The Muslim Factor
The Muslim vote could again have a role to play in swinging the course of elections in India.
The largest democracy in the world will go to the polls on April 7 in an extended process that will end on May 12. By that date, Indians will have selected 543 members of the sixteenth Lok Sabha, their country’s popularly elected lower house of parliament.
As India’s profile among the comity of nations has risen over the last 20 years or so, owing largely to impressive economic gains, the world’s attention is naturally focused on the Indian elections. Geo-political concerns, economic interests of multinational corporations and regional dynamics in South Asia will
all be impacted by whether the BJP is able to mount a successful challenge to the ruling coalition led by the Congress party.
The minority factor has become increasingly important to Indian electoral politics over the years and is always crucial in determining the outcome of elections in the country. While a democratic system has kept the incredibly diverse populace of the Indian republic together, communal tensions have persisted since partition. The lingering issue of Kashmir is perhaps the single biggest unresolved problem, particularly since it is symptomatic of the uneasy place the Muslims occupy in the Indian polity. Not long ago, during the 1990s, the Khalistan separatist movement of the Sikhs was in full swing in the Indian Punjab, leading to Indra Gandhi’s assassination.
While these and other minority-related issues continue to play a central role in Indian politics, changing trends in electoral politics have further raised the stakes as far as election outcomes are concerned.
First, political competition in India has surged greatly since the 1980s. Looking at the number of political parties as one indicator, it jumped from 38 in the 1984 elections to 117 for the next round in 1989. In 2009, this figure was 370. In many ways, the 1989 elections mark a watershed for Indian politics, when the Congress was ousted from power for the second time since independence. Since then, the era of single-party rule has ended and multi-party coalition governments have been the norm in India. Lack of representation for lower castes, minorities and sub-regional interests in general are the main causes of this shift.
A second major trend in Indian electoral politics is the declining margin of victory, especially since the 1977 elections. The average margin of victory in the national elections has steadily declined from around 25 percent in the late 1970s to about 10 percent in the 2009 elections. Compare this to the average victory margin in Britain’s parliamentary election in 2010 of over 18 percent and it is clear how increasingly competitive the Indian political arena has become.
The third major trend that can be observed is that the turnout for elections has generally been stable, notwithstanding variations within and between different states. The turnout ratio has continued to hover in the mid-50 percent range since the 1960s.
The role of minorities has become critical in the Indian elections as the afore-mentioned trends have intensified. Greater political competition, tighter victory margins and a significant potential for increased turnout means that wooing the minority vote now forms a major pillar of all political parties’ election strategies. This is highlighted most pointedly by the aggressive courting of the Muslim vote by the BJP’s Narendra Modi in his bid to become India’s next prime minister, promising economic growth to replace the memories of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
It would be worthwhile to focus on the Indian Muslim population as a representative sample of how minorities impact elections, considering that at about 13 percent of India’s total population (2001 census) they represent the country’s largest minority group. Going purely by the numbers, it is clear how important the Muslim vote is. Of the total 543 Lok Sabha seats, there are 35 that consist of constituencies with more than 30 percent Muslim population. Furthermore, there are another 183 seats where Muslims comprise between 11 percent and 30 percent of the population. In any electoral scheme, but particularly in a parliamentary democracy where constituency politics determine national outcomes, such a significant chunk of the vote bank can only be ignored at the party’s own peril.
Going beyond just the figures, the Muslim population’s voting patterns have been important in shaping the course of elections and in the subsequent government-formation processes in India. In general, the Muslims in this country have voted for non-BJP parties or those opposed to it, particularly in states where the BJP is a main player.
This is mainly due to the fact that the BJP has been regarded as an antiMuslim party because of its strong Hindu-nationalist leanings. Events like the infamous Babri Mosque demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002 under Modi’s nose have reinforced this image. His elevation to the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in the elections is seen in a skeptical light by the Indian Muslims, even as the former chief minister is trying to cleanse his image by focusing his campaign on the economic growth experienced by Gujarat under his leadership.
While this might lead one to conclude that the Indian Muslims are left with only one choice, i.e. voting for the Congress, this is not necessarily true. In states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and even Gujarat, where the BJP is a big force, the Muslims have indeed voted for the Congress and its allies that have taken a decidedly proMuslim stance. However, this backing for the Congress does not always hold in states where the BJP is not a main player. Also, there are other ‘secular’ parties besides the Congress to choose from. In states such as Kerala and West Bengal, it is the local parties that oppose the Congress for whom Muslim voters become important, especially if the margin of victory is small. Thus, Indian Muslims often have the opportunity to vote strategically and impact the result.
One example is the key state of UP, where the Muslim vote has been decisive in the last two elections. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Muslims in the state voted to support the best possible candidates from the Congress and allied parties that were opposed to the BJP. This resulted in the BJP winning only 10 out of the 80 seats from the state.
In the forthcoming elections, these trends are likely to remain in place. However, it would be a mistake to take this for granted. Towards the end of its tenure, the Congressled coalition government has been increasingly under pressure, not least from the popular anti-corruption wave currently in vogue.
Narendra Modi’s credentials as a good economic manager may sway many Indians towards the BJP, but the real question is: will the Muslims and other minority groups trust him with power at the national level? The writer is a commentator on issues of public policy, political economy and international relations, with a focus on South Asia and the Middle East.