Air India flight 901 from Delhi to Najaf in Iraq is getting regularly cancelled. Bookings are still open, but 11 March was the last time the flight flew to Najaf. In fact, the twice-a-week service has only operated six times since it was launched on 14 February.AI 901 was flagged off with much fanfare from Lucknow (via Delhi) for Najaf, the holiest shrine for the Shia Muslims. It was a gift from Home Minister Rajnath Singh to the nearly 3 lakh Shia Muslims of his Lok Sabha constituency, Lucknow. Rajnath Singh, while launching the flight, had said that he would feel ashamed if people connect this to the elections. He called it an exercise in nation building. “I am trying to build this mulk (nation in Urdu),” said Singh.Najaf is considered as the spiritual capital for Shia Muslims, the city where the fourth Caliph, Imam Ali, is buried. The birthdays of Maula Ali and his son Imam Hussain, two of the tallest and most revered figures in Shi’ism, are the key calendar days for Shias, that draws them to Najaf. In terms of priority for Shias, the pilgrimage to Najaf rank’s second to the Haj in Mecca and Medina.Will vote for BJP if Rajnath candidate: Lucknow ShiasRajnath Singh’s Dependence on Shia VotesAkeel Jaffer, who manages Mehdi Travels in Lucknow, is grappling with the latest cancellation, and trying to adjust 90 pilgrims on other flights via Dubai. “Everyone was very happy and if this flight (AI 901) had truly taken off, then this would have sent a good message. But the cancellations have created more problems. Air India tells us that its planes can’t fly over Pakistan. Some passengers are reaching the Delhi airport only to realise that their flights have been cancelled.”Flight operations between Delhi-Najaf resumed after nearly 25 years of being suspended during the Iraq-Kuwait war. When Rajnath Singh flagged off the flight from Lucknow, he was flanked by prominent Shia clerics like Maulana Kalbe Jawwad. The optics intended to hammer home the point that BJP stands with Shia Muslims.Rajanth Singh, who is up for re-election from Lucknow, relies on a sizeable chunk of Shia votes to comfortably clinch the seat. Out of the nearly 3 lakh Shias living in Lucknow, almost half are registered voters. In a close contest, a combination of caste and religious vote-banks has to be stitched up to comprehensively win the seat. Rajnath has inherited most of the legacy votes in Lucknow, which went to the BJP thanks to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s charisma. However, Rajnath Singh still needs to secure – if not most – at least a portion of Shia votes.In Photos: Shia Muslims Observe Muharram in DelhiShia Support to Rajnath Singh & BJPNow interrupted, will the flight to Najaf fly in the face of its intended political purpose?A sympathetic Akeel Jaffer asks, “What can Air India or Rajnath Singh do about that, as long as Pakistan does not open air space to Air India? It may lead to a loss of a few votes of those affected by the cancellations, but that doesn’t matter.”Mohsin Raza, a Shia leader from the BJP and a junior minister in the Yogi Adityanath Cabinet, is in-charge of the Muslim Waqf and Haj portfolios. Raza claims he was instrumental in getting the flight off ground, and is hopeful that it will resume soon. Raza told The Quint, explaining the benefits of the direct flight:Rajnath Singh ji recently said that we will start more flights. They will also make this flight direct, which is right now via Delhi. People from the Awadh region can directly travel now. Earlier they had to go to either Delhi or Mumbai.Mohsin Raza, a Shia leader from the BJPSajid Hussain, a Chikankari worker in the old city area in Lucknow, is grateful for the gesture: “I thank Rajnath ji for starting the flight.” Sajid earns barely Rs 130 a day for the 12 hours of intricate embroidery work of Chikankari, and struggles to support his family of four. A pilgrimage to Najaf is a distant dream for him, and may not happen in this lifetime. Sajid says, “I don’t have the money to go to Najaf. For those who can afford it, it’s good.”Rajnath Singh Files Nomination From Lucknow Parliamentary Seat BJP & the Shia Waqf BoardThe BJP’s strategic outreach to Shia Muslims is not a recent phenomenon. Minister Mohsin Raza gives full credit to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for forging the bond between the party and the Shias of Lucknow. “Vajpayee was a man of tehzeeb. And the Shias will never forget his ehsaan. He strove for their religious rights. During the period of Muharram, there used to be Shia-Sunni sectarian riots. Vajpayee called both sides and resolved the issue, and the processions resumed. How he dealt with the issue is a misaal, a model of harmony.”Shameel Shamsi, an influencer in the Shia community, who is also the nephew of prominent Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jabwad, says that the flight to Najaf is a welcome gesture, but won’t politically sway Shias. According to him, the issue of the alleged corruption and mismanagement of the Shia Central Waqf Baord is far more critical to the Shias. The community is deeply rooted in religion, and their version of Islam, compared to Sunni Muslims, is more ritualistic. Waqf land like graveyards, mosques, imambadas and karbalas are prime properties, and rituals connected to them of enormous significance.Rajnath Singh, who is also a former chief minister from UP, is familiar with the emotive appeal of this issue, and recently helped restore control over a 700-year-old, 11 acre Dargah of Shah-e-Mardan in Delhi’s Jor Bagh, to the Shia community. Dargah of Shah-e-Mardan is a disputed property which Shias feared losing to the land mafia – allegedly backed by Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Ahmed Patel.But is that Enough to Make Shias Vote For Rajnath?The custodian of these multi-crore properties, the Shia Central Waqf board, is facing serious charges of corruption. The board is headed by Waseem Rizvi, who has openly demonstrated his loyalty for the BJP. Rizvi’s controversial proposal of the Shia Waqf board backing the building of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya, was widely publicised by the BJP and RSS as a go ahead by “most Muslims” for constructing the temple at the disputed site.Shamsi recalls that “when Yogi Adityanath ji became CM, he instantly ordered a CBI probe into the