Mumduha Majid Saheba, an executive member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, had long been a rebel in her community. Daughter of an officer who worked at the Indian embassy in Iraq for 20 years, she never wore a burqa, encouraged other Muslim women to empower themselves through education and skill development, ran an NGO for them in Delhi and a school in Odisha, her home state. The ulema (clergy) would often take offence to her thoughts and actions. Shia mosques were out of bounds for her, a Sunni.
Yet, earlier this year, when she travelled to Hyderabad, she was allowed to enter a Shia mosque. The ulema now give her a patient hearing. She now finds diverse Muslim groups-earlier bitterly opposed to each other-reaching out for dialogue and a unified stand on issues related to Islam. Mumduha is now convinced that Muslims in the country are getting united and the catalyst is an existential fear.
“The past five years under Narendra Modi have been a testing time for Muslims. That’s why I keep joking that Modi is the most unifying leader in the country. He has not only got Mulayam and Mayawati together but also brought diverse Muslim groups under one umbrella,” she says.
The umbrella Mumduha is referring to is termed the ‘Muslim vote bank’ in election-speak. It is based on the assumption that Muslims vote en bloc across the country for a particular agenda. In recent times, that agenda has been to defeat the BJP.
It is in this pursuit that Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati is appealing to them to vote for the alliance she has formed with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh. Though other parties are less open about their motives, all anti-BJP forces are hoping to corner a share of the Muslim vote. But do Muslims really vote as a homogenous group?
Political scholars use empirical data to bust the myth of the Muslim vote bank. The community, they say, is geographically dispersed across the country and is not a monolithic group. They have never voted with a singular national Muslim aspiration. Muslims constitute at least 20 per cent of the population in 80 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha constituencies.
In 2014, Hindu candidates won in 59 of these 80 seats. The BJP, which is perceived to be an anti-Muslim party, won 38 of these seats. Of the 882 Muslim candidates who contested in the country, only 23 won. “Muslims have always voted based on local issues and candidates and not as a block. The myth of a Muslim vote bank is not supported by data or historical patterns,” says Mohammad Khan, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University.
The Muslim voter, many argue, is driven by constituency-level politics, not the narrative of fear created by anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents. Like the Hindus, the Muslim identity on the ground is also highly fragmented, varying with religious denomination, language, caste and class. While the past few elections have seen a consolidation of Hindu votes under the BJP, Muslims votes have remained split between the Congress and strong regional parties. In states where the Congress is in direct competition with the BJP, it gets the majority of the Muslim votes. In others where there are strong regional parties-UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Delhi-the overall Muslim support for the Congress has significantly dropped and moved to the strongest regional player.
Several political experts believe that 2019 will be a defining year for the Muslim electorate. The numerous incidents of lynching over cow slaughter, the bans on beef trade and consumption, narratives such as ghar wapasi and love jihad and vitriolic comments by political leaders such as UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who turned the electoral battle into one between Ali and Bajrang Bali, have bred an unprecedented sense of isolation within the Muslims. “I would expect a coordinated voting pattern this time. They will perhaps back the party or candidate who can defeat the BJP in every region,” says Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at the Ashoka University.
But the bigger dilemma before the Muslims is that there is no party to represent their concerns. The bigger political parties are in an unspoken competition to woo the Hindu vote. If Congress president Rahul Gandhi has declared himself a janeudhari Shiv bhakt and has been publicly temple-hopping since 2015, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav’s response to the BJP’s Ram temple rhetoric has been the promise of a huge Vishnu temple and a city named Vishnu Nagar near home turf Etawah. A 60 feet statue of Lord Krishna has already come up in Etawah. “The parties and leaders don’t even talk about giving rights to Muslims,” says Syed Arshad Madani, president, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind. “The Nehru-Gandhis never talked about religion. But today they are making a display of their Hindu identity.”
This is seen as a direct response to the RSS-BJP accusation of “secular parties” playing “Muslim appeasement” politics. This has helped the BJP consolidate the Hindu vote and made other parties wary of risking the Hindu majority vote. “The BJP is good at creating forced binaries, and other parties have fallen into this trap. That’s why the Congress has openly said it needs to dispel the perception that it’s pro-Muslim,” says Verniers. But Muslim leaders hold the Congress equally responsible for creating this binary. “During UPA rule, when Shivraj Patil was home minister, there were many blasts and the government blamed HuJi (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami) and SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India). Several Muslims were rounded up and the impression created was that Muslims are terrorists. It is the most damaging thing the Congress has done to Muslims in 60 years,” says Madani.
Most political observers agree the pathetic socio-economic condition of the Muslims is a result of sustained apathy of the political class towards their issues. “The so-called secular parties and the Muslim political elite who claim to represent the community, exaggerate identity-based victimhood and ignore the real issues. Muslims, like any other community, are more concerned about poverty, employment and education. The threat to religious identity does affect them psychologically but doesn’t entirely determine their aspirations as citizens,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.
WHITHER MUSLIM LEADERS?
In 2012, while interacting with a group of Muslim youth, Rahul Gandhi asked them why the community has been unable to produce a leader of the stature of India’s first education minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. To answer the question, his party, too, will have to share a large part of the blame, say political observers. “There has been a deficit of elites among Muslims since Partition when most of them left for Pakistan. This has been compounded by two other factors. The Congress, which dominated the post-Independence electoral landscape, was ready to take Muslim votes but unwilling to provide them adequate representation. This trend lasted several decades,” says Verniers. Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All-India-Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), agrees: “A leader cannot emerge suddenly from the sky or the ground, he has to evolve. Political parties are not willing to give Muslims space and tickets. Then how can we have Muslim leaders with a pan-India appeal?”
