Demystifying the Muslim vote

HILAL AHMED

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DOES the Muslim vote matter in post-2019 India? This apparently enigmatic question is answered in two very different ways. A section of political observers highlight the declining numbers of Muslim MPs in the present Lok Sabha to argue that there is a serious under-representation of Muslims in Parliament, which reflects the political vulnerability of Muslims in contemporary India. The BJP’s refusal to give tickets to Muslim candidates; the aggressive Hindutva-driven political campaign to mobilize voters in the name of nationalism; and the strategic silence of opposition parties are cited as evidence to prove that the Muslim vote has lost its legitimacy.1

On the other end, a very different reading of Muslim electoral engagements is offered. It is claimed that the non-BJP parties have used Muslims as a vote bank for a long time. Consequently, an exclusionary form of Muslim politics has emerged that does not allow Muslims to assimilate into the political mainstream of the nation. Muslims do not require any special treatment or privileges, hence, they should not be addressed as a specific group of voter. The slogan sab ka sath, sab ka vikas (and sab ka vishwas!), it is argued, expresses the egalitarian commitment of the Modi-led BJP. Precisely for this reason, Muslims should not behave like a vote bank and embrace the BJP as their first political preference.2

These seemingly contradictory explanations of Muslim voting are partly acceptable, at least on technical grounds. The non-BJP parties did not show any interest in addressing the concerns and anxieties of Muslim communities as electoral issues during the election campaign of 2019. In fact, the opposition parties, especially the Congress, tried to disassociate itself from Muslims to attract Hindu voters in the name of inclusive Hinduism.3 The argument that the Muslim vote has lost its relative significance, thus, seems plausible.

The BJP’s one nation-one political community thesis that calls upon Muslims to vote on purely secular lines is also persuasive. No one can ignore the fact that the Indian Constitution disapproves of separate electorates proposing an entirely secular imagination of political processes. The one nation-one political community thesis helped the BJP to justify its stated position that the party does not believe in Muslim appeasement.4

 

These dominant descriptions of Muslim electoral engagement in contemporary India, however, suffer from three fundamental conceptual problems. First, there is an assumption that Muslims constitute a single homogeneous community, whose electoral behaviour is self-evident. Second, the ‘Muslim voting’ is envisaged as an independent self-governing exercise as if Muslim politics is all about Muslim voting. Third, Muslim voting behaviour is always understood in relation to Muslim political representation in legislative bodies. It is assumed, in fact rather uncritically, that there is an organic and instrumental relationship between Muslim voters and Muslim MPs and MLAs.

Uncritical dependence on these assumptions does not allow us to pay attention to various sociological, cultural, and economic factors that determine Muslim political imaginations in different contexts. The political engagements of Muslims in contemporary India, therefore, must be explored as an ever-evolving independent discourse, which does not always respond to the challenges posed by Hindutva politics. For analytical purposes, one may underline three facets of Muslim political discourse in post-2019 India: Muslim presence, Muslim representation and Muslim participation.

 

Muslim presence refers to the popular imaginations of Muslims as a religious-political community. Be it Akbar of the Mughal-e-Azam or the figure of Khan Sahab, the Pucca Musalman, popular media always produces a few fixed cultural templates to describe Muslimness.5 Political parties accommodate these images in their own ideological frameworks simply to make a politically viable distinction between good Muslims and bad Muslims.6 In the last five years, the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary has been rein-vented quite differently. Although the figure of good Muslims as a pro-Hindutva nationalist still survives, the collective Muslim presence is strategically used to construct an anti-national Muslim image.

Every aspect of Muslim life is problematized to create an impression that Muslim identity is an irresolvable political phenomenon. For instance, we are told that the birth of a Muslim child is a threat to the Hindu population; the madrasa education of a Muslim child is a symbol of separatism; the eating habits of Muslims are anti-Hindu (as Muslims eat beef); the married life of a Muslim couple is a social evil (as Muslims practice triple talaq). And, even the death of a Muslim is as an anti-national act (because Muslims occupy valuable land for graveyards).

