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Muslims as Vote bank

New Delhi, Mon, 13 Apr 2009 M Shamsur Rabb Khan

Vote bank politics is the arch villain in Indian poll history whereby Muslims have astutely been used as vote bank by political parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the left parties - all of them proclaim to be sympathetic to Muslims and their plight. Albeit BJP aggressively criticize this policy and calls for equal opportunity for all citizens, it has left no stone unturned in branding Muslims as vote bank. For Muslims, the vote bank stigma hung as double-edged sword: on the one hand, the Congress and other secular parties have exploited the fear psychosis of Muslims for which the BJP managed to polarize the issue with extra vehemence and cornered the community into political alienation and communal prosecution, while the Muslims got only empty and meaningless promises and sops that came aplenty, signifying nothing even though elections after elections have come and gone, on the other.

A close look at the voting patterns and behaviours of Muslims since 1952 elections reveal two crucial factors: first, for almost four decades, or till the end of Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989, as political observers are of the view, the Congress, via projecting itself as pro-minority party, had enjoyed a monopoly over Muslim votes, except withdrawal of Muslim support in 1967 elections due to three broad issues: Muslims' discontent over the UP Chief Minister, G B Pant's policy on Urdu, minority status of Aligarh Muslim University and spate of communal violence, but the community returned back to it in 1971 elections, and then a tilt towards Janata Dal in 1977. However, "the RSS elements in the Janata Party coalition" forced Muslims to leave it and voted for the Congress in 1980 election. Post-Babri mosque destruction, a palpably huge swing of Muslim votes to parties like SP, RJD and BSP is the second going from the Congress.

Alienation from Congress
In Congress party, Muslims, who have been haunted by the trauma of communal partition and its after-effects, had found a safe haven for their survival due to its commitment to the secular ideals. The alienation of Muslims from the Congress party first began when on 18 April 1976, in famous Turkman Gate incident, part of late Sanjay Gandhi's cleaning drive, occurred in which Muslims protestors were mercilessly fired. So, from the demolition of homes at Turkman Gate to that of the Babri mosque, Muslims' antagonism with Congress grew with a belief that the party has been more interested in securing votes than paying heed to their welfare. It is not that schemes have not been initiated for Muslims, but overall economic, political and social development of Muslims remained glaringly pathetic, as the Sachar Committee has recorded. More heartening was Congress penchant to woo Hindu votes in response the favour done to Muslims in Shah Bano case.

Then came the Babri mosque/Ramjanabhoomi issue. It was a turning point in Indian history. In the post- shilanayas of November 1989, while the rath yatra provided the Hindu communalists a champion of Hindutva in L.K. Advani, Muslim saw the revival of post-partition scare of communal polarization. Rajiv Gandhi, who ordered the unlocking of the Babri mosque in 1986, favoured Hindu religious emotion, which led to its demolition in 1992 was the biggest shock that Muslims received from the policy of a party it extended support like blind apparatchiks. It was a great anomaly as well as betrayal for Muslims, who felt disillusioned, alienated and angry with the Congress. And with this asperity Muslims sought refuge in non-Congress, non-BJP parties, who could at least provide them freedom from communal riots.

Shift towards RJD/SP/BSP
In search of a peaceful living and security, Muslims switched over from Congress to other secular parties. And to an extent, Muslims in Bihar and UP have been saved from the wrath of communal riots. Security for Muslims has been top priority since independence, which means, security, not from external enemy but those within the country during riots. Political parties know this Achilles Heels of Muslims, and in order to exploit this psyche, they continued to play vote bank politics. Two Yadavas - Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav - tried Muslims-Yadav (MY) combination successfully. The Muslims found in them the saviour of their religious identity and accordingly went for collective but tactical voting with a sole objective to defeat the BJP. Lalu's order to arrest Advani during rath yatra made him hero of Muslims. Alas! In 15 years of RJD rule in Bihar , Muslims remained on the edge.

