Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, passed away in 1948. However, today in November 2021 he has come alive in the political battlefield of Uttar Pradesh. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav recently said, “Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jinnah … became barristers and got us independence.” The statement predictably led to a controversy.

BJP social media activists seized upon the Jinnah reference to attack SP and stereotype its identity politics. Union home minister Amit Shah said in a speech that for SP, JAM was about Jinnah, Azam Khan (the party’s Rampur strongman) and Mukhtar (Ansari, UP’s ‘don’ politician). A slugfest over Jinnah in a 21st-century UP election reveals not only the crisis of new ideas among India’s political class but also a deeper truth about how the state remains trapped in competitive communalism. The recent Hindutva vs Hinduism war of words and the unfortunate vandalising of Salman Khurshid’s home illustrate this hair-trigger edginess on religious identity.

Akhilesh’s statement was hopelessly misplaced. Why even bring in a divisive figure like Jinnah in a public statement when there is no evidence to suggest that Jinnah is anything but almost completely irrelevant to citizens who happen to be Muslim? Why should Jinnah in any way be seen as a ‘sop’ for India’s Muslims, when all such a statement will do is galvanise majoritarian passions? The Muslim League in Kerala never invokes Jinnah, nor does AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi. Jinnah is the avowed ‘villain’ of nationalist Indian history but he is an obscure and unsympathetic figure for most Indian across the religious divide.

For the Sangh Parivar, Jinnah is an object of hate. In 2005, when then BJP chief LK Advani wrote a single line praising Jinnah’s 1947 speech espousing a secular state, the words cost him his party presidency. But the paradox is that while the political class has vilified Jinnah, his personality or politics seem to hardly matter a lot for India’s voters.

In 2018 a controversy was sought to be created about a portrait of Jinnah at the Aligarh Muslim University put up only because had been a founder member of the University Court before Partition, but there was no public resonance on the issue. In fact, in the 1937 elections in the then United Provinces, Congress resoundingly defeated the Jinnah-led Muslim League. A significant number of UP’s Muslims opted to remain in India after Partition and leaders like Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Maulana Azad were UP’s popular leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru was the dominant figure cutting across party lines, for almost three decades.

For Akhilesh to once again bring in Jinnah into the public discourse reveals a naiveté and an unfortunate stereotyping of UP’s Muslim citizens as Jinnah-sympathisers and only gives the Hindutva forces an opening for potentially polarising issues. By using such vocabulary – Jinnah as either a sop or a stick, politicians are pushing UP back into excoriating identity politics.

The Jinnah controversy comes in the backdrop of UP’s religious and social unease. The state’s 19.3 % Muslim citizens were a vote bank for SP and have been cast as the enemies under the BJP dispensation. The love jihad law, sedition cases, seizures of property of those who protested against the Citizenship arrests under the National Security Act have all front-ended the Muslim question in an unapologetically right-wing Hindutva regime.

None other than the UP chief minister has drawn an analogy between the Kabul takeover and a ‘Talibani’ mindset amongst some Muslims, using the word ‘abba jaan’ as a dog-whistle by saying that rations for the poor were earlier ‘digested’ by those who use this Muslim terminology for father. And BJP leaders have spoken of an ‘exodus’ from Kairana after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, although reports from the district administration have shown these claims to be exaggerated.

Identity politics has a long history in the state, although the nature of identity has oscillated between caste and religion. Economically vulnerable communities are also uniquely susceptible to promises of protection and populist demagoguery by ‘saviours’ of various hues. Hindutva leaders in UP promise to put Muslims in their place while so-called secular leaders vow to keep Muslims safe. Overall it still does not seem possible to imagine an alternative format for politics in UP.

Rather than invoke Jinnah, Akhilesh could take a cue from the other gen-next Yadav, Tejashwi, who in the 2020 Bihar elections steered clear of shopworn jaati-dharm’ language and at least attempted to make youth unemployment a slogan of change. Tejashwi didn’t win but there was a visible shift in the narrative from overt religious and caste appeals. As a young politician, Akhilesh has the opportunity to inject modern vocabulary in UP’s politics and break out of the ‘us versus them and ‘victims versus enemies’ syndrome instead of falling prey to it.

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