WOOING THEM IS HURTING THEM
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.