Whenever the elections are around the corner, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, Shahi Imam of the historical Jama Masjid situated in the national capital makes it to the news headlines for his perceived ability to sway the Muslim vote in favour of a particular political party. This time around it is the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who has reached out to Shahi Imam.
According to the news reports yesterday, Sonia Gandhi met a delegation led by Shahi Imam and spent 45 minutes with it. After hearing from the delegation the various challenges the Muslim community is facing, Sonia Gandhi has reportedly asked Shahi Imam Bukhari to ensure the secular vote (read the Muslim vote) does not get split.
In other words, the beleaguered Congress is shopping for the Muslim vote to retain its hold on power. And for this purpose it has chosen Shahi Imam Bukhari the man with dubious distinction who – if the rumours are to be believed – is ready to issue fatwa in favour of any political party for a price. The incumbent Shahi Imam’s late father Abdullah Bukhari launched this tradition of issuing fatwa in favour of political parties asking Muslims to vote for them way back in 1977 at the time of the Lok Sabha election. The first political party to receive a favourable fatwa in its favour from the Jama Masjid was Janata Party.
But a lot of water has passed under the bridge between the Lok Sabha election of 1977 and the Lok Sabha election of 2014 when the saffron surge looks imminent with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as the most favourite front runner to become India’s next prime minister. The nervousness of the Congress is palpable on the eve of the Lok Sabha election in which it is staring at the worst ever performance in terms of total number of its seat tally going by the various opinion polls.
In such a scenario, for the Congress it makes perfect sense to get endorsement from Shahi Imam Bukhari. But the million dollar question is will a fatwa from Shahi Imam Bukhari make any difference on the electoral fortunes of the Congress? Do the Muslim voters listen to Shahi Imam and vote as per his whims and fancies? Is he a true representative and a legitimate voice of the entire Muslim community?
What is even more concerning is Shahi Imam Bukhari is a controversial party hopper. As recently as 2012, he swore allegiance to the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh. The reason for this support was not his concern for the well-being of his co-religionists but because his son-in-law Umar Ali Khan was contesting election on the Samajvadi Party ticket. It is the same SP as he had opposed tooth and nail in 2007 and 2009 and went back to opposing once some secret sweet heart deal fell apart between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shahi Imam Bukhari. When questioned, he cited that since the party was deceiving Muslims in the name of secularism, he had fallen out.
This is not the only instance where Shahi Imam Bukhari has switched his allegiance from one political party to another. In the Lok Sabha election of 2004 when the memories of the post Godhra Gujarat riots were still fresh, he courted a controversy by supporting the BJP only to do a U-turn later when his support raised heckles and the heat became unbearable after people started reminding him of his speeches in the wake of the 2002 violence.
Shahi Imam Bukhari has earned the reputation of someone who will issue statements condemning or supporting the political outfits depending upon which way the political wind is blowing. His much talked about hold over the Muslim vote is also a subject of logical debates since he had opposed Shohaib Iqbal the MLA of Matiya Mahal constituency in three elections consecutively but to everyone’s surprise Shohaib won the elections every time with bigger margins.
The Congress is desperately looking for a miracle to retain its hold over its traditional Muslim vote bank that is deserting the party following the huge disenchantment with it. The Congress is counting on Shahi Imam Bukhari’s fatwa or endorsement to bring back its traditional vote bank into its fold. This move smacks of the very politics of appeasement that has run its course. Going by Shahi Imam Bukhari’s colourful history of backing and ditching the political parties as per his whims and fancies, it will not be surprising to know if he is supporting the Congress in this election for the personal gains. There is definitely more to his new found love for the party he had once claimed for all the woes of the community on the eve of the Lok Sabha election.
Be that as it may, what remains to be seen is whether Shahi Imam Bukhari delivers the Muslim vote to the Congress or not. If the Muslim vote indeed does not get split as Sonia Gandhi wishes, who will benefit out of it? Shahi Imam Bukhari, the Congress or the hapless community whose votes are the most sought after at the time of the elections?