Muslim Politics: The paradox of marginalization
The ostracising of Muslim candidates by the mainstream has given Muslim parties new relevance
Adnan Farooqui Delhi
The design of the Indian electoral system – where the candidate who wins a plurality of votes gains the seat and there are no rewards for second place – has long prevented the emergence of a strong Muslim party. Because India’s Muslims are thinly distributed and do not enjoy local majorities, it always made more sense for them to ally with mainstream parties and bargain for influence in exchange. But the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) wipeout of its rivals in the most recent Lok Sabha election, perhaps counter-intuitively, has made the All India Majlis Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) more relevant than ever before.
Because of the system’s design, the BJP captured 282 out of 545 seats despite winning only 31 per cent of the popular vote. At the same time, it created the perception that the numerical pluralities or majorities in votes, and majorities in seats, have coincided with majority/minority ‘ethnic’ boundaries and that these boundaries are permanent. Thus, the last Lok Sabha election witnessed unprecedented consolidation of Hindu votes for the BJP. As a result of which India’s 150 million Muslims have only 22 representatives in the Lower House of Parliament, their lowest-ever tally in the Lok Sabha.
This could be partly explained by the complete wipeout of the Samajwadi Party, the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the last election – the three parties to which most of the Muslim representatives have belonged in recent years.
Not a single Muslim candidate was elected to the Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, the state which in the past has contributed the most to the total tally of Muslim MPs. The elections in UP were preceded by selective polarisation, practised both by the BJP and the SP. The polarisation strategy delivered handsomely as far as the BJP tally from UP was concerned.
At an all-India level too, the narrative across the political spectrum tilted towards the majoritarian worldview, wary of any concession to the minorities, especially Muslims. The fear of majority community polarisation made parties guarded while approaching Muslims, lest they be accused of minority appeasement.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, this decline in the political fortunes of Indian Muslims has coincided with the upswing in the performance and outreach of the AIMIM in recent months. Although the party lost all the 40 wards that it contested in the recently concluded Bengaluru municipality elections, it delivered impressive performances in Maharashtra, and it’s foray in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Bihar has rattled traditional claimants to the Muslim votes in these states.
In large part, this is the result of the aggressive, majoritarian brand of politics practised by the BJP and its affiliates, which has strengthened and spread the feeling of powerlessness and alienation among Muslims. Vitriolic campaigns such as ‘Love Jihad’and ‘Ghar-Wapsi’as well as communal riots such as the one in Bahadurgarh have shown that there are few checks in place to protect the minority from the majority, whether in the political and cultural sphere or on the streets.
The emergence of the AIMIM as a strong claimant of Muslim votes, particularly outside its comfort zone of Hyderabad and adjoining areas, should be seen as a reaction to this increased religious polarisation. Identification with a party like the AIMIM has provided them with an ad hoc resolution of such uncertainty. Ad hoc because it is yet to be tested against the more entrenched claimants of Muslim votes such as the SP in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) in Bihar.
However, to spread its wings outside Hyderabad, MIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi has had to make a conscious attempt to rebrand himself in a more secular image by articulating the real and perceived grievances of the marginalised groups including the Muslims.
While there has been a discernible shift in the party strategy, one could also see a division of labour between the Owaisi brothers. Asaduddin has cleverly used the media to carve out a more moderate and pragmatic persona. On the other hand, Akbaruddin Owaisi, his brother, has been given a free hand to manage day-to-day party affairs in its Hyderabad stronghold – where it is party politics as usual with focus on doling out patronage, keeping a check on political rivals (often involving violent measures), and projecting itself as the protector of Hyderabad Muslims. The youngest brother, Burhanuddin Owaisi, is the chief editor of the party mouthpiece, Etmaad.
There is a spatial dimension to MIM’s strategy of expanding its base. With the exception of West Bengal, the party has consciously tried to move in areas marked by an absence of strong Muslim-led parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala and the AUDF in Assam. There is a linguistic dimension to this as well, as the AIMIM seeks to establish itself as a viable alternative amongst the Urdu-speaking Muslims, who are primarily concentrated in north, central and western India.
The geographical spread of Muslims in India, especially their scattered presence, makes it necessary for the AIMIM to pursue a more moderate and inclusive agenda. The continuous push by Asaduddin to seek an electoral understanding with most Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste groups has to be understood in this light.