Appeasement vis-à-vis under representation
Isn't it so ironical a fact that a community that has been branded as vote bank is not adequately represented in the Parliament? A 300-page study by Professor Iqbal Ahmed Ansari of Hamdard University , New Delhi , 'Electoral System And Inclusive Democracy: Muslim Under-representation', shows that Muslims have not, in comparison to their demographic strength, been adequately represented in Parliament or most of the state assemblies. This, the study concludes, has led to a feeling of 'discrimination and alienation' among Muslims, who form about 15 per cent of India 's one billion population. In the current Lok Sabha, there are 36 Muslims MPs (6.7%) only, while in Rajya Sabha only 25 (10.3%).

In spite of all the claims and counter claims, various governments - either UPA or NDA - took little or no heed to Muslim problems, but indulged in vote-grabbing gimmicks in order to give the impression of being serious about Muslim backwardness. Appeasement for Muslims is no less than a filthy abuse, which has been used and abused by the BJP to corner the community and parties it sided in hustings. For example, based on population ratio, there should have been 47.45 per cent more elected Muslim representatives in Parliament from 1952 to 1999, and Rajasthan had only two Muslim MLAs from 1952 to 1994, while the community's share in the state's population demanded at least 21 representatives. This scenario has over and over resulted in a very large number of Muslim dominated constituencies represented in the Parliament by non-Muslims, who paid no heed to their plight.

In the last 25 years, the number of Muslims elected to the Lok Sabha with the solitary exception of 1984, has remained at 30 or less, or 5.5 percent, whereas Muslims comprise 15 percent of the population. This deprivation exists despite the fact that there are at least 70 parliamentary constituencies where Muslim population ranges between 20 percent and 66 percent, but they have not been in a position to win these seats on their own though they are capable to tilt the electoral balance in these constituencies.  Only one Muslim has been elected from Delhi to the Lok Sabha in 50 years, whereas their numbers in the national capital would have suggested seven members.

In UP, for example, as against 17 per cent Muslim population, their representation in the Assembly from 1952 to 2002 remained only 8.5 per cent. Interestingly, in the first Assembly polls in 1952, Congress nominated 41 Muslims, of whom 40 were elected, which came down to 4 in 2002. While Congress has given tickets to just 6.67 per cent Muslim candidates since 1952 when the number should have been about 13 per cent, the BJP has negligible share. The record of left parties, RJD, SP and BSP has generally been fair.

The appeasement policy, as propagated by the BJP, reached to the highest peak in mid-1980s, when the Congress surrendered to the dictate of Muslim clergies in Shah Bano case by negating the Supreme Court verdict. The party accused RJD in Bihar and SP in UP, which could emerge as a political force on the basis of caste politics, taking advantage of the situation and aggressively propagated against the danger of Hindu communalism, as has been the wont. This resulted in further polarization of political atmosphere in the country and Muslims have been blamed for BJP phobia, even though the community wholeheartedly liked and supported A B Vajpayee.

For example, in the elections 2009, out of 40 in Bihar the Congress has given ticket to only two Muslim candidates (5%); in UP, 8 out of 80 (10%); in AP, one out of 42 (2.3%); in Rajasthan, zero out of 18 (0%); in Gujarat, one out of 26 (3.8); in Kerala one out of 20 (5%) and in Chhattisgarh zero out of 11. Among other parties, BJP has fielded just two Muslims out of 336 candidates (0.5%); out of 60 and 21, CPM and DMK have given 4 (6.6%) and zero seats to Muslims respectively, while BSP in UP has given tickets to 14 Muslims out of 80 (17.5%); and RJD in Bihar fielded 5 Muslims out of 26 (19.2%); and SP, 10 out of a total of 74 (13.5%) candidates in UP. By statistics, it is clear that BSP, RJD and SP have tried to give a fair representation to Muslim while giving tickets for elections 2009.

Terrorism, security and double speak
Security from terror attacks is one big issue behind every voter's mind while pressing the EVM. Since 9/11 attack terrorism world over has dawned as the biggest curse for Indian Muslims, who have been the subject of suspicion, torture, undue harassments and prosecutions, in addition to the stigma of being anti-national tethered to their persons. However, it is the stands of different political parties that matter in elections, and Muslims have realized this fully. On all the terror attacks prior to Malegaon bomb blast of September 2006 in which Hindus are allegedly found to be involved, the BJP has had strong, nationalist stand. But the double stand of the BJP, calling Hemant Karkare as "deshdrohi", and Advani's vehement criticism of the government over sadhvi Pragya Singh's treatment by the ATS