 

These stereotypes, quite interestingly, gradually translated into electoral concerns in post-2014. For instance, the debate on Muslim population growth found an overtly communal overtone in the electoral politics of Assam and West Bengal. The popular media driven discussions on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill normalized Hindutva’s critique of secular citizenship.7 Similarly, the triple talaq and the Waqf status of Muslim graveyards emerged as serious electoral issues in the UP. In other words, the BJP was able to transform the collective Muslim presence into a politically contentious phenomenon even before the 2019 election.8

This negative portrayal of Muslim presence certainly contributed to what may be called Hindu polarization.9 Various studies demonstrate that the consolidation of Hindu political identity emerged as a decisive factor in post-2014 India.10 However, this Hindu polarization could not produce any collective Muslim reaction. Issues like love-jihad, gharwapasi, Ram temple, and even the ban on triple talaq could not provoke Muslims to respond to the BJP’s Hindutva driven discourse more directly. 11 This strategic failure forced the Hindutva groups to focus entirely on the aggressive politics of cow protection, which eventually led to a new form of anti-Muslim violence: mob lynching. Unlike a full-scale riot, lynching was more economical. In this case, Muslim individuals were to be targeted to create a powerful impact.

 

Mob lynching has been the most impactful and demonstrative political technique so far that has certainly affected the Muslim communities across India. Yet, it has not acquired a political vibrancy as a Muslim issue. 12 Although the Congress election manifesto 2019 does talks about a law to control mob lynching, the non-BJP parties have not articulated it as a politically useable agenda for electoral mobilization. The adverse depiction of Muslim presence in public life (as well as the new form of violence against Muslims), I suggest, have repositioned the Muslims as an identifiable anti-national community – the ‘other’; yet, this otherness has not produced any electorally sustainable binary between Hindutva driven politics of the BJP and its opponents.

 

The debate on Muslim political representation has been revolving around the declining number of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha for a long time. The rise of the BJP has set a new intellectual shift to this debate. There is a revised argument that the non-BJP political parties are also not interested in giving tickets to Muslim candidates. As a result, there are only 27 Muslim MPs in the present Lok Sabha.13 This political apathy, we are told, will further contribute to what Iqbal Ansari calls the ‘Muslim political deprivation.’14

This oversimplified explanation relies on an imagined relationship between Muslim MPs and Muslim voters. It is assumed that if an opportunity is given to Muslim voters, they will eventually vote for a Muslim candidate. The elected Muslim representatives, in this framework, are expected to raise specific Muslim concerns in the legislative bodies. This highly idealized imagination of Muslim representation goes against the actualities of legislative politics.

 

Muslim elected representatives do not necessarily work for Muslim interest. 15 In fact, they behave like professional politicians in legislative bodies. The official position of the party they represent in the Parliament actually determines their arguments, statements and interventions. 16 Hence, establishing any direct correlation between the number of MPs in Lok Sabha and Muslim marginalization is analytically misleading. On the contrary, the organic relationship between Muslim political elites – who claim to represent Muslim interests – and the political parties, actually shapes the emerging forms of political representation. Two crucial features of contemporary Indian politics – the nature of electoral competitiveness and political tokenism – are very relevant in this regard.

 

The highly competitive nature of Lok Sabha elections in recent years has forced the political parties to deviate significantly from the hitherto accepted principles of political life such as social inclusion. As professional entities, the political parties behave like corporate firms in the market of elections to secure maximum political profit. Representation of deprived sections of society – women, poor, Dalits, Muslims – does remain an unavoidable ideological issue, which is always rearticulated to produce context specific politically relevant rhetoric.17 However, the parties concentrate more on the winability factor at the constituency level. The BJP – as the dominant party – has set up a new political precedent of electoral politics, which defines political activities, especially elections, in a strict organizational and professional sense. The non-BJP parties have to abide by this professional norm for their survival at least in those states where they are in direct competition with the BJP. In such a scenario, giving tickets to Muslims to contest popular elections goes against the fundamental logic of the ‘emerging hegemony’ of Indian politics, which relies heavily on the anti-Muslim discourse of Hindutva and nationalism.18

 

However, this does not mean that there is no scope for Muslim leaders to find a place in the power structure of the state system. All political parties, including the BJP, accommodate Muslim leaders through different routes – the Rajya Sabha, Wakf Board, and the National Commission for Minorities and so on.19 This oblique Muslim presence in the state system should not to be confused with Muslim representation. The political parties accommodate Muslim leaders as ‘good Muslims’ and they are expected to propagate the party position on Muslim specific issues. This is precisely what justifies the presence of Muslims in the BJP. These Muslims leaders stridently defend the BJP’s position on Muslim representation.20

 

Unlike other religious groups, Muslim electoral participation at the all-India level has not increased significantly since the 2014 Lok Sabha election.21 This finding might give us an impression that Muslims are gradually moving away from politics and their faith in the efficacy of the vote is weakening.22 However, one should not overstate this overtly simple and undifferentiated interpretation of Muslim voting patterns. The social and cultural factors such as class, caste, region and gender actually determine Muslim political choices in different contexts. In this sense, the multi-faceted political identity of Muslim voters and their spatial location emerge as determining aspects of Muslim electoral participation.