Since Independence, Indian Muslims have largely backed secular formations such as the Congress, SP, BSP, Trinamool and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). But while these parties have talked about protecting Muslim interests, they have been less forthcoming in giving them proportional representation. Muslim representation in Parliament in the Congress-dominated years of 1952-1977 was 2-7 per cent. The highest it touched was in 1980 when it reached 10 per cent, still less than the percentage of Muslims in the overall population. In UP, Muslim representation in the assembly touched the highest-17.1 per cent-in 2012, under the SP, but was short of its total share of the population. In Bihar, ruled mostly by the Congress, Janata Dal (United) and RJD, the highest representation was 10.46 per cent in 1985.
The loss of faith in the Congress and the subsequent failure of regional secular parties has resulted in the growth of several Muslim-centric parties such as the AIMIM, the Indian Union Muslim League and the All-India United Democratic Front. But these parties have remained region-specific. AIMIM may be the most vocal about Muslim issues and trying to expand its footprint into Maharashtra, UP and Bihar, but has remained a Hyderabad-based party.
At the same time, the birth of several Muslim parties after 2008 has led to a further fragmentation of the Muslim vote. There is also discontent over Muslim leaders failing to highlight the real issues confronting the community. “The Muslim leaders in different parties are not representative of the Muslims because they often toe the party line instead of raising concerns about Muslims,” says Navaid Hamid, president, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a body of 16 Muslim organisations.
Though he categorically says he is not a Muslim leader, Owaisi has emerged as the biggest star in Muslim politics today. He and his party are now in expansion mode-two AIMIM candidates won in the Maharashtra election and dozens were elected in municipal elections. To broaden his base beyond the Muslims, he has created an alliance-the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi-with the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, led by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of B.R. Ambedkar. “I am working with Prakash Ambedkar because the issues faced by the Muslims are the same as those the Dalits face. It is good in a democracy if the marginalised come together to take on right-wing politics and those who are discriminating against us,” says Owaisi, who is gradually attracting the attention of the young and upwardly mobile Muslims.
MUSLIMS AND THE BJP
In 2014, the BJP came to power with not even one elected Muslim member of Parliament. The party won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP-a state where one-fifth of the population is Muslim-without fielding a single Muslim candidate; none of the 55 Muslim candidates from other parties won. In the 2017 UP election, the BJP again did not field a single Muslim candidate, yet won 325 of the 403 seats.
Curiously, Muslim consolidation, or the impression of Muslim consolidation, even helps the BJP indirectly. A study by Congress data cell head Praveen Chakravarty shows that the BJP’s vote share actually increases in districts that have significantly more (1.5 times or more) Muslims than the average in that state. The difference in vote share, too, is significant enough to swing elections. Deoband, where 70 per cent of the population is Muslim, is a classic example. The BJP’s Hindu candidate, Brijesh Singh, won in 2017 with a 46 per cent vote share while the Muslim candidates fielded by the SP and BSP got 31 per cent and 24 per cent of the votes, respectively.
It is in this context that BJP leaders feel that the BSP’s aggressive campaign for Muslim support could eventually help their party. “By directly appealing to the Muslims to vote for their parties, big opposition leaders are doing a great disservice to the community. This gives the majority Hindu voters a feeling that the appeasement of minorities will continue in the name of secularism. They will, of course, vote for the BJP,” says BJP leader Shazia Ilmi.
While the BJP may not be the party of choice for most Muslims, one in every 10 votes in 2014 was from the community. The party hopes for further gains it claims have ensued from its welfare schemes and the support of Muslim women on triple talaq. “Can anyone say that the benefits of welfare schemes launched by the Modi government have not reached the Muslims?” asks Ilmi.
There are several myths about the voting behaviour of Indian Muslims-how clerics influence their choice and how they are more concerned about religious issues while voting. This year, too, around 700 ulema, representing different sects, have asked the Muslim electorate to vote for “secular parties” to defeat the BJP. This kind of politics, however, lost its significance in the era of coalition politics as it became difficult for religious leaders to interpret the region-specific fragmentation of the Muslim electoral opinion. Various studies also indicate that though Muslims defer to the ulema’s opinion in matters of religion, their participation in political discourse is not welcome. A 2015 CSDS study says that 43 per cent of Muslims disapprove of religious leaders supporting political parties. Sensing this change, Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi who is known for his election sermons, has decided not to offer support to any political party this Lok Sabha poll.
The triple talaq debate in Parliament also highlighted how “secular” political parties have started distancing themselves from religious discourse to keep pace with the popular narrative. Owaisi recounts how the Congress did not let its Muslim member speak on the subject in Parliament. “During the first debate in December 2017, only four of the 23 Muslim MPs spoke on this. For the Congress, there was the late Maulana Mohammad Asrarul Haque Qasmi, a scholar from Deoband and president of the All India Milli Council. When I asked him why he did not take part in the debate, he said that the Congress did not allow him,” he says.
There have also been calls for introspection from within the community. Former vice-president Hamid Ansari has criticised Indian Muslims for having a culturally defensive mindset that hinders self-advancement. Mufti Mohammad Mukarram Ahmad, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Fatehpuri mosque, agrees: “As a community, if we need to prosper, we must move beyond religiosity. The best tool to empowerment is education. Let’s access it where it is available and demand it where it is not.
“What is encouraging, though, is that the low representation in Parliament and assemblies and the numerical disadvantage have not bothered the Muslim voters, who often outnumber their Hindu counterparts in participation in the electoral process. “The communal violence and tension of the ’90s did not lead to the radicalisation of Indian Muslims, it increased their participation in the electoral process as voters and as candidates,” says Verniers. In 2019, too, Indian Muslims are gearing up to make their concerns and anguish felt with their vote. This political engagement is crucial for the survival and strengthening of Indian democracy.
(With inputs from Amarnath K. Menon, Romita Dutta, Ashish Misra)