The latest has been Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s overture to the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Ahmad Bukhari. Not so long ago the AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was seen with a cleric at many of his meetings. And even BJP’s Narendra Modi and his colleagues have started speaking of support from Shia clerics, even as Modi likes to be seen as feting and being felicitated by the Muslim clerics.
None of these worthies seem to realise that the way to the minorities' vote is not through these religious men who carry no influence at all. The Shahi Imam who the Congress still seems to revere, cannot influence the vote in his own mohalla let alone the country.
These men are recognised by the Muslims, conservatives and liberals, to speak for considerations other than the welfare of the community and the Imam’s appeal to the minorities to vote for the Congress has drawn considerable flak from within the community.
Most Muslim organisations have just ignored him as inconsequential. Others have issued statements maintaining that he should do what he is there to, lead the prayers, and keep his head out of political waters. Individuals on social media have even accused the Shahi Imam of trying to divide the votes, and create confusion in these crucial elections. More so, as the Muslims by and large like others in the country are not particularly inclined towards voting for the Congress, and see it as the reason for India’s present condition further confounded by the rise of communal right-wing forces.
One wonders at the advisors who directed Sonia Gandhi to meet the Imam. Surely these men and women of some political experience should have been sensitive to the mood being whipped up in the country, to realise that this absurd gesture would boomerang. Not just against the Congress party, but what is more important, against the poor Muslim voters who have unnecessarily been put in the firing line by the Imam and the Congress party. The BJP has predictably jumped on to this meeting, and is using it to ignite more political fires. Given the Congress party’s inability to speak out and protect its own, the meeting has given a free field to the BJP to exploit thoroughly.
The Muslim clerics became irrelevant in the community decades ago. In fact they were never relevant insofar as voting preferences of the Muslims were concerned. For those who have a short memory it is worth recalling that the Indian Muslim has never voted for independent conservative candidates, or those supported by religious political parties. They have voted for the same leaders as do the other secular Indians, with their support for the Congress in the first decades after independence moving in later years to support for regional political parties in the states across India.
Also the Congress has always failed to appreciate that the Muslims do not vote like a bloc but always follow the time-valued principle of tactical voting. In elections where the main issue remains development and progress, the vote is cast more freely.
In elections, like this one, where the communal bells are being made to toll, issues of security and life dominate and the voting is more considered and careful. In states like UP and Bihar where there are viable alternatives to the Congress, the minorities are looking to the BSP, SP, RJD and JD(U) in every single constituency to see how their respective candidates fare. The Congress could get this vote on a couple of seats where its candidates are strong but by and large, like the rest of the country, the now ruling party at the Centre is on a diminishing wicket here as amongst all other voters as well.
The political parties have to realise that gimmicks such as meeting an Imam here, or wearing a cap there, do not work with the voting masses. The Muslims are not fools, and have realised through bitter experience that these religious clerics are not looking out for their welfare, but for their own pockets. They know that the vote is a harbinger of change, and has to be exercised politically after careful and even calibrated assessments.
At this particular time while the BJP vote bank of the upper castes in particular is vocal in its support, the Dalits, the backwards, the Muslims are all keeping their political preferences close to their chest and have not spoken out as yet.
This is simply because the marginalised and the victimised sections of society know – and communicate perhaps to each other through an invisible grapevine – that silence sometimes works better in this charged environment more so if their choice does not support what the media insists is the consensus of the day. Also traditionally these groups – except for say those already committed to a particular political party like the Jatavs in UP who are totally with the BJP – make up their minds a little later in the day, and are not as confident in shouting out their choice from the rooftops as the more privileged sections of society.
It must therefore be remembered that in UP and Bihar the vote becomes silent in the run up to the elections even in more normal circumstances than those prevailing today. And this is why it defies pollsters and often proves predictions entirely wrong.
Given the shouting mobs who have attached themselves to the BJP there is a sense of fear in the districts of UP affecting all voters other than those who have decided to vote for Narendra Modi and his party. Hence the silence is even more deafening, a reality that leaders like BSP's Mayawati have recognised. She has fallen as silent as the voter, even as work to mobilise the vote carries on behind the cameras, certainly not in front of them.
In short, these happy meetings like the one between Sonia Gandhi and the Imam, will not have an happy ending. Simply because the voters know their mind and are not going to be influenced by meaningless talk and tea.