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BJP’s Muslim heavyweight faces tough contest

By Imran Khan,IANS,

Bhagalpur (Bihar) : He is a rare but prominent Muslim face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To former minister Shahnawaz Hussain, the community’s votes might make a big difference as he is facing a tough fight in Bhagalpur constituency.

Hussain, locked in a multi-cornered contest in Bhagalpur that goes to polls Thursday, is trying hard to secure Muslim votes as neither he nor his party is confident of its traditional support base among different Hindu castes this time.

“The caste factor dominating the election, minus Hindutva, has virtually ended the hope of sharp divisions of anti-BJP votes like in the past,” said Manish Singh, a school teacher in Bhagalpur, over 200 km from state capital Patna.

It has put Hussain at a disadvantage because the division of anti-BJP votes would have helped him.

“Shahnawaz is left with no choice but to heavily depend on Muslim votes. They will play a crucial role in the election, he is aware of it and is spending more time and resources in Muslim areas,” said Zahid Ansari, an activist working for weavers’ rights.

Hussain has faced the community’s anger several times during campaigning over his failure to protest the killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when he was a central minister.

A Supreme Court directive to probe Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the communal violence is likely to strengthen the BJP’s communal image among the Muslims of Bhagalpur like elsewhere.

His rivals, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Shakuni Chowdhary, Congress candidate Sadanand Singh, the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPI-M) Subodh Roy and Bahujan Samaj Party’s Ajit Sharma have also been talking of the Gujarat riots to woo Muslim voters.

Hussain’s strategy is to downplay the issue. “My rivals are raising the Gujarat issue to target me,” he said.

Hussain’s troubles began after the Congress fielded Sadanand Singh, belonging to the backward Kurmi caste, against him. Singh is known to enjoy the support of his caste which used to vote for the BJP. Kurmi votes are now likely to be split unlike in the last Lok Sabha election.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar too is a Kurmi but the loyalty of its community members may be more for Singh as he is a local leader.

Nitish Kumar’s secular credentials have improved after he re-opened dozens of 1989 Bhagalpur riots cases two years ago but this has angered many Hindus in the constituency.

They have expressed their unhappiness to Hussain, who neither opposed the state government’s decision to re-open the cases nor defended it. In the 1989 riots, over 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed.

Some people have openly told Hussain that the BJP-backed Nitish Kumar government was trying to appease Muslims and now he (Hussain) should not expect their support.

Hussain said he believes in the ‘HUM’ (Hindu-Muslim) support factor more than anything. The number of Muslim voters in Bhagalpur is nearly 300,000.

That’s not all. Hussain is also in trouble for not getting help from Ashwani Choubey, a BJP legislator from Bhagalpur and minister in the Nitish Kumar-led government. “Choubey’s absence from the campaign has damaged Hussain’s prospects,” said a BJP leader.

Hussain had won from Bhagalpur by defeating RJD’s Chowdhary in the by-election in 2006. The poll was necessitated following the resignation of the BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi, who won from here in 2004 but moved to the Bihar legislature to be deputy chief minister.

In the 2004 parliamentary elections, Hussain was defeated from Kishanganj although Muslims make up more than 66.7 percent of the voters there. He had won from there in 1999.