At an event in Hardoi in Central Uttar Pradesh on Sunday, an upbeat Akhilesh Yadav who has embarked on a rath yatra for the forthcoming elections, went on and on about the great contributions of "The Iron Man of India" - Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. His hour-long speech appeared to serve for supporters of his party as a master class in history. Except that in the middle of it, Mr Yadav, a one-time Chief Minister of India's most politically crucial state, dropped a name that activated a huge controversy: Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
"Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jinnah studied at the same institute and became barristers. They became barristers and they fought for India's freedom. They never backed away from any struggle," said Mr Yadav in a region where his Samajwadi Party has traditionally performed well. During the peak of the BJP wave in 2017, Hardoi remained with the Samajwadi Party.
First things first - Mr Yadav stated a fact. The four people he mentioned in the same breath were, at various points, alumni from University College London - Jinnah in the Links Inn wing, Gandhi and Nehru in the Inner Temple and Sardar Patel in the Middle Temple of the college.
It is also a fact that they all fought for freedom from British rule. But the part that has infused much backlash was Mr Yadav likening Jinnah's role to that of Patel, the Mahatma and Nehru. While they fought for uniting India, it is a historical fact that Jinnah pressed for the creation of a separate country.
75 years after this happened, why does it matter so much? That too in the build up to an election in UP?
The BJP has maintained an extremely hard position on any form of Jinnah glorification. Who can forget the two famous casualties within the BJP when they crossed the party line. One is Jaswant Singh who was booted out of his party in 2009 for writing a book on Jinnah. The other was the party patriarch, LK Advani, who visited Pakistan and sang praises for Jinnah at his grave in 2005. Though he wasn't removed from his then position as BJP chief, that moment lit the downward trajectory of the rest of his political career.
Mr Yadav's speech had just that one false note in an otherwise flawless celebration of Sardar Patel. But it allowed the BJP the opportunity to pump up its criticism of Mr Yadav as an appeaser of Muslims, none of it gnomic, with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tagging it a "Talibani mindset" and his deputy, Keshav Maurya, declaring Mr Yadav should go by "Akhilesh Ali Jinnah".
There are two ways of looking at this.
One - as Mayawati put it on Monday afternoon in a tweet, both parties are catering to their constituencies: Akhilesh appeasing Muslims and Yogi Adityanath appeasing Hindus.
Picture this. Around 19 per cent of UP's population is Muslim, most of which has traditionally voted for the Samajwadi Party. Originating with patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, the famous "MY" or Muslim-Yadav vote combo has led the party to several victories. This time around, with Muslim leader and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi planning to contest 100 plus seats via strategic alliances, Mr Yadav needs to track strongly with Muslims.
The prospects of a Bihar repeat stare in the face for Akhilesh Yadav. Mr Owaisi contested on 14 seats out of 243 in Bihar in November last year. These were majorly concentrated in RJD stronghold of Seemanchal. Mr Owaisi's party succeeded in his third attempt and won five seats in Bihar, and significantly damaged the RJD-Congress alliance in other seats as well.
In UP, Mr Owaisi plans to contest on 100 seats. His is channelising his energy on Samajwadi strongholds like Azamgarh and major pockets in and around Deoband, Shajahanpur and Muzaffarnagar in Western UP.
The risk for Akhilesh is real. This could be one explanation for a form of appeasement.
But is Jinnah comments = Muslim votes a flawed assumption? Is Jinnah really important among Indian Muslims? Is praise for him going to resonate to Mr Yadav's advantage? Unlikely that this can help consolidate Muslim votes. For UP's Muslim voters, Jinnah is not a poll issue.
On the other hand, the BJP gets to remind its supporters of its long-standing anti-Jinnah policy in the hope that it will help consolidate their voter base along very predictable lines. The weaponisation of hate can be a powerful and effective tool.
This now brings us to the second point.
Who do these comments benefit? Mr Yadav could try to recover some lost ground by telling his core constituency that the BJP is demonizing Muslims in the aftermath of this comment which is reason to stand by the Samajwadi Party. He could suggest his party has stood for decades by the Muslims of UP which is why voters should ignore newer entrants. Or he could just choose to ignore the BJP's diatribe and move on.
For the BJP, the Jinnah controversy serves as a sweet distraction. Commercial LPG cylinders in UP now cost more than Rs 2,000. Petrol is well over Rs100 per litre and diesel too will hit a century soon. The government was being cornered by the Opposition on this. There are questions about law and order too. The suicide two days ago of an Ayodhya girl for allegedly being harassed by members of the UP administration has embarrassed Yogi. So, Jinnah will be handy as a political savior.
BJP sources in the state say the party will attack Mr Yadav's Jinnah comments even more in the next few days. 70 years later, and a time when price rise has broken the backbone of consumers, it seems that in UP's politics, Jinnah is far more inflammable than the expensive LPG cylinder.
Thus it is no surprise that the atrocities by Babar are being highlighted 491 years after his death, names are being changed 163 years after the end of Mughal rule; Jinnah himself died 73 years ago.
Elections are here.
(Sanket Upadhyay is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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