Courting India’s Muslim Vote
Image Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Courting India’s Muslim Vote

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In just a few days from now India will begin voting in its multi-phase, 16th general election. Opinion polls suggest that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as the single largest party but may fall short of a majority on its own, requiring it to secure support from other parties to form the next government.

Its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi seems to have galvanized voters across class and caste. However, the “Modi wave” that is reportedly sweeping the country seems not to have touched India’s Muslims

Muslims have not voted for the BJP in previous elections. “We will not do so in this election either,” a Muslim community leader in Bangalore says. Speaking to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, he describes a BJP victory and the prospects of a government headed by Modi as “the worst possible scenario for Muslims.”

Modi is the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat. It was under his watch that mobs led by members of the Sangh Parivar (a family of Hindu organizations of which the BJP is a part) unleashed horrific violence against Muslims in 2002.

His government did little to stop that violence. Worse, Modi is believed to have encouraged it, issuing orders at a meeting of police officials to allow Hindus to vent their anger with Muslims over an attack on a train a few days earlier that left 59 Hindu pilgrims dead.

More than a thousand people – mostly Muslims – were killed in that pogrom, and tens of thousands were displaced.

Muslims have always perceived the BJP (and its forerunner, the Jana Sangh) as an anti-Muslim party. Indeed, the BJP and its fraternal organizations espouse Hindutva, an ideology that regards India as a Hindu nation, and Muslims and Christians as populations to be violently co-opted or assimilated into the nation, or else expunged as foreign elements.

This ideology has manifested itself in an array of ways, including calls for a Uniform Civil Code, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992 and anti-Muslim violence as in Mumbai in 1992-93 and Gujarat in 2002.

In previous elections, the BJP has campaigned on Hindutva issues close to its heart, promising voters it will construct a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, enact legislation to halt religious conversions and so on.

Modi’s speeches in particular were notorious not just for the ridicule they heaped on Muslims but for the incendiary rhetoric they frequently contained.

This time, however, the BJP has avoided harping on the Hindutva agenda. Importantly, Modi has moderated his tone. A “systematic silence” has marked his recent election speeches, observes political analyst Ashutosh Varshney. “Quite remarkably, Hindu nationalism has been absent from his speeches,” he says.

Modi has avoided jibes against Muslims, touting instead a development agenda that will provide them too with prosperity.

“But we are not impressed,” Aadil Khan, a Muslim engineer based in Bangalore says.

The violence in Gujarat remains deeply etched in the Muslim memory. A. Faizur Rahman, an independent Islamic researcher and Secretary-General of the Chennai-based Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought told The Diplomat, “It will be difficult for Muslims as well as secular Hindus to forget the 2002 riots or to absolve Modi of any moral responsibility.”

In the circumstances, Muslims are apprehensive of a BJP victory.

Muslim organizations are mobilizing actively against the BJP. “We are working to defeat the BJP and its potential allies, focusing our attention on those constituencies where our vote can determine the result,” the community leader said.

Muslims may be a minority country-wide – they constitute 13.4 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people – but  they are a majority in the state of Jammu and in Kashmir, and account for roughly a fourth of the population in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala. In the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh – which alone accounts for a fifth of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament – Muslims constitute 18 percent of the population.

According to pollster and C-Voter editor Yashwant Deshmukh, of the 543 constituencies that will go to the polls in the coming weeks, Muslims constitute more than 30 percent of the population in 35 constituencies, 21-30 percent in 38, 11-20 percent in another 145, and fewer than 10 percent in 325 constituencies.

The impact the Muslim vote has on election results is more complex than these figures would suggest.

According to Deshmukh, in constituencies where Muslims constitute more than 20 percent of the population – roughly 70 seats – the Muslim vote is “decisive,” but it sets off a “counter-polarization of Hindu votes” that “will help BJP in any election divided on communal lines.” It is in constituencies where Muslims constitute around 10 percent of the population that the Muslim vote is “enough to become a deciding factor in who they will vote for but not enough to trigger a counter-polarization towards BJP among Hindu voters.”

This means that in 150-odd seats Muslims can determine the result.

But for this to happen, Muslims will have to vote together in each of these 150 constituencies.

Muslims are widely perceived in India to constitute a “vote-bank,” in other words as a community that votes en bloc for a party or a candidate. However, voting patterns in previous elections suggest that this is not always so.

In the early post-Independence decades, it was the Congress Party that drew Muslim votes. But secular, regional parties emerged in the 1980s and 90s, and Muslims have voted for these parties as well. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, they vote for the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Karnataka, they have voted for the Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular.

It is in Uttar Pradesh that the power of the Muslim vote has repeatedly been in evidence. Muslims rallied behind the BSP in the 2007 state assembly elections and the SP in the 2012 elections, contributing significantly to these parties forming governments on their own, notes Deshmukh. In the 2009 general elections, they voted “tactically” in the state “to help the best possible candidates from SP, BSP and Congress win against BJP.” Of the 80 seats from Uttar Pradesh, 70 went to non-BJP parties in this election. “Muslim voters were instrumental in this verdict,” he says.

So how will Muslims vote in General Election 2014?

Analysts say that Muslim votes will be divided between the Congress and the recently formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), benefiting the BJP.

Muslim organizations are working to ensure this does not happen, the community leader said, adding that they were hoping that Muslims will exercise their franchise tactically as they did in Uttar Pradesh in 2009.

Elaborating on their strategy, he said that the party Muslims back could vary from constituency to constituency but “within a constituency their votes need to consolidate behind a single candidate for the Muslim impact on the result to be felt.” Consequently, Muslim organizations are “urging voters to back the Congress in one constituency, AAP in another, the SP in the third and so on, depending on who is best placed to defeat the BJP.”

The bottom-line appears to be that “Muslims will vote for secular candidates, who are most likely to defeat communal ones,” says Rahman.

There are Muslims who have come out in support of Modi. But their number is “miniscule,” Rahman says. Many are from Gujarat. Why they flaunt their support for Modi offers interesting insights into their insecurities.

In a patronage system such as that in India, staying close to power centers in the government is important for economic survival, writes Raheel Dhattiwalla. This explains why Muslim businessmen in Gujarat trumpet their support for Modi.  Also figuring prominently among Modi’s Muslim supporters are religious clerics. Muslim clerics are vulnerable to being labeled as “fundamentalists,” “anti-national” and “terrorists.” It is to avoid these tags that several are singing Modi’s praises.

In Ahmedabad’s Juhapura neighborhood, a Muslim ghetto that saw some of the worst violence in 2002, BJP flags have fluttered for a decade. “Muslims hoisted saffron flags here to proclaim their loyalty to Modi,” Khan points out. It was a form of insurance against violence.

“We fear that in the event of Modi becoming prime minister the pressure on us to prove our loyalty to him will be severe and unrelenting,” the community leader says. Modi’s moderate makeover, he predicts, “will not last long.”

For Muslims and secular Indians, the upcoming general election is among the most crucial ever. The idea of India, its very survival as an inclusive, secular democracy, hinges on its outcome.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]

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