allegations of the graft in the Shia Waqf board. This was widely reported and the Shias were happy.”But the promised probe went cold, and Rizvi continues to control the Waqf board and its many properties. He recently scripted, directed and produced a controversial film Ram ki Janmabhoomi. Interestingly, RSS leader Indresh Kumar who is the patron of the Sangh’s Muslim outreach programme – Muslim Rashtriya Manch – backs Rizvi, and has also made an appearance in his film.The Shias of Lucknow and the BJPNadeem Hasnain, professor of social anthropology at the Lucknow University, dates back the attempts to ‘saffronise’ Shias to the 1960’s. It originated with the election to the Muslim-dominated Lucknow West assembly seat. Sayed Ali Zaheer, a prominent Shia leader and a former minister in Nehru’s Cabinet and a two-time MLA from the Lucknow West seat, was replaced by a Sunni Cleric Mufti Raza Ansari of the Islamic Seminary Firangi Mahali, as the Congress candidate in the 1969 assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh.Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kisan Dal swept the polls, and Mufti Ansari lost the Lucknow West seat. Hasnain remembers, “Some of Mufti’s supporters started calling Shia Muslims ‘traitors’, whom they accused of voting against the Congress candidate Mufti Raza Ansari because he replaced the sitting MLA from the Shia community, Sayed Ali Zaheer. Ironically, the truth is that the Shias did vote for him. But for the first time, bitterness took root that Shias had voted against a Sunni candidate. And then in 1969, the bloodiest of sectarian riots occurred over the old controversy of Muharram processions.”‘Shia Support to BJP is Localised to Lucknow’Hasnain says that the Jan Sangh sensed a divisive opportunity, and “deployed some of its leaders to forge friendships, especially with the Shias. For the first time, I saw Shias sitting at the Jan Sangh party booth outside a polling station. This happened for the first time after 1969.”But Hasnain refuses to believe that Shias back the BJP like a monolith, and debunks the oversimplification that Shias always voted against a candidate backed by the majoritarian Sunni Muslims. According to him, this partial attraction for the BJP is localised to Lucknow. He points out how, “for instance, in Hyderabad another city with a sizeable Shia population, Shias assert their Muslim-ness more than their Shia identity. Whereas in Lucknow, they assert their Shia identity more than their Muslim identity.”He also adds, “In the last 20-30 years, many Shias have become upwardly mobile and think differently. However, there is no way to measure how many will vote for the BJP.”What Explains Rajnath Singh’s Popularity Among Shias?About Rajnath Singh’s popularity among Shias, Hasnain admits, “that a section of the Shia community is sympathetic towards Rajnath because he does not speak foul language, has no problems in going to Roza Iftaar or wearing a skull cap, and he doesn’t have these hang-ups. His image is that of a moderate.”This consciously cultivated persona works to Rajnath’s advantage, as he needs the support of Shias, because Lucknow’s Hindu voters are also divided on caste lines. A Thakur versus Brahmin rivalry makes Rajnath, a prominent leader from the Thakur community, an unnatural choice for some Brahmins. With the Congress and the Samajwadi Party both fielding upper-caste candidates, Rajnath Singh will bank on some support from Shias to get past the post.Rajnath has cleverly courted Shia clerics in the past. In 2014, candidate Rajnath Singh met with Maulana Kalbe Jawwad. Besides religious direction, many Shias also look up to the clergy for political guidance. Shameem Shamsi, who is also Maulana Jawwad’s nephew, says, “All are welcome at the doorstep of a religious leader for “ashirwaad”. Be it Rajnath Singh, be it Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi. Clerics should refrain from making appeals to voters, and politicians should also refrain from using clerics and other religious leaders.”BJP’s ‘Acceptable Muslim’ CampaignFor the RSS and the BJP, bringing Shias into their ideological fold, fits into their larger design to create a brand of ‘acceptable’ Islam in India. Shias, Dawoodi Bohras of Gujarat and Sufi sects of Muslims like Barelvis are more ritualistic compared to Sunnis, and hence, according to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, more Indian. This narrative is being reinforced while consciously cultivating a following within the Muslim community that has distanced itself from the BJP for its hardline Hindutva politics.The BJP and the RSS are trying to use the narrative of the acceptable Muslim – Shias and Sufis – to create rifts within the community, as this fits in with the larger war on the terror narrative and it also tries to dis-aggregate their opposition to all Muslims – which was their earlier position – to now saying that these specific groups are ‘Indian Muslims’ because of cultural practices. In essence, they are using internal sectarian polemics for their own political gain, but there is no data to show that this affects vote casting.Ali Khan Mahmudabad, Professor of History & Political Science, Ashoka University to The QuintThe Muslim Rashtriya Manch curated by the RSS, is an attempt in that direction. The recent proposal by RSS’ Ram Madhav, to grant reservations to Shia Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, is an electoral strategy to carry out similar experiments to launch the BJP in the Valley that has a sizeable Shia population.But in 2019, Will Most Shias Vote For the BJP?Ali Khan Mahmudabad, who is also the spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, says, “Booth level data doesn’t bear out the fact that the Shias are BJP supporters. This perception has been because there are a number of so-called high-profile leaders who have tried to create this for their own vested interests. Also, the only place where a small percentage of Shia votes do go to the BJP is Lucknow, and not in other constituencies. Again, this is to do with local vested interests and personal politics rather than anything deeper.”(Anant Zanane is a Madhya Pradesh-based journalist who was with NDTV for over a decade. He tweets at @anantzanane. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.) We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.