Monday, March 10, 2014

Muslim Vote Bank

Why cheques issued on Muslim vote bank may bounce in 2014

by Mar 10, 2014
The Hindu vote bank lasted all of 15 years – from 1989 to 2004. It began with the Ram Mandir movement, and petered out with the fall of the NDA in 2004, as rising prosperity and fast growth gave Hindus a reason to think beyond self-defeating communalism.

The Muslim vote bank has been with us since partition and independence – nearly 67 years now. But even this vote bank is showing cracks in the vault and elections 2014 could mark the beginning of the end.
representational image: PTI
representational image: PTI
The Lok Sabha elections due next month will offer Muslims their last chance to vote as a community, to vote against someone rather than for something. Every party is issuing another cheque against this vote bank in the hope that the face of Narendra Modi will scare enough Muslims and ensure their cheque does not bounce.

If the results of the recent assembly elections are any guide, some of those cheques proved a dud. In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, Muslims voted in large enough numbers for the BJP despite the announcement of Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

He campaigned prominently in those states – enough to scare Muslims, if they wanted to be scared. On the contrary, many of the Muslim candidates put up by the Congress were defeated, and in Delhi the only Congress candidates to survive the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) onslaught were the Congress’s own Muslim candidates.

In Gujarat, in the 2012 assembly elections, Muslims voted in large numbers for the BJP. But for their support Modi would not have been able to register his third big victory. The loss of votes to BJP renegades like Keshubhai Patel and his GPP was compensated by a larger vote share from Muslims this time. As Zafar Sareshwala and Asifa Khan noted in an article in Firstpost last year: “More than 31 percent of Muslims voted for BJP (in Gujarat) in 2012. Out of 12 Muslim majority constituencies, eight were won by the BJP. He (Modi) may not have given a single assembly ticket to Muslims, but in the local elections in February-March 2013, more than 200-plus Muslims were elected on a BJP ticket.”

This is not to suggest that Muslims have developed any sudden affection for the BJP or Narendra Modi, but they are no longer willing to vote for the rest merely because of scare-mongering. In recent months, several Muslim clerics and maulanas have willy-nilly come to accept that building the BJP into some kind of ogre does not serve the community’s real goals. An India Today cover story on the Muslim mind quotes Abdulla Bakhavi, Imam of the Makhdoom Masjid in Mallapuram, Kerala, as saying: “Modi and BJP may be more moderate than they are in opposition. So let’s try them out too.” This has been the refrain from other clerics and maulanas too.

While the imam may not represent common Muslim sentiment, there are broader reasons why Muslims are no longer willing to be treated as a vote bank. Here are a few reasons why.

First, they are now spoilt for choice. In the battleground states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere, they not only have the Congress, the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, but also AAP. While Muslims may vote tactically to defeat the BJP in some states, the mere fact that they are no longer wedded to one party indicates that they won’t be voting out of fear alone. In fact, some Muslims leaders are likely to campaign actively against so-called secular parties to expose their failure to deliver on promises to Muslims. This, despite worries in some quarters that if Muslims vote for new parties like AAP, the BJP could be the gainer. Many Muslims may be more angry with their claimed benefactors than their tormentors.

Second, they are discovering their power of agency. Outside of Kerala, Jammu & Kashmir and Hyderabad, Muslims have seldom had Muslim parties to choose from. Now they do. In West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and even UP, there are Muslim parties that seek votes on their own terms. They are not yet close to inflection point, but their mere existence makes the other parties focus more on real Muslim issues rather than just religious symbolism. They are also offering Muslims more than just token representation. Like any other community, Muslims are voting on secular issues like jobs, education and freedom from discrimination. They want credible representation in mainstream parties.

Third, demography is now working for them. According to India Today, in 46 Lok Sabha constituencies they constitute 30 percent or more of the electorate; in over 100 constituencies their vote makes all the difference between victory and defeat for the top two candidates. Muslims are beginning to count for many parties.

Fourth, the community is no longer a monolith. They have begun to vote along class lines rather than just religious lines. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar has managed to create an alliance of Pasmanda (lower strata) Muslims and Mahadalits. Modi has roped in Ram Vilas Paswan to bring in both a section of the Dalit vote and a small chunk of the Muslim vote.

Fifth, the turning point in the Muslim mood of fear of the BJP may have come on the day of the Patna blasts during a Modi rally last year. As journalist MJ Akbar noted: “When bombs went off in the middle of Modi’s oration at the Gandhi Maidan, his response became the acid test. He could have become provocative under pressure. Instead, he delivered his best lines. Impoverished Hindus, he said, had a choice — they could either fight poverty or they could fight Muslims. And impoverished Muslims could fight Hindus, or they could fight poverty. That summed up the mood of the nation, and calmed even those Muslims who did not want to believe what they heard.”

Muslims may not vote for BJP or Modi this time. But they are not going to be stampeded into voting for the so-called secular parties either. They have abandoned fear and forsaken fear-mongers. When they press the EVM buttons to choose their representatives, this time they may vote more as individual Indian citizens rather than as a collective vote bank.

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