The overwhelming refusal to abide by the political fatwas and suggestions issued by religious elites or the Ulema, is a good example to illustrate this point.23 The Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Ahmad Bukhari, who is famous for his election fatwas, had decided not to offer support to any political party in this election.24 The Ulema of Mumbai, however, were more vocal. Around 700 Ulema representing different sects (Sunni, Shia, Bohra) and sub-sects (such as Wahhabi, Deobandi and Barelvi) of Indian Islam asked the Muslim electorates to vote only for the ‘secular parties’ so as to defeat the BJP in 2019. These statements, interestingly, could not influence Muslim voters. They did not vote only to defeat BJP; nor did they follow any strategy to indulge in tactical voting.25

 

On the contrary, the Muslim voting patterns (in post-2014 assembly elections as well as the 2019 Lok Sabha) suggest that Muslim communities did not show any inclination to become a vote bank. In fact, political heterogeneity remains one of the determining aspects of their electoral behaviour. Muslims voted for all political parties including the BJP in these elections. Although the non-BJP parties and regional coalitions remained the first choice of Muslim voters at the all-India level, the vote share of the BJP among Muslims in a few key states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat also increased significantly.

 

This brings us to the main argument of this paper. The Muslim voters, it seems, make a crucial difference between the discourse of election and the substance of election. They have clearly rejected the dominant claim that a Hindu vote bank has finally been formed and no one needs Muslim votes to win an election. 26 However, this rejection of Hindutva does not transform them into a homogeneous community of voters. Other factors such as caste, class and region still shape their voting preferences. Hindutva driven communal polarization, hence, may work at the discourse level, but it cannot necessarily produce politically anticipated Muslim electoral reactions.

I, therefore, argue that Muslim votes certainly matter – primarily because the Muslim masses do not want to be identified only as a religious group.

 

Footnotes:

1. For an excellent overview of this argument, see Aditya Menon, ‘Dear Muslims in Modi’s India: Embrace Politics, Don’t Shun It’, The Quint, 2019, https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/indian-muslims-way-ahead-narendra-modi-asaduddin-owaisi-jharkhand-lynching accessed on 26 June 2019.

2. This kind of arguments relies on three justifications: First, the Constitution recognizes voters’ identity in purely secular terms. Hence, there is no need to identify voters along religious lines. Second, the Constitution does not define the term ‘minority’. Thus, recognizing Muslims as a permanent minority is constitutionally untenable and politically problematic. Finally, an MP represents all voters of his/her constituency. Expecting him/her to treat Muslim voters as a differentiated social segment is inappropriate. Arif Mohammad Khan’s explanation of this official position of the government is very relevant. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=Ok9WTEcrcjA accessed on 24 June 2019. For BJP’s position on Muslim politics, see Zafar Islam, ‘Why Muslims Must Give BJP a fair Chance. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/why-muslims-must-give-bjp-a-fair-chance-4639535/accessed on 26 June 2019; for a critical overview of this argument, see Hilal Ahmed, ‘Minority Report for the BJP’, The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/ article/opinion/columns/minority-report-for-the-bjp-up-gujarat-muslim-4655830/, accessed on 26 June 2019

3. Shashi Tharoor’s makes an interesting distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism. He argues that Hinduism is inclusive, while Hindutva is exclusionary. This discovery of Hinduism by Congress shows that the party is keen use Hindu identity in electoral politics. Shashi Tharoor, Why I Am a Hindu. Hurst Publishers, London, 2018, pp. 177-181.

4. For a conceptual discussion on the idea of Muslim appeasement in Indian politics, see Hilal Ahmed, Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India. Penguin-Random House, Delhi, 2019, pp.182-187.

5. For an interesting overview of media driven Muslim images, see Mrinal Pande, ‘Indian Press: The Vernacular and the Mainstream Babel’, in Ather Farouqui (ed.), Muslims and Media Images: News Versus View. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2009, pp. 46-57.

