If proof was ever needed that development and religious polarisation do not go hand in hand then it is available at Jais, a town in Amethi district of Uttar Pradesh. The Muslims of Jais, who are 61 percent of its 26,000 residents, are anguished that development has completely bypassed them despite having voted for the Congress party for generations. This realisation dawned on them when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started contesting elections on the development plank in 2014.
Strolling the charming but rundown streets of Jais reveals dozens of new houses, even in its Muslim neighbourhood. These new homes, with their fresh coat of paint, stand out amongst the crumbling mansions and derelict hovels that otherwise dot Jais. Written on their walls in bold red is the declaration that they have been built under a scheme that is being administered by the BJP at the Centre, the Prime Minister's Housing Scheme " Urban. From the names of the beneficiaries, it's apparent that many are Muslims.
Yet, for all their angst against the Congress and their thirst for new homes, better electricity, education and water supply, the Muslims of Jais baulk at the idea of voting for the BJP. The reason is that the BJP offers development but its strategy of polarising voters on religious lines threatens their very existence and dignity. Survival and honour trump development, and the Muslims end up voting for the Congress. This is ironic, for they know that the Congress takes their votes for granted, by offering them security without contributing to their material progress.
"You can call us slaves of the Congress party," says Sadiq Mehdi, a resident of Ward Number 24 of Jais. "Rahul Gandhi does not visit us, nor has he done any work here, but he will still get the Muslim votes," he says.
Gandhi, the Member of Parliament representing Amethi since 2004, is also the Congress party's national president.
"If the BJP is strong today, it is because of Congress," adds Sadiq.
Sadiq is one of the many embittered Muslim residents of Jais. He sees the political strategies of the BJP and the Congress as a trap for Muslim voters.
"Muslims, like the Hindus, want to vote for a party that works for them. The Congress may not have worked for them," says Shahenshah Alam, a middle-aged resident of Jais who says he is a traditional Congress supporter. "But the statements by BJP leaders against Muslims leave them no other option," he says.
In the ongoing Lok Sabha polls as well, BJP leaders are trying to consolidate and harvest Hindu votes with their polarising statements that stoke communitarian fears on both sides. Such statements alienate Muslim voters from the BJP and push them towards its rivals. The latest such remark came from the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindutva leader who propagates the superiority of Hinduism. Mocking Muslims and the parties they vote for, he said, "If the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have faith in Ali, then we too have faith in Bajrangbali."
After this statement, when BJP's supporters in Jais tried to mobilise Muslim voters, they were shooed away. "The Muslims told us that the BJP should ask for votes from Bajrangbali and not Ali's supporters," says Wajahat Abbas, a young educated resident of Jais who is affiliated with the Muslim Rashtriya Manch or MRM, an outfit of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the BJP's ideological parent.
Earlier, Abbas worked for a multinational company in the National Capital Region (NCR). He relocated to Jais in 2016 on account of his father's poor health. That is when he joined the MRM, along with his friend, Saqlain Mehdi. Their primary task is to mobilise Muslim voters for the BJP.
"In the 2017 Assembly election, our job was easier. We could get 1,000 people to BJP meetings, including 300-odd Muslims. But not even 100 Muslims came for a recent Smriti Irani meeting," he says.
Irani, the union minister of textiles, is the BJP's Lok Sabha candidate for Amethi. The reason for Muslim disinterest was the outrageous remarks about Muslims recently uttered by the party's leaders.
Wajahat and Saqlain support the BJP not because of their affinity for its Hindutva ideology. Their close personal relations with the Tiloi Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Mayankeshwar Sharan Singh, prompted them to join the party that taunts their community.
Their participation attests to the good relations that Singh and his family has maintained with local Muslims. They are the erstwhile rulers of the princely estate of Tiloi, which is part of the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency. Equally, the young men's acceptance for the BJP leader demonstrates the flexibility of the Muslim community.
"Not everything is dictated by politics. Good equations with the Raja of Tiloi are more important," says Saqlain. "The Raja listens to us, so we support him too," says Abbas. In the past, Singh was a Samajwadi Party MLA from Tiloi.
