The Mus­lim Fac­tor

The Mus­lim vote could again have a role to play in swing­ing the course of elec­tions in In­dia.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Waqas As­lam Rana

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.

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