Sure in their mind that they would resolutely resist the communal and fascist forces from reaching the Parliament, Muslims in India are dogged by dilemma as to what could be their choice for the 543-seat Lok Sabha this time. With a medley of parties vying for a foothold in the lower house of Parliament, Muslims have to choose between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or the regional parties which promise to merge into a third front whose contours are still not certain. BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is largely out of question, though in some states its allies do claim some goodwill from minority communities.
Picture is currently hazy. Congress is far from being in the pink of its health. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has much robust claim for an encore than anybody else due to his deft handling of the nation's affairs during the last five years. Had the Party been in good health in more populous states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Congress would have been the foremost choice around this time for the Muslims. However, it still can choose to garner the minority support through cogent alliance with Samajwadi Party (SP) or Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ramvilas Paswan's LJP in Bihar. Attempts to consolidate alliances with these groups have largely proved unsuccessful (till we went to the Press), mainly due to Congress inability to reconcile itself to the being minor partner in the Hindi heartland.
Muslim preferences for the choice of a successor to the current dispensation in Delhi are however bound to follow the mood of the mainstream populace. Looked from this perspective, it is rather bizarre that the BJP despite its best electoral performance during the last five years, is completely off-colour now while being poised for the Lok Sabha elections. The mood in the party is clearly downbeat. Terror card has been rubbished in the wake of Malegaon Blast case probe and its efficacy being lost in Delhi polls. The mood in the party is somber and infighting has sapped its energy. Prime Ministerial hopeful L. K. Advani's advanced age too does not inspire much hope. Party chief Rajnath Singh is yet to gain that pan Indian appeal which is essential to enthuse national mood. Modi may be a hero in Gujarat, but lack respectability and stature to head an administration at the national level.
In contrast, the Congress-led UPA government seems to be frontrunner what with five popular budgets, success of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) –which has checked the influx into cities—and massive Rs. 60,000 crore waiver for farmers. Even on minority front, UPA's record is not less laudable. The scholarship schemes for minority students, setting up National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, announcement of multi-sectoral development fund for 90 minority dominated districts have promised to address some of the deficiencies with regard to Muslims as highlighted by the Sachar Committee Report. However, harassment of Muslims in the garb of anti-terror campaign has left a bad taste in the mouth. But most of the wrath on this score is likely to be directed against the State Governments.
In Uttar Pradesh Muslims seem to be deft in voting tactically to eliminate the BJP and vote for the BSP and SP, going by the credentials of the candidates. But mushrooming Muslim parties in the State threaten to muddy the water. Assam's AUDF is unnecessarily putting up 20 candidates while one Ulema Council is also trying to put up candidates in two constituencies, solely guided by the harassment campaign unleashed by the Police in Azamgarh district.
In Bihar, the second most populous state, Nitish Kumar led JDU has been wooing Muslims for quite some time and seems to be threatening to undercut the Muslim base of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). But JDU's dependence on BJP introduces an imponderable in the situation.
In West Bengal, Congress-Trinamool Congress is all likely to be favoured by Muslims in greater measure as Marxists record of keeping Muslims in their deprived conditions is getting etched to a broad relief. The Muslims have been waiting for a viable non-BJP alliance to emerge to shift their favour.
In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana and Assam, there are robust alternatives to the communal outfits. However, in Karnataka, the scenario is a bit fuzzy as there are two mutually contending parties, namely Congress and the JDS, fighting for a narrowing base of secular voters. In Kerala, LDF is on the way out, more out of anti-incumbency factor than anything else. But Indian Union Muslim League must be wary of several claimants of Muslim votes such as INL and PDP. In Tamilnadu, there does not seem to be much reason for Muslims to shift their choice away from DMK. In Maharashtra, the harassment of youth has taken place on a wider scale and no wonder if disenchanted Muslims would look for alternatives. But in Andhra Pradesh, despite much of mayhem on the issue of terrorism, Muslims are likely to plump for YSR-led Congress which by its consistent support for reservations for Muslims in Government jobs and educational places, has more than compensated for its sins.
Though, prospects for non-Congress and non-BJP parties seem to be brightening with passage of days in the run-up to elections, the Third Front looks far from a viable entity. Its current constituents may plump for Governments that can yield to regional urges once into the Lok Sabha. Realignments of fronts is all likely. Aware of such an eventuality, Muslim electorate would have to arrive at a principle based voting pattern that could ensure a secular, peaceful reign at the Centre. The community would need to crystallize its national agenda before choosing the parties. These should include reservation for the community in keeping with recommendations of the Ranganatha Mishra Commission, guarantee for rule of law, a judicial commission to look into all blast cases across the nation.