Saqlain and Wajahat's experience with the BJP has not been entirely comfortable. Both hope he (Singh) will move to another political formation in the future. Friends and family chide them, especially after BJP leaders berate Muslims. They, however, cannot let go of their affection and loyalty to the Tiloi clan.
Every lever of power, from the Tiloi Assembly seat, of which Jais is a part, to the state government and the Centre are currently under the BJP's control. For the Muslims of Jais, as for other social groups in the town, backing such a party would make perfect sense. However, in thirteen of the Lok Sabha elections held in Amethi ever since it was carved into a Constituency in 1967, the Congress has won.
The Muslims have always voted for it, although non-Congress governments have been running the state for thirty years. Being out of power at the Centre since 2014 severely limits the Congress party's ability to provide services or utilities to its constituents, but the Muslims feel they owe their vote to the Congress in exchange for security and out of tradition.
In fact, it is the Muslim's strong distrust of the BJP that prevents their migration to the party while the Hindu voters of Jais have found it easier to overcome their traditional loyalty to the Gandhi family. Roughly 21 percent of Jais residents are Dalits, mostly from the Sonkar and Jatav castes. Sadiq, who is a Samajwadi Party supporter, believes Jais was ignored, and rarely visited by Congress leaders, because of the lowly status accorded to Muslims and Dalits in the traditional social and caste hierarchy.
"As we are primarily Muslims and Dalits, they treated Jais as untouchable," he says.
You could say that Sadiq's strong opinions about the Congress reflect his Samajwadi Party leanings. However, even the Congress party's supporters in Jais echo similar resentments: "People got money from BJP's schemes and they got homes but our forefathers voted for the Congress and so shall we," says Mohammad Ali, a resident of Jais.
Ali appreciates the BJP's development agenda but feels compelled to retreat into traditional loyalty when he votes because of the BJP's polarising rhetoric. "People do get turned off by the BJP's statements," he says.
This is ironic, because the Muslims of Jais live in derelict conditions. The old mansions, including some that belong to Wajahat's family, are falling to dust with rubble lining the Muslim quarters in Jais. Also, Jais gets water supply for just an hour a day. Because the Muslims live on an elevated, hilly part of town, they need electricity to pump water into their homes. However, the electricity supply is intermittent, so the Muslim households are often left high and dry.
The Muslims blame the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP " the three parties they have supported traditionally " for their persistent neglect. Yet, when they vote on 6 May, they are likely to root for Gandhi (backed this time by the BSP and the Samajwadi Party). Their realisation that their vote may not change their material circumstances is unlikely to help the BJP.
"Why wouldn't the Muslims want to vote for a party which offers them benefits like housing, water and electricity?" asks Alam.
He then adds, "But not for the BJP."
This is because BJP leaders also chide Muslims for their voting behaviour. One such recent remark came from Maneka Gandhi, who said, "Mann khatta ho jaata hai (it causes displeasure)" when Muslims of her constituency, Sultanpur, do not vote for her. The Union minister also threatened to cut off assistance to Muslim voters after winning the election if they didn't vote for her.
By contrast, Dalit voters of Jais strode confidently into the BJP camp in 2014, mesmerised by its development agenda. They feel the pinch of getting left behind in the march towards development and want more schools and a better standard of education, just like the Muslims. They contributed to bringing Gandhi's Lok Sabha victory margin down to 1 lakh votes, the lowest ever in Amethi. (In 2014, new entrant Kumar Vishwas of the Aam Aadmi Party had also contested in Amethi and got 25,000 votes.)
"Why would we have stopped voting for the Congress if they had done any work here," says Manjeet Sonkar, who belongs to a family of traditional Congress voters and joined the BJP officially in 2014.
Dalit anger against the BJP for meddling with the reservation policy and for the spike in violence against the community may yet tilt the scales, but "saubhagya, shauchlaya, ujjwala" " the Centre's push for electrification, toilets and cooking gas in every home " may still see many Dalit voters vote for the BJP. This development pitch is what attracted Sonkar to the BJP and convinced him to leave a party that his grandfather and father had supported. All Sonkar has to do before he votes is match the promises of the BJP in 2014 against its achievements. On the other hand, between BJP's vikas and Muslim votes, there falls the shadow of fear.