6. For a detailed discussion on the idea of good Muslims see, Hilal Ahmed, op. cit., 2019, pp. 177-182).

7. One finds a reincarnation of the post-partition debate on the citizenship status of Indian Muslims in recent years. BJP leaders often argue that the party wants to implement the NRC throughout the country as if the purpose of NRC is to evaluate the citizenship status of Muslims. For a systematic analysis of the debates on Indian citizenship and Muslims, see Ornit Shani, ‘Conceptions of Citizenship in India and the "Muslim Question"’, Modern Asian Studies 44(1), 2010, pp. 145-173.

8. These issues are clearly mentioned as ‘electoral promises’ in the BJP’s election manifesto, 2019. In fact, this manifesto must be seen as a political document that provides a systematic articulation to the actual political strategies adopted by the party in the post-2014 period. https://www.bjp.org/en/manifesto 2019, accessed on 7 June 2019.

9. Hindu polarization is different from a Hindu vote bank. The BJP has successfully appropriated the growing religiosity among Hindus to rearticulate the religious-doctrinal distinctiveness of Hinduism into an electoral project. This social polarization has certainly given an advantage to the BJP to emerge as a legitimate stakeholder of Hindu interests. However, this has not yet emerged as the most decisive factor for Hindus to vote as a community of voter. The success of Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, despite Modi’s popularity as a national leader, is a relevant example to underline the political distinctiveness of Hindu polarization in the present context. See Hilal Ahmed, and Gyanranjan Swain, ‘Post-poll survey: Naveen’s track record helps to overcome BJP blitz in Odisha’, The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/naveens-track-record-helps-to-overcome-bjp-blitz/article27267792.ece accessed on 3 July 2019. For a interesting discussion on changing Hindu religiosity and its political manifestations, see Satendra,Kumar. Badalte Gaon, Badalta Dehat: Nayi Samajikta ka Uday (Hindi). Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2019.

10. For an elaboration of this argument, see Shreyas Sardesai and Pranav Gupta, ‘The Religious Fault Line in the 2014 Elections’, in Ashutosh Kumar and Yatindra Singh Sisodia (eds.), How India Votes, A State-by-State Look. Orient BlackSwan, Delhi, 2018, pp. 58-74.

11. The Hindutva forces failed to realize the fact that these issues had already lost their political significance for Muslims. For a detailed discussion on this point, see Hilal Ahmed, op. cit., 2019, pp. 194-201.

12. One cannot underestimate the responses of civil society organizations and concerned citizens on mob lynching. The Not in My Name campaign is a relevant example. The non-BJP political leaders, including AIMIM President and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, have been raising this issue in Parliament as well. Recently there was a protest against it in Malegaon. These scattered reactions to mob lynchings, nevertheless, have not yet become a serious electoral issue for Muslims. See https://indianexpress.com/article/what-is/what-is-the-not-in-my-name-protest-lynching-junaid-khan-4725668/ accessed on 3 June 2019.

13. The previous Lok Sabha had only 23 Muslim MPs. For an excellent overview of the recent debate on Muslim representation, see Ghazala Jamil, ‘Who Can Represent Muslims in Electoral Politics? Debates in the Muslim Public Sphere’, Economic and Political Weekly. https://www.epw.in/engage/article/who-can-represent-muslims-electoral-politics accessed on 3 July 2019.

14. Ansari employs a very simplistic and rather instrumental method to measure Muslim political deprivation. He calculates the number of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha and divides this figures with total Muslim population at the all India level. This line of argument is problematic because it is based on the assumption that a Muslim MP must represent the interest of a Muslim citizen (not voter). Iqbal. A. Ansari, Political Representation of Muslims of India: 1952-2004. Manak Publications, Delhi, 2006.

15. My ethnographic study of Muslim electoral behaviour in Muzaffarnagar district after the 2013 riots clearly demonstrates this point. The Samajwadi Party, which had won the UP assembly election in 2012 with a sizable majority, was in power at the time violence occurred. Known for its pro-Muslim attitude, SP had 40 Muslim MLAs in the UP Assembly (out of a total of 64 Muslim MLAs). It means the Muslim representation in the assembly was around 15%. (There were 27.15% Muslims in UP according to the 2011 Census of India). The failure of political efficacy in UP illustrates an important aspect of our political system. Muslim MLAs and Muslim MP of Muzaffarnagar did not claim to represent the riot-effected Muslims of the district. Nor did they campaign for any kind of counter-mobilization of Muslim electorates in later elections. On the contrary, they continued to follow the instructions given to them by their respective political parties. Hilal Ahmed, ‘Communal Violence, Electoral Mobilization, and Muslim Representation: Muzaffarnagar 2013-14’, in Irfan Ahmad and Pralay Kanungo (eds.), The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018, pp. 163-196.

