The battle over Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh intensifies

NEW DELHI (20 January 2012) — The race is on to win over the pivotal Muslim vote in the key Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) ahead of the February-March elections, as politicians dangle the carrot of affirmative action.

Politicians are tripping over themselves to propose the inclusion of Muslims in the ‘reservation’ scheme, a largely caste-based affirmative action programme meant for historically marginalised social groups.

Law minister Salman Khurshid of the ruling Congress Party has proposed a 9% reservation of federal government jobs and university admissions for Muslims, to be carved out of the existing 27% for Other Backward Classes (OBC).

Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief of the state’s second biggest Samajwadi Party (SP) has also announced an 18% reservation for Muslims outside of the existing OBC reservation if his party was voted into power.

He also promises a commission to “survey the backwardness of Muslims” in the northern Indian state, he wrote to influential Syed Ahmed Bukhari, head cleric of Delhi’s Jama Masjid.

“I want to ask from where this 9% and 18% will come,” Nitin Gadkari, president of principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said at an election rally on January 17. “The game of reservation on religious grounds that is being played by the Congress and SP would one day prove to be dangerous not only for UP, but for the entire country,” he added.

The election commission is investigating whether Khurshid violated the poll code of conduct. India’s election code prevents the government from starting projects close to the polls that could bestow an unfair advantage. It also prevents politicians from making populist announcements to earn more votes.

The Congress Party has distanced itself from Khurshid’s reservation statement, describing it as his personal opinion.

Still, the opposition BJP has launched a campaign called “OBC bachao aandolan”: Agitation to save OBC. Three senior party leaders have been touring the backward constituencies of the state claiming that Congress was passing on their jobs to the Muslims.

“If the government wants to introduce reservation on the basis of religion, it should first declare India as a Hindu country. This is bad politics that Congress is indulging in for increasing its vote banks,” BJP leader Uma Bharti said.

The pot was first stirred by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which proposed a 4.5% quota for minorities within the OBC reservation quota just before the announcement of the UP election dates. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had also challenged the SP chief to reveal his stand on the issue. The Congress’ objective, it appears, was to split the Muslim and OBC vote, which generally goes to the SP.

The Muslim vote, which forms about 18% of UP’s electorate, has always been a pivotal factor in the state’s politics and influences results in more than 100 of the 403 legislative assembly seats of the state. In 70 of these seats, Muslims comprise 20% of the electorate; they make up 30-45% of the electorate in 36 other seats in the state.

The latest polls suggest that at least 50% of Muslims are likely to continue voting for the SP.


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