Once again, the communal cauldron in Uttar Pradesh is on the boil. It’s an old story: the state has been polarised by the identity politics that marked Indian politics in the late eighties and through the nineties, the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, being a shocking inflection point. In fact, it was the build-up to the demolition that catapulted both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party to the forefront, marginalising the Congress, which had ruled the state for four long decades.

The BJP grew on the strength of Hindutva politics. The Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, too, was not slow to realise the increasing influence of religion on voters. Though his initial rise in Uttar Pradesh can be attributed to the need for change—breaking the shackles of a prolonged and discredited Congress raj—it was the support of the Muslim vote that took him to new heights.

Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mulayam is all set to play his Muslim card—even if that means setting up an excellent opportunity for the BJP to exaggerate the emotive spirit of Hindutva. Recent events in the state—the Dalit-Muslim fights and the recent Jat-Muslim rioting—are reinforcing the perception that what the BJP and the Samajwadi Party are doing is consolidating their votebanks.

While pollsters are predicting a hung Parliament, Mulayam sees it as one big, and perhaps, the last opportunity to fulfil his long-cherished dream of being the prime minister. And he knows it isn’t possible without the blanket support of the state’s 21 per cent Muslim population. It is also important for him to keep Rampur MLA Azam Khan on his side. A sulking Khan chose to keep himself out of the party’s national executive meet in Agra, and the mixed signals are only muddying the already charged climate of the state.

After all, faced with caste- and religion-oriented voting, Muslim votes alone can help the Samajwadi Party  win around half of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 parliamentary seats, thereby enabling Mulayam to bargain for the top position in a Third Front scenario. This dream, however, could remain elusive if Muslims are weaned away by the Congress, whose political fortunes are also heavily dependent on the support of Muslims. Mulayam’s desperation to be prime minister is showing: all the talk is about the old wrestler fixing ‘noora kushti’ matches with sworn rivals of the past from the saffron brigade, such as Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. (Remember his brief, stillborn dalliance with Kalyan Singh?) And the BJP’s interest in allowing Mulayam to consolidate the Muslim vote stems from the fact that this will take away Muslim votes from the Congress, weakening it in the race for New Delhi.

This posturing was recently exposed when battle-lines were apparently drawn between the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Samajwadi Party on the chaurasi kosi parikrama around Ayodhya organised August 25 onwards, a march the VHP neither had the intention nor the capability to undertake. The Samajwadi Party, which banned the march, was actually keen to see the Sangh parivar push the plan aggressively. Wry observers were quick to call it a case of match-fixing: in fact, Mulayam, his chief minister son Akhilesh and VHP chief Singhal had remained closeted for two hours before the call for the parikrama and the ban.

While Uttar Pradesh has witnessed more than 30 major and minor incidents of communal violence since Akhilesh assumed power in March 2012, the latest—which began in Muzaffarnagar district but spread to Saharanpur, Meerut, Baghpat and Shamli districts­—has attained serious proportions. The official toll is 38, but some 50 are claimed to have died in no more than two days. Mulayam had no qualms about praising his son for “controlling the situation in just two days”.

Evidently, action by the state government came only after a prolonged spell of passive ‘wait and watch’. It all began when two young Jats confronted a Muslim youth over the alleged harassment of their sister. All three were killed in the fighting that followed, even as police looked the other way from their outpost about a kilometre away. Scores were settled the Wild West way. But the one-sided manner in which action was initiated by the local authorities, who chose to book a large number of Jats alone, allowed the BJP to perpetrate its politics of hatred. What followed the same evening was the transfer of both the district magistrate and senior superintendent of police in charge of the district.

And before the new incumbents could get hold of their bearings, the Jats rose up in arms to convene a ‘maha­panchayat’ in protest on August 31. This failed to draw large crowds. Therefore, another call was given for a bigger show of strength on September 7. Other than clamping Section 144 of the CrPC, which bars assembly of four or more than four persons in any public place, the state administration did nothing to douse the embers. In fact, no effort was made to prevent the assembly of thousands of people at the venue. The BJP found this an ideal occasion to start projecting itself as being with the Jats. A huge band of BJP leaders, led by veteran Hukum Singh, a Jat himself, converged at the event. “Statements issued by local authorities explicitly said that there was no restriction on anyone attending the mahapanchayat. None of the police officials at pickets en route to the venue stopped me or even cared to question me while I was on my way to the panchayat,” Hukum Singh toldOutlook, after being charged with violating the ban orders.

It was rather late in the day, after some 36 innocent human lives were lost and the communal virus had spread to four other neighbouring districts, that the government woke up from its complacence. A major shake-up was carried out in the police administration of the affected districts and licences of nearly 1,900 firearm owners were cancelled. A crackdown led to 700 arrests overnight, whereas less than 200 arrests were made in the 12 preceding days.

While blaming all the violence on the BJP, the chief minister said, “A minor scuffle between a few individuals has been blown up into a riot simply because it is  being fuelled by BJP leaders. These small incidents are being used to serve the communal ends of political parties like the BJP, which have nothing else to bank upon at a time when general elections are not far away. The BJP has used this incident to communalise the atmosphere so that it could win the votes of Jats in the region.”

Akhilesh also sought to pass the buck to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose leaders Swami Prasad Maurya and Naseemuddin Siddiqui sought dismissal of the Akhilesh government on account of what they termed as “complete breakdown of law and order”. Maurya and Siddiqui also urged state governor B.L. Joshi to recommend imposition of President’s rule in the state. That hasn’t happened so far.

Meanwhile, in his report sent to the Union government, the governor has squarely blamed the Akhilesh government. According to a highly placed source, “the governor has said the state government failed to take stern and timely action when the issue was simply limited to an isolated incident of eve-teasing.” The governor’s report is learnt to have also said that “the large-scale violence could have been avoided”. This is damning to the Akhilesh government.

However, political analysts were of the view that the governor’s report  too  was aimed at serving the Congress party’s interest by keeping Mulayam on tenterhooks, particularly since the Congress has begun to view the Samajwadi Party  as a major threat to its own designs on the Muslim vote.