Lalu Prasad’s roller: courting the Muslim vote in Bihar
Muslims are seen as a crucial vote bank in several possible swing states in India’s general election and many politicians are making the right noises to court the community.
In the state of Bihar, which I recently visited, its chief minister Nitish Kumar told me his campaign focused on caste-blind development but also communal harmony:
“Now everybody is happy. There is complete communal harmony,” he said as we sat at night on the veranda at his residence.
If what he says is true, then communal harmony could be a vote winner for Kumar, whose party still has far fewer seats in the national parliament than that of his main rival in the state, the federal Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Prasad was chief minister for years, backed mainly by the Yadav caste and the Muslim vote. Could that Muslim vote now be slipping away from him?
Hussain Ansari, a Muslim rickshaw driver whom I met, ironically, outside Prasad’s campaign office, told me he will vote for Kumar: “The situation is changing. Lots of development is taking place.”
It remains to be seen to what extent Biharis believe Kumar has changed Bihar under his tenure as they go the polls.
But Kumar may also face a problem: he is an ally of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of whom many Muslims are still wary.
So it is no wonder the issue of Varun Gandhi, a scion of India’s powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a BJP election candidate, has reared its head in the state.
Gandhi has just been released from jail, accused of making an inflammatory “hate speech” against Muslims in March. Gandhi said video clips of his campaign rally were doctored in a political
conspiracy to tarnish his image.
The BJP has so far stuck by its candidate. Kumar, on the other hand, for a long time demanded legal action against Gandhi.
Enter Lalu Prasad, who told a rally he wanted to flatten Gandhi with a roller and said he would have done so if he were the country’s home minister.
In a twist, local police in Bihar filed reports against Prasad for his speech against Gandhi.
The BJP in its manifesto also revived an old promise to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram in the northern town of Ayodhya, on a site revered by Hindus but disputed by Muslims.
Mobs tore down a 16th century mosque on the site in 1992, which led to Hindu-Muslim riots that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Analysts say the BJP’s pledge will garner Hindu votes. But it won’t necessarily help Kumar’s attempts to woo Muslims, and he vocally opposed his ally’s pledge:
“The BJP as a political party is free to hold its views on the Ram Temple and several other issues, but when we form a coalition government, no communal or contentious issue is on our agenda,” he is quoted as saying.
Muslims in parts of India say they feel alienated from the rest of the country, often left behind by India’s economic boom and tarnished by the same brush as Islamist militants.
In Bihar, though, communalism has not played a large role in the past, said Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, who is based in the state.
He argues Hindus in Bihar have been split along caste lines to the extent that they do not present a united front in which communalism thrives.
“In the absence of a Hindu consolidation, communalism is not a very powerful force in Bihar.”
But Varun Gandhi and the BJP have become a talking point in 2009. Prasad will try his hardest to keep Muslims on side, and what better way than to play up Kumar’s ties with the BJP and the prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani?
“It’s a contradiction that the chief minister has criticised Varun Gandhi but on the other hand supports the BJP and L.K. Advani,” Ram Bachan Roy, a member of Prasad’s party, told me. “L.K. Advani is an incarnation of communalism.”
(Reuters photos of federal railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and a Muslim voter)