16. Imtiyaz Jaleel, newly elected Muslim MP from Aurangabad representing the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), clarified that he should be known as Aurangabad MP, not merely as a Muslim MP. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/i-am-aurangabad-mp-not-muslim-mp-imtiaz-jaleel/story-lMjp03U9CwSEeZEbHEwBnI.html accessed on 3 July 2019.

17. The BJP’s 2014 Manifesto is a relevant example. It recognizes the Muslim backwardness as an important issue of political concerns. For an excellent analysis of the role of ideology in Indian electoral politics, see Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma, Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

18. For an elaboration of the idea of an emerging hegemony, see Suhas Palshikar, ‘Toward Hegemony: The BJP Beyond Electoral Dominance’, in Angana P. Chaterji, Thomas Blom Hansen, and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds.), Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. Harper Collins, London and Noida, 2019, pp. 101-116.

19. My study of Muslim representation in the Rajya Sabha also confirms this point. Muslim representation in the Rajya Sabha has always been around 9%. Hilal Ahmed, Muslim Representatition in the Rajya Sabha: Forms and Trajectories, 2016. https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/fellowship/Hilal_Ahmed.pdf

20. All Muslim leaders associated with the BJP, interestingly, argue that Muslims must give the BJP a chance, as if Muslims do not vote for the BJP at all. https://www. thestatesman.com/exclusive-interviews/muslims-must-join-bjp-get-tickets-shazia-ilmi-1502751609.html accessed on 3 June 2019.

21. CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey shows that there is a slight increase in Muslim turnout in 2019 (60%) in comparison to 2014 (59%). On the other hand, the Hindu electorates (around 70%) appear to be more enthusiastic. Their turnout was around 70%.

22. This generalization fits well with two very different and even conflicting narratives. The pro-BJP Hindutva analysts find it as a symbol of Muslim apathy. They argue that Muslims must give up their isolation and should become part of the nation’s mainstream. For instance, Firoz Bakht Ahmed in a recent article, suggests that ‘assimilation is the watchword for the Muslim community.’ On the other hand, the relative decline in Muslim turnout goes well with the narrative of Muslim victimhood. It may substantiate the argument made by ex-MP Mohammad Adeeb. He argues that in the wake of an aggressive Hindutva, Muslims must completely deviate from electoral politics to avoid the possibility of communal polarization. https://scroll.in/article/872710/muslims-should-tell-secular-parties-that-if-they-dont-unite-they-wont-vote-in-2019-says-ex-mp accessed on 3 June 2019.

23. The Religious Attitudes, Behaviour and Practices Survey, conducted by the CSDS-Lokniti in 2015, mapped out the changing forms of religiosity in 18 states of the country. This uniquely designed study systematically looks at the relationship between the Ulema and the Muslim communities. More specifically, it asked questions with regard to the influence of the Ulema on the social and political life of Muslims in different contexts. A sizeable number of Muslim respondents argued that the Ulema should not take part in politics. For a detailed analysis of these findings, see Hilal Ahmed, op. cit., 2019, pp. 29-41.

24. Bukhari issued this statement simply to register his presence in public life. For the history of fatwa politics in postcolonial India, see Hilal Ahmed, Muslim Political discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation. Routledge, London and New York, 2014, pp. 140-191. For Ahmed Bukhari’s justification to not to support any party see: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia- pacific/india-top-muslim-cleric-to-sit-out-elections/1446155 accessed on 3 June 2019.

25. CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey 2019 shows that Congress received 33% of the Muslim vote; while around 8% Muslims voted for the BJP.

26. BJP leaders worked hard to create the impression that the BJP is a party of Hindus (read Indians!) and it does not need Muslim votes. https://economictimes.indiatimes. com/news/politics-and-nation/7-generations-of-hindus-wont-vote-congress-says-bjp-on-shashi-tharoors-hindu-pakistan-remark/articleshow/64969136.cms (accessed on 3 July 2019); https://www.hindustantimes.com/lok-sabha-elections/lok-sabha-elections-2019-won-t-give-muslims-tickets-as-they-don-t- believe-in-us-karnataka-bjp-leader/story-TaY8O7E6ISPmAUFiN4NwIL.html accessed on 3 July 2019.

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