To win seats, the AIMIM must widen its social support base and seek electoral understanding with other groups which feel marginalised and disillusioned by more mainstream caste-based parties such as the SP and BSP. This is part of the strategy to muster a plurality of votes at the constituency level.
There is clearly a long-term strategy at play here. The idea for the short term is to maximise vote share and not necessarily the number of seats, at least not in its debut elections. This would come in handy in subsequent elections by making the party a potential ally in future electoral battles.
That’s why, in the forthcoming Bihar elections, all eyes are on Asaduddin and his AIMIM. This is especially true for the Seemanchal region in Bihar, where AIMIM presence could dent the electoral prospects of Nitish Kumar-led alliance in the 10 Muslim dominated assembly constituencies. There are a total of 24 assembly seats in the Seemanchal region of Bihar..
Asaduddin gave his maiden election speech at Kishanganj in the region, and for good reason. There was a consolidation of Muslim votes against the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and in the absence of any viable third alternative the voters rallied behind the JD (U) and RJD. So the AIMIM has a reasonable hope of weaning away at least some of these voters from the two main parties in the forthcoming polls.
The novelty factor is on the AIMIM’s side. But the issues the party has raised, the most important being that of Muslim backwardness and their physical security, are also likely to strike a chord.
In the previous assembly elections, which the BJP fought in alliance with the incumbent JD (U), the BJP won most of the seats in the Seemanchal region due to the anti-Muslim propaganda unleashed by the RSS and its affiliate organisation. This was the culmination of a decade long anti-Muslim campaign in which a large section of Bengali-speaking Muslims were branded Bangladeshis and terrorist sympathisers.
Both the JD (U) and the BJP benefitted from the vitriol. So a section of the Muslim electorate is willing to give Asaduddin and his agenda a hearing, if not their votes.
In the end, Muslim voters might rally behind the party that they believe stands the best chance to defeat the BJP. But there may be another dimension to the receptivity of the AIMIM’s agenda in contemporary times that has largely been ignored. This is Asaduddin’s performance both inside and outside Parliament.
While Lok Sabha proceedings have descended into acrimonious chaos between the government and the Opposition since 2009, Asaduddin has carved out for himself an image of a serious parliamentarian in the Westminster tradition.
In the present Lok Sabha, his attendance till the end of the monsoon season has been 87 per cent and he has tallied 1,449 starred and unstarred questions over the past two terms. This is almost four times the national average of 389 questions per Lok Sabha member since 2009.
He has also participated in 62 debates since 2009. An analysis of his speeches on the floor of the House, and the range of questions asked by him reveal a more rounded and a layered politician, quite different from the image of a parochial community leader painted by the mainstream media, where Asaduddin too has played an important role keeping his core political constituency in mind.
A large number of questions, i.e. 1,364 questions, deal with 49 ministries as varied as Petroleum & Natural Gas, Rural Development and Finance. The percentage of questions concerning specifically Muslims is only a nominal 6 per cent, i.e. 85 of the 1,449 questions asked by him in the15th and 16th Lok Sabhas.
Most important, 79 per cent i.e. 67 of these 85 questions were addressed to only three ministries – 40 to Minority Affairs, 14 to Home Affairs, and 13 to Human Resource Development.
The remainder were spread over the following six ministries – Finance, Information & Broadcasting, External Affairs, Rural Development, Urban Development and the Prime Minister’s Office. The focus on Minority Affairs, Home Affairs, and Human Resource Development is understandable because these three ministries oversee and implement a gamut of schemes and programmes affecting the socio-economic welfare and physical security of the Muslim community.
There are only five debates specifically concerning Muslims that Asaduddin has participated in in the last two Lok Sabhas, i.e. eight per cent of the total number of debates he participated in.
The near absence of any informed debate on issues concerning Muslims makes even these interventions remarkable in the eyes of the sections amongst the Muslims on a lookout for political alternatives beyond the traditional political frameworks.
This has to be read along with his recent utterances where he has expressed his desire to shed the tag of a Muslim-only party. Asaduddin has time and again spoken about forging social coalitions with lower OBCs and Dalits, which might lead to an electoral majority.
This has made the AIMIM attractive in the eyes of a section among Muslims, who are at least willing to hear him out if the crowd at his recent public meetings is an indicator. Whether they will vote for him and his party only time will tell.