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Will Muslim Votes Matter in India’s Upcoming Elections?

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Will Muslim Votes Matter in India’s Upcoming Elections?

In previous elections, Muslim votes have tended to split among secular parties facilitating the BJP’s victory. Will that change?

Will Muslim Votes Matter in India’s Upcoming Elections?

Voters at a polling station in Uttar Pradesh, India, during the 2004 general elections, May 5, 2004.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Press Information Bureau.

Maldah Uttar is a parliamentary constituency in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, where Muslims – India’s largest minority religious group – make up about 45 percent of the electorate. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carried out a high-pitched communally polarizing campaign and emerged as the winner in Maldah Uttar, bagging only 37.59 percent of the votes.

This happened because Muslim votes were divided between the candidates of three parties preaching secularism – Isha Khan Chowdhury of the Congress, India’s main opposition party; Mausam Noor of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a regional party that rules West Bengal state; and Biswanath Ghosh of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

Similar was the case of Raiganj, another parliamentary seat in the same state. Here, Muslims make up about 42 percent of the electorate. Amid a consolidation of Hindu votes in favor of the BJP, Muslim votes split among these three secular parties. The BJP coasted to victory with 40 percent of the vote.

Muslims make up over one-fourth of the state’s population. Yet as a result of the BJP’s rise in West Bengal state in 2019, the number of Muslim members of parliament (MPs) from the state has halved. Of the state’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, only eight Muslims were elected in 2014. The number dropped to four in 2019.

India, home to the world’s third highest Muslim population — 172.2 million, according to the census of 2011 — has stood witness to a steady underrepresentation of the country’s largest religious minority group.

Accounting for roughly 14 percent of India’s population (13.4 percent in 2001 and 14.2 percent in 2011), Muslims should, proportionately speaking, have around 75 representatives in India’s 543-seat Lok Sabha. However, the number of Muslim MPs was 29 in 1998, 32 in 1999, 36 in 2004, 30 in 2009, 23 in 2014, and 25 in 2019. The rise of Modi’s BJP since 2014 has further shrunk the space of Muslims.

Historically, since 1952, the overall Muslim representation in Lok Sabha is less than 6 percent of total elected MPs, while the share in Rajya Sabha, the upper house, is slightly higher at 10.5 percent.

There are two reasons for this discrepancy – how the major parties field Muslims as Lok Sabha candidates and how Muslims vote. India’s major political parties, even the secular ones, do not field Muslim candidates as per their population share in areas under their influence, nor do Muslim votes consolidate behind one particular party.

There are only about 50 parliamentary constituencies in the country where the share of Muslims among the electorate is more than 30 percent. However, most of these seats have mostly seen Hindu winners, either because the BJP managed to consolidate the Hindu votes or because secular parties fielded Hindu candidates.

India’s Muslim population is concentrated in a few states. The highest number of Muslims live in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 80 of the country’s 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The 38.4 million Muslims living there, according to the 2011 census, made up about one-fifth of the state’s population.

Their second-most populous presence is in West Bengal, where 24.6 million Muslims make up 27 percent of the state’s population.  Other states with large Muslim populations are Bihar and Assam. In India’s south, Kerala and Karnataka have large Muslim populations. Jammu and Kashmir, and Lakshadweep are India’s only Muslim-majority Union Territory (UTs). It is in these states and UTs and cities like Hyderabad that Muslim votes matter most.

Muslims in India have traditionally voted for the Congress, the party that led India’s freedom struggle and ruled India for the longest period.

Though Muslim-oriented parties like Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and All India Majlis Ittehad-e-Muslimeen (AIMIM) of south India, All India United Democratic Front (AIUFD) in northeast India, and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) in the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh regions in north India, enjoy significant support in their small pockets, it is largely the secular parties that Muslims vote for.

Secular parties active in states with higher Muslim concentrations include the left parties, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Bihar, and TMC of West Bengal.

However, in most cases, multiple secular parties put up strong candidates in constituencies with a significant Muslim population, looking to consolidate votes in their favor. It eventually leads to a split in Muslim votes, resulting in the defeat of Muslim candidates in many cases.

Analyzing these trends, former diplomat-turned-politician Syed Sahabuddin wrote in 2004 that national and regional parties that claim to be secular generally lack confidence in their ability to transfer their non-Muslim base votes to a Muslim candidate. “This is the basic weakness of our electoral system from the secular angle,” he wrote, highlighting how 28 out of 36 Muslim MPs in 2004 were elected from Muslim concentration constituencies.

In West Bengal, Muslim votes remain split between the TMC, the Congress, and the CPI(M), while in Kerala they remain split between the CPI(M) and the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh, Muslim votes get divided between the Congress, the SP, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Political observers, however, feel that this may change in the coming parliamentary elections, when Muslims – many of whom feel cornered during the Hindu nationalist rule – may choose the strongest opponent against the BJP. As a research paper published in February pointed out, “studies of Muslim voting in state assembly elections since the 2019 general elections and the ushering in of a new dominant party system distinctly show some consolidation.”

For example, in West Bengal, the 2021 assembly election witnessed a near-complete polarization of Muslim votes in favor of the TMC, which was seen as a sign of the Muslims’ desperation to prevent the BJP from capturing the state government.

This time, in Uttar Pradesh, since the Congress and the SP have tied up, some political observers expect the Muslims to vote for the SP-Congress alliance and ditch the BSP, which has become weak in recent years.

Yet, reflecting Sahabuddin’s observations, the TMC in 2024 is fielding only six Muslim candidates for the 42 seats in the state – one-seventh of the total, while Muslims make up more than one-fourth of the population.

Whether Muslim votes consolidate in favor of the potentially strongest candidate against the BJP in different states remains to be seen. What can be foretold is that even this would not increase the Muslims’ parliamentary participation by any great degree, as they are unlikely to get their fair share of nominations in the first place.