The Gaze within
Prabhat Sharan Mumbai
The plethora of small political parties gradually cobbling together a front, albeit in a tenuous manner, has flummoxed political analysts and old political warhorses alike in Maharashtra. Complicating the electoral conundrum further is the emergence of a Dalit-Muslim OBC (Other Backward Class) combine saturated with pockets having a sizeable density of both estranged communities. The Dalit-Muslim OBC combine is an emerging power even though it is still in an incipient stage. The Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena-BJP alliance always took the Dalits and the Muslim OBC communities for granted. They are now finding a common platform in the fast deteriorating economy.
Mumbai, once touted as the commercial capital, an answer to the common man's dreams, has become a nightmare not just for middle-class job seekers but also for the over-exploited, marginalised communities. Whatever analysts with their own caste-class prejudices or political parties may say with irrefutable logical theories backed with statistics, Dalits in Maharashtra are gradually distancing themselves from their so-called parties. Same is the case with the Muslim OBCs who belong to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy of this minority group. Both are finding empathy in each other and the worsening economy is binding them closer.
The power of this vote-bank is likely to show only a minimal strength in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. "But, in the state assembly polls, they will certainly become the most powerful lever at the hustings," feels Hasan Kamaal, political analyst and prominent Urdu journalist.
Who will benefit from this? "The BSP. The party might not open its account this time but will rake in seats in the assembly elections," says Rakshit Sonawane, political bureau chief (Mumbai), Indian Express. Issues like the Babri Masjid demolition, non-implementation of Srikrishna Commission Report on the Mumbai pogrom against Muslims-1992-93, or Batla House encounter, according to most social activists, have been put on the back-burner and "will not sway Muslim voters in Mumbai or Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha elections".
The demographic composition of Muslim identity is not homogeneous. "In fact, it varies from place to place and is extremely amorphous, contrary to the image projected in the media or by parochial Right wing parties for vested interests," avers Urdu litterateur, Ayubi Mahmood.
Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, like India, has so much of diversity, socio-linguistically and culturally. "It would be erroneous to lump people from one community in one crucible of thought forms, like labelling all communists as belonging to CPM," says Vinod Raghavan, activist and journalist, who works in the poverty-ridden Muslim-dominated Cheetah Camp slums in north-east Mumbai.
The Muslims in Cheetah Camp hail from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. "They all belong to southern India and have a mindset totally different from that of a Muslim hailing from, say, UP or Bihar. Ask them about the Batla House encounter, they wouldn't know. They belong to the fold which can be termed as lower castes in their respective states. This makes them impervious to issues like non-implementation of the Srikrishna Commission findings or Waqf Board controversies. They live on a day-to-day basis. That is what they are concerned with. In the north central parliamentary constituency, they will play an important role. But no candidate will be able to break ice with them by talking to them about Malegaon or Babri Masjid," explains Raghavan.
It is for the first time that politicians are finding themselves flummoxed over the kind of issues they need to rake in to garner votes. Ironically, most of the clerics to whom Hardnews spoke, refused to answer what issues they are contemplating to deliberate upon within the community while deciding who to vote. "This is because they want to keep their options clear. The most common issue revolves around opposition towards the Shiv Sena and BJP. In any case, even if the clerics don't raise these issues, opposition to these two Rightwing parochial parties finds resonance among Muslims irrespective of the region they come from," said social activist, Firoz Ashraf.
The same goes for politicians in the fray. They are as flummoxed as the clerics and analysts adhering to the homogeneous school of thought. Unlike in the days of Indira Gandhi when elections were decided on a national issue, Daya Kishan Joshi, editor of Hindi fortnightly, Swatantra Jan Samachar, opines, "This election will be decided on local issues and regional affiliations."
"Everybody operating in the field of street polity knows the gut reality, the importance of fielding a candidate based on the dominant caste, religion and class factors. The change which can be sensed in the present poll process is the emergence of various marginal sections of society binding as a collective force. Call it a Mayawati factor or call it an off-shoot of the worsening of the economy; this is bringing people from diverse communities sharing a common class interest together. Maharashtra will see the Muslim OBCs, who are in a majority and economically the most deprived, joining hands with Dalits. It is a writing on the wall, which the upper class, irrespective of which community they belong to, is scared of," Joshi emphasises.
Interestingly, it is not just the cohesion of the marginal sections which is causing a scare among the upper castes and classes. Even the sudden revival of regional roots is causing a flurry among the parties.
A case in point is the coastal belt of Konkan where Muslims constitute 16 to 17 per cent of the population. While opposing the Shiv Sena, which has a stronghold in the region, they will not accept any candidate fielded by other parties who do not have roots in the region. Strangely, majority of Konkani Muslims, who speak Konkani and Marathi and belong to the trading class, also oppose the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) which is active in the belt. "This is because of class interest. Add to this the caste factor and the scene becomes more complex. The caste factor plays an important role in every community irrespective of their religion. This every politician knows. The caste factor becomes more sharp when economic uncertainty looms," says Sonawane.
Kamaal elaborates: "In the Indian subcontinent, social hierarchy pervades every community to some extent. Islam, despite being egalitarian, has not been able to escape its clutches. Muslims observe these social structures and that is one of the reasons why they cannot be lumped together. With various contradicting socio-economic forces working in contemporary India, a Muslim voter is like any other voter."
Ashraf argues that it is erroneous to classify a vote-block as one-dimensional Muslim psyche or Muslim vote-bank. "Every voter in today's India will look at issues which affect him/her economically, and that's what will finally count. The voter is bound to go for that party which would ensure economic safety apart from social security and respect. Of course, minorities will always shy away from voting the Shiv Sena or BJP. The scars these two parties have etched into the psyche of minorities in every part of the country are too deep for time to erase."
It is this complexity that has created problems for the warring political parties. Sharad Pawar, considered to be an architect of the secular front in the state, has lost ground among the minorities after being found hobnobbing with Shiv Sena to achieve his ambition of becoming prime minister. Sajid Rashid, a columnist for Jansatta and Pakistan's Dawn (Urdu version), feels that a Muslim from Maharashtra, no doubt, views Pawar as an opportunist. But he is also in awe of Pawar, who, through sheer grit, has acquired a stature no politician from Maharashtra has managed till date. Moreover, Pawar's opportunism is not seen negatively. Rather, it is admired, unlike Mayawati's, who is viewed by migrant Muslims of UP as a fascist."
"Good or bad, Pawar offers a Hobson's choice for the minorities in a state where the Shiv Sena, despite walking on crutches, and Raj Thackeray, with only paper strength, manage to go around crowing with impunity. After all, a section, even if it comprises educated middle-class Muslims, is annoyed by the inaction of Congress-NCP on various issues like the Srikrishna report or Batla House encounter. Mayawati will not be able to make any inroads in Maharashtra. As for the Dalit-Muslim OBC combine to take shape, it will really take a long time to fructify," feels Rashid.
However, past election results show that the BSP has managed to make inroads by cutting into the Congress-NCP vote-bank. It is because of the BSP that the Congress lost its stronghold in the Vidarbha region to the BJP-Shiv Sena. Soon, it is quite possible the BSP may become the key kingmaker in the Maharashtra assembly.
"This will be possible only if the trend of collectivisation of the marginal forces continues till then. Since the days of en masse voting seems to be over and the Muslim vote-bank is a misnomer, there is bound to be regrouping of social forces and communities on lines other than traditionally seen," argues Sonawane.
Though most political analysts are in a tizzy to figure out what shape the new collective force will take, one thing is clear: this time political parties will not be able to glean green grass from places where corpses are buried and dreams lie crushed.