India Today


- (Aroon Purie)

Muslims are India’s biggest minority, accounting for 14 per cent of the population. When it comes to electoral politics, they constitute at least 20 per cent of the population in 86 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha constituen­cies. In 16 of these 86, their demographi­c share is above 50 per cent. This arc of influence spreads across 12 states and three Union Territorie­s. The top four states with the highest share of Muslims—Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Maharashtr­a—together account for 210 seats and thus remain key to whether the Narendra Modi-led dispensati­on can return to power.

One analysis that had gained some traction was that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sweeping majorities in the 2014 and 2019 general elections had rendered the collective voting might of Muslims irrelevant. Data showed that while the Hindu vote had consolidat­ed behind the BJP in these elections, the Muslim vote was split across multiple Opposition parties in each state— considerab­ly diminishin­g their power to influence outcomes. Regional or constituen­cy-level politics fragmented their franchise too. As a result, the BJP, despite low Muslim support, won 38 of the 86 ‘Muslim seats’ in 2014, and 36 in 2019—both figures more than double of the 15 seats it won in 2009. UP, for instance, has 23 Lok Sabha seats with over 20 per cent Muslim votes. The BJP had won only three of them in 2009, the remaining 20 were split among four other parties. But in 2014, the BJP won 22 of these 23 seats. Even in 2019, when the two main Opposition parties combined their forces in the state, the BJP conceded only six of those 22 seats because of the continuing fragmentat­ion in Muslim voting patterns.

But post the 2019 general election, studies show a distinct shift towards consolidat­ion and strategic voting by the Muslim community. Whichever party or alliance is able to counter the BJP has nearly unerringly won their favour. An analysis of Muslim voting patterns in recent assembly polls by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is revealing. Some 77 per cent of the Muslim vote went towards the mahagathba­ndhan in Bihar in 2020. Around 75 per cent favoured the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal’s 2021 polls, up from 51 per cent in 2016. And 79 per cent stood with the Samajwadi Party in UP in 2022, up from 46 per cent in 2017. There is every likelihood that the trend of unified voting is continuing in Election 2024. That makes this a watershed moment for the community in terms of its own voting patterns.

The reasons for the consolidat­ion are not far to seek in an era symbolised by the consecrati­on of the Ram temple and the dominance of the Hindutva narrative in all spheres. At the policy level, there have been apprehensi­ons about the Modi government’s moves on the Citizenshi­p Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC): many viewed these as government tools to isolate the community. Besides, inter-community relations deteriorat­e further when they see incidents of lynching occur with impunity. The resultant sense of hurt and alienation is clearly influencin­g voting choices. In West Bengal, for instance, the implementa­tion of the CAA may have helped the BJP consolidat­e its vote base among the Hindu refugee-dominated border districts, but it has resulted in the consolidat­ion of Muslim votes behind Mamata Banerjee and the TMC. Without that, they may have been split between the TMC and the Congress-Left joint front, as the

INDIA allies could not arrive at a seat-sharing arrangemen­t in the state. In Maharashtr­a, especially in Mumbai, Muslims are veering towards the Uddhav Thackeray faction of the Shiv Sena, the legacy party of its old arch enemy, and which seems to be the stronger contender to thwart the BJP and its allies.

Political parties often adopt a dual policy while seeking Muslim votes. Opposition parties extend a sort of political refuge to them—the Congress, for instance, with its ‘Mohabbat ki dukan’ slogan. But all of them have also been reducing the number of Muslim candidates, on the tactical considerat­ion that they will repel Hindu voters and the counter-mobilisati­on will benefit the BJP. This time, their share in the Congress list has dropped from 35 to 19 (as on May 3), partly because it is fighting only 330 seats as compared to 421. But all other big INDIA parties together have only 13 Muslim candidates.

The BJP, while standing unequivoca­lly for Hindutva, also does tactical accommodat­ion. On April 21, two days after the first phase of voting saw a perceptibl­e dip in turnout, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled out a 2006 statement by his predecesso­r Dr Manmohan Singh that the minorities “must have the first claim on resources”. In the same speech in Banswara, Rajasthan, he also made his famous mangalsutr­a remark. The Congress wanted to steal even the most precious part of the Hindu woman’s jewellery and distribute it among Muslims, he alleged. It was an unexpected dialling up of the volume knob and it shuttled the Muslims from the margins right to the centre.

The next bit of verbal laxity came on May 7 from RJD patriarch Lalu Yadav who, responding to Modi’s charge that the Congress had been granting reservatio­n to Muslims at the cost of SC/ST/OBCs, said: “Reservatio­n to milna chahiye Musalmanon ko, poora (Muslims should indeed get reservatio­n, fully).” By the time he clarified that the criterion is always “social backwardne­ss” and that “religion cannot be a basis”, he had granted the BJP more fuel to make fire. It was noteworthy that Modi later reverted to a more statesman-like tone and denied his remark about “those who have more children” was directed at Muslims, though a parallel debate on Muslim birth rates had kept the fire burning in the interim. On May 14, he said he never “does Hindu-Muslim”— popular shorthand for communal politics—and the day he does it, he won’t be “fit for public life”. This showed the flexibilit­y possible within the BJP’s tactical playbook. But he was emphatic that he will never allow reservatio­n based on religion.

For our cover story this week, Executive Editor Kaushik Deka examines the entire political landscape related to Muslims amidst the ongoing general election. The interest, and the stakes, are high everywhere and for everyone. For a community that finds itself in a waning crescent phase politicall­y. And for the whole Republic, which will be defined by its approach towards minorities.

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August 14, 2006
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