India Today - - UPFRONT - VIR SANGHVI Vir Sanghvi is a colum­nist and TV an­chor

In­stead of be­ing pulled into the main­stream, Mus­lims will be en­cour­aged to think of them­selves as mi­nor­ity vot­ers.

In­stead of vot­ing on the is­sues that con­cern ev­ery In­dian, they will be urged

to vote on the ba­sis of re­li­gion.

Is the nom­i­na­tion of Naren­dra Modi as the BJP’s prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date bad news for In­dia’s Mus­lims? The an­swer is yes. But not for the rea­sons you may think. Most glib as­sump­tions about the Mus­lim vote bank fail be­cause they see the Mus­lim com­mu­nity as a mono­lith that votes as a sin­gle en­tity solely be­cause of re­li­gion. In fact, Mus­lims vote in the same way as Hin­dus do, on a va­ri­ety of is­sues such as gov­er­nance, ris­ing prices, un­em­ploy­ment, law and or­der.

Ex­pe­ri­ence has demon­strated, how­ever, that when­ever a com­mu­nity feels threat­ened or ag­grieved, then re­li­gious fac­tors trump other con­sid­er­a­tions in in­flu­enc­ing vot­ing be­hav­iour. The best ex­am­ple of this comes from the way Hin­dus, rather than Mus­lims, have voted. The rise of the BJP in the 90s owed some­thing to the Hindu per­cep­tion that sec­u­lar­ism had be­come a code word for mi­nor­ity ap­pease­ment and that it was time for the ma­jor­ity to re­assert it­self. In 1996, the BJP se­cured what was then a record 20 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote. At the 1998 elec­tion, that fig­ure rose to a stag­ger­ing 25.6 per cent.

But once the BJP had taken of­fice and anger over mi­nor­ity ap­pease­ment faded, that bump in the party’s vote van­ished. Since then, the BJP’s vote share has hov­ered around a con­sis­tent 19 per cent or so.

Even the Congress vote is more sta­ble than we may think, fluc­tu­at­ing be­tween 28 and 29 per cent in the last four elec­tions. But Congress man­agers have been wor­ried about a drop at the next elec­tion be­cause of the dis­mal record of UPA. How­ever, the Modi nom­i­na­tion has cheered them up. The Congress now feels that if it fights the elec­tion not on its poor per­for­mance in of­fice but on the Modi fac­tor, then it may do much bet­ter than it had dared hope.

The cal­cu­la­tion is straight­for­ward enough. Rightly or wrongly, large num­bers of In­dian Mus­lims do not trust Modi and still hold him re­spon­si­ble for the 2002 Gu­jarat ri­ots. His can­di­da­ture for prime min­is­ter is enough to cre­ate in­se­cu­rity within the com­mu­nity. The Congress be­lieves that this in­se­cu­rity will be enough to cause a sub­stan­tial num­ber of Mus­lims to vote tac­ti­cally to de­feat Modi.

The Congress’ strat­egy is to cor­ner that tac­ti­cal vote. Elec­tions in In­dia’s par­lia­men­tary con­stituen­cies are won by smaller and smaller ma­jori­ties and in the Hindi belt where multi- cor­nered con­tests are com­mon, ma­jori­ties can be even slim­mer. Thus, a tac­ti­cal shift by even a rel­a­tively small num­ber of Mus­lim vot­ers may be enough to dam­age the BJP and ben­e­fit the Congress.

To win th­ese votes, how­ever, the Congress will have to project it­self as the only party that is ca­pa­ble of pro­tect­ing In­dia’s Mus­lims. Fur­ther, it will have to ac­tively court the com­mu­nity. Given that the many prob­lems faced by the mi­nor­ity— un­em­ploy­ment, poor ed­u­ca­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion— have not been se­ri­ously ad­dressed by the UPA over the last nine years, the only hope for the Congress is to re­sort to slo­ga­neer­ing and to­kenism.

In real terms, this will in­volve pan­der­ing to mul­lahs, mak­ing grand prom­ises ( job reser­va­tions, for in­stance) and cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment in which Mus­lim vot­ers are en­cour­aged to as­sert their re­li­gious iden­ti­ties at the polling booths. Once the Congress chooses this route, the other ‘ sec­u­lar’ par­ties will fol­low and Mus­lims will be wooed by the likes of Lalu Prasad and Mu­layam Singh. ( Though judg­ing by Mus­lim re­sponses to the Muzaf­far­na­gar vi­o­lence, the shift away from the SP may have be­gun al­ready.)

Be­cause Naren­dra Modi’s cam­paign man­agers know they can­not win more Mus­lim votes, they will re­act by try­ing to cre­ate a Hindu wave of the sort that helped the BJP in 1998. This process of com­pet­i­tive com­mu­nal­i­sa­tion will lead to an in­crease in re­li­gious ten­sion and pos­si­bly to vi­o­lence. And at a time when In­dia faces its great­est eco­nomic cri­sis in two decades, our lead­ers will be busy play­ing Hindu vs Mus­lim pol­i­tics.

The real losers in all this will be In­dia’s Mus­lims. In­stead of be­ing pulled into the main­stream, they will be en­cour­aged to think of them­selves as mi­nor­ity vot­ers. In­stead of vot­ing on the is­sues that con­cern ev­ery In­dian, they will be urged to vote on the ba­sis of re­li­gion. And if vi­o­lence does break out, then they, as the mi­nor­ity, will be the big­gest suf­fer­ers.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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