One community, many rights

The question of the Muslim vote, instead of being reduced to a monolithic entity, should actually be about justice and redistribution in accordance with the needs and aspirations of the community

Tanweer Fazal Delhi

Come elections, and among the many perplexities that stare at us, is this one: how are the Muslims going to exercise their franchise? All said and done, the fact that Muslims betray deep caste, class and sectarian cleavages amongst them remains immaterial to a public discourse centred around packaging the community (or communities, to be precise) in terms of its imagined monolithic attributes. Garrulous television talk shows aided by pollsters, commentators and op-ed experts quite wittingly contribute to this typecasting of the Muslim voter—one steeped in poverty and force of tradition and, on account of his under-developed state of being, is captive to one or the other ‘secular’ political formations. In this sense, Muslims are the poster boys of secularism, their zealous participation in the process reaffirms the secularity of the secular state, their representation within party structures and among nominated candidates certifies the party’s secular credentials; besides, the ‘Muslim vote’ is also considered a bulwark against communalism.

The irony of the situation needs to be underscored — despite this near-obsessive attention to Muslims during election season, empowerment remains a chimera. An analysis of the religious distribution of Lok Sabha representation leaves us with a rather sad history of marginality. Except for a brief period in the early 1980s, Muslim presence in the Lower House (including the present Lok Sabha) has languished at around 5-6 per cent. Rising communal polarization could an explanation, but how do we make sense of the shortfall even during interludes of relative peace, as in the 1950s and the ’60s?

Another argument advanced is about the dispersed nature of the Muslim population that deprives it of an elected representative from amongst itself, but concurrently bestows it with immense tactical advantage. Pursuing the line, a recent psephological piece estimates the Muslim vote as critical in some 220-odd parliamentary constituencies. In all these constituencies, it is presumed, Muslims vote en masse to keep their bête-noire, the BJP, away. However, as election studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, have constantly reminded us, there is no clear pattern. Let us examine the 2009 data from Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Mandir-Masjid politics: Muslims split their votes among the SP, BSP and the Congress, a pattern that was repeated in the 2012 Assembly Polls, too, with the SP cornering a major share of it. In fact, if the community lens is put to rest for a while, we see that Muslim voting behaviour is no different from the prevailing mood. Regional analysis is more illuminating—in Assam, the votes were split between the Congress and AGP, despite the latter’s past association with anti-Bengali Muslim sentiments; in Andhra Pradesh, it’s the Congress,  All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM) and the TDP (despite its flirtations with the NDA); in Jharkhand, it’s the Congress, the JMM and the RJD that divide the Muslim preferences between them.

 The irony of the situation needs to be underscored – despite this near obsessive attention to Muslims during election season, empowerment remains a chimera

Far more pertinent is the question of methodology. That Muslims are as internally differentiated as any other community is axiomatic, but these caste, biradari and ethnic segregates rarely become units of analyses for election forecasters. What we are left with is the idea that the entire community acts in a symphony of action and purpose. Electoral behaviour of Muslims in most contexts defies such a portrayal. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, middle and low caste Muslims in western UP formed a formidable alliance with the Jatavs under the BSP. The Peace Party, formed in the backdrop of the 2012 Assembly elections, sought to mobilize Ansaris and others in central and eastern parts of the state. In neighbouring Bihar, caste tension between ashraf and pasmanda Muslims was successfully exploited by Nitish Kumar to breach Lalu’s impregnable ‘MY’ (Muslims-Yadavs) formula. In Kerala, the equitable politics of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is centred on building an entente of Muslim subalterns and other deprived communities. In contrast, the Kerala Muslim League is viewed as representing the interests of upper caste Thangals. In Assam, the na-Asamiya and indigenous Muslims are one with the Assamese majority in labelling Bengali-speaking Muslims as ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’. The latter has found its political expression under the Assam United Democratic Front. In much of West Bengal, and also in Kerala, large sections of Muslims were mobilized by the communist parties. Muslims, atypically, have divergent interests and choose their politics accordingly.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013