The Narendra Modi government sprung a surprise in the Supreme Court of India on January 29. It asked the court to hand over a part of the disputed land around Ram Janmabhoomi (birth pace of Lord Ram)-Babri mosque site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, to the trust overseeing the Ram temple plan. The move is aimed at polarizing the electorate in the key state of Uttar Pradesh ahead of this year’s general elections. In May in post-election India, whoever controls Uttar Pradesh is likely to form the government.

The petition signals the commitment of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to a temple at the controversially disputed spot. Believed by hardline Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Ram (a Hindu god), the site has been a major bone of contention between Muslims and Hindus for over six decades.

This would-be masterstroke from the BJP is expected to further fuel the ongoing polarization of politics and socio-politics in Uttar Pradesh. The state is India’s most politically significant province, and one that sets Hindu and Muslim votes against each other. It has been the base for the BJP’s temple politics since 1989, resulting in the rise of the party’s electoral fortune since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Muslims decisive in 40 out of 80 seats

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is home to nearly 40 million Muslims, or around 20% of the people in the state. Furthermore, UP is set for a three-way contest in the upcoming election. The fight will be between the ruling BJP, the main opposition party Congress and the recent alliance of two major regional players – Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

“Which way the community votes will decide the fortunes for the BJP and other stakeholders in Muslim-concentrated constituencies,” said Badri Narayan, Professor at GB Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj.

There are 40 parliamentary constituencies in the state, of which 27 are in western Uttar Pradesh and 12 are in the eastern part, where the Muslim presence varies between 30 to 45% of the population, according to the 2011 census report. The state returns 80 seats out of the 545-seated national parliament. Yet, following the 2014 general election, not a single Muslim representative was elected to parliament from Uttar Pradesh until by-elections in Kairana resulted in the victory of the first Muslim candidate from Rashtriya Janata Dal from UP last year.

Polarization, a key plank

The polarization of Hindu and Muslim communities played a major role in the state in the 2014 general elections which were held after the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar. The BJP swept 71 out of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, banking mainly on Hindu votes. Muslim votes, meanwhile were fractured due to a four-way contest.

Political commentator Ramesh Dixit points at the BJP’s gradual shift of the narrative from development to Hindutva (Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, or Hindu-ness): “The BJP’s development plank of 2014 has been replaced with Hindutva nationally after massive failures on economic, agriculture and job fronts,” says Dixit. “This became more prominent in Uttar Pradesh since Ajay Singh Bisht, who styles himself as Yogi Adityanath, took over as chief minister in 2017. Muslims and Dalits have suffered the most in the BJP regime.”

However, Waseem Rizvi, chairman of Shia Waqf Board, denies that Muslims are a solid vote bank. “Hardliner Muslims are anti-BJP who may vote for a candidate, or even an animal, who can defeat (the) BJP. There is another segment of Muslims who are pro-development, secular and nationalists. Unfortunately, the hardliners outnumber the secular Muslims. (Neither of them) are the vote bank of any party.”

He said that if hardliners are to co-operate with the Hindus and pave way for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the Hindus will be relaxed and electoral issues will be different.

Congress or SP-BSP?

Observers like Dixit and Hussain predict that the SP-BSP alliance will get the maximum share of Muslim votes at the expense of Congress, which has a limited presence in the state. In terms of seats, Congress has just 2 parliamentary seats and a vote share of only 7%. In comparison, SP holds seven Parliamentary seats while BSP has none, though they enjoy consistent vote bases of 22% and 20% respectively.

Observers also predict a massive cull for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, from 71 seats to 20-25 seats. This may be because the Dalit, Muslim and Other Backward Class (OBC) votes may swing towards the opposition. This would surpass the BJP’s historic vote share of 42.6% in the 2014 polls following consolidation of Muslim votes towards them.

Many believe it is too early to presume that the SP-BSP alliance will become the automatic choice for non-BJP voters, especially Muslims. “After Congress’ victory in three states last month, the perception towards the party is changing fast. For a sizable section of Muslims, Congress is still the first option at least in general elections,” said Harendra Shukla, political analyst.

Muslims in Uttar Pradesh

Muslims have rallied behind Congress since Independence, but the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992 during a Congress government led to the perception that the party failed to do enough to stop it.

“The community shifted their loyalty towards Samajwadi Party post demolition. Muslims have always preferred voting SP to BSP and Congress in Uttar Pradesh,” explains Hussain.

Mayawati also desperately tried to woo Muslims without seeing any payback. In the 2014 polls, the BSP fielded 19 Muslim candidates but drew a blank.

Similarly, Muslims have preferred Congress party candidates in the past over other regional outfits, so long as they were able to put up a good fight against the BJP. “Congress might fare better than SP-BSP on seats where they field strong candidates and Priyanka aggressively campaigns,” says Prof Badri Narayan.

However, Athar Hussain, Director of Center for Objective Research and Development, Lucknow, told Asia Times, “Muslims feel threatened and vulnerable. They wish to defeat the Modi-led BJP government only to protect themselves. The community would play a defensive role not (a) decisive one. Nevertheless, Muslims are not in (the) majority in any constituency.”