharma, the chief editor of a local newspaper, Rajneeti.
''In over 80 constituencies, the Muslim vote will decide who wins. And every political party will have to recognise that fact"
- Anand Raj Singh
UP politics has traditionally been dominated by caste and community alignments. Dalit (erstwhile untouchables), Brahmins (upper caste), and Muslims had been traditionally voting for the Congress Party for the first four decades since independence. Subsequently the Dalit vote shifted to BSP with the emergence of Mayawati while the Muslims preferred Mulayam Singh over the Congress Party.
''In over 80 constituencies, the Muslim vote will decide who wins. And every political party will have to recognise that fact. That is why all of them are promising 'reservations' and ''packages''. But that's not what the real issue is. The heart of the matter is lack of education and economical development of the community," says Anand Raj Singh, a senior journalist in Lucknow.
The recent uproar over the Salman Rushdie protest gives one a glimpse of just how touchy the politicians are about the 'Muslim sentiment''.
That the fatwa issued against the Indian-born writer for his controversial book The Satanic Verses had long been lifted was of little consolation, as Muslim leaders protested against his proposed visit to Jaipur for a literary festival.
Hardliners who still viewed Rushdie as unwelcome had a free run and mainstream political leaders refrained from taking them on the issue, lest Muslim sentiments be hurt amid crucial elections.
Everyone agreed that the Muslim vote would decide which way the balance of power would tilt in UP and no political party was ready to lose any sleep over the fact that Rushdie had to cancel his visit over an orchestrated outcry.