Appease Be Upon Them
Three big upcoming assembly polls can be seen as ‘25%-plus Muslim elections’
Outside of Lakshadweep and Kashmir, the percentage of Muslims is highest in Assam (34%), followed by West Bengal and Kerala (both 26%). The upcoming assembly polls can, therefore, be called the ‘25%-plus Muslim election’ in a polity where there is both mobilisation against the nation’s second-largest religion-based community even as there are Muslim blocs in particular geographical zones.
Two of these zones are specific Muslim-based parties: the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in Assam. What is happening in Assam is possibly the most intriguing. The support for the AIUDF led by businessman-cleric-politician Badruddin Ajmal is being questioned and greater numbers of Bengali Muslims seem inclined toward the Congress.
Ajmal can be described as arguably the most successful product of the Deoband seminary in Indian politics. Whatever he may or may not do for his electorate, he fits into a certain stereotype of the Muslim leader.
Which makes a rethinking in a section of his electorate interesting. It partly comes from the calculation that his articulations are polarising in an election where the BJP is a rising force, making it more sensible for many to vote Congress.
It’s also worth noting that the BJP has put up as many as nine Muslim candidates in Assam. None of them is a likely winner, but the symbolism is compelling: supporting ‘indigenous’ Muslims against migrants. Given the complex matrix of Assam, that in itself is not a ‘communal’ position. The nuances are very different in the state where a distinction must be made between Assamese Muslims and Bengali Muslims. The latter are overwhelmingly poor.
God’s Own State
In Kerala, the IUML has for decades had majority control over one of the richest Muslim communities in India in the Malabar region. The way things have panned out, that means Muslims are actually represented in the state assembly, where 33 MLAs of the current 140 are from the community, 20 being from the IUML.
Compare that with the national figure: Muslims make up 14.5% of the country’s population but have 4.4% representation in the current Lok Sabha. In this election, the IUML will mostly hold its bases. But the ascendant Left Front would get a section of Muslim votes in Tirur and Ponnani.
Yet, it can also be said that in Kerala and West Bengal, the two states where the Left is a player, Muslims could be more inclined towards the ‘alternative force’. Some would, of course, vote for the communists, but most would not.
Down the decades, the Congress and various regional parties have deliberately and inadvertently propped up the conservative forces in the Muslim community. In a climate where the community feels threatened, ordinary people seeking physical protection gets enmeshed with the goals of those who also seek protection for a distinct religious identity.
If voters think they can get development by voting for the members of their own caste, India should have been No. 1 in development. Hope the unconscious mistake will not be committed again and again.
Be it the Congress’ position on personal laws or Mamata Banerjee announcing a monthly stipend for imams, it’s basically pandering to, and legitimising, such figures as the many ‘sole spokesman’ of a community. Indeed, there almost seems to be a consensus among all secular parties that modernity for Indian Muslims is simply not on the table.
So, it’s a natural progression of the argument to suggest that ‘godless communists’ can’t relate to the nation’s largest minority community for whom religious identity, along with the symbolism of skull caps and chaddars, is what politics has become.
Yet, generalisations about such a large and diverse community can be risky. For instance, the IUML and other forces that claim to speak for Kerala’s Muslims are socially conservative. But the state has clocked up impressive figures for education among Muslim women, who have been known to perform better than men of all communities in some exams.
In West Bengal again, we return to an overwhelmingly poor and backward profile of the Muslim community. Like most other residents of the state, for decades, Muslims voted for the Left with a sizeable chunk preferring the Congress. The Left can be credited with maintaining communal peace in the state even as they should concede failure in delivering on bijlisadak-paani-school-hospital.
Didi Did It
To its credit, the previous CPI(M)-led Left Front government did not pander to the mullah brigade in the manner in which the current government has, something that will have consequences in the future. But in the immediate present, Mamata Banerjee can be assured of more Muslim support than the Left had in its twilight years in power.
That is one voter bloc most enthusiastic about Didi continuing in power. But that’s always how the polls go down in all parts of India: every voter in pretty much every community is also searching for the winner.
There, I’m wearing a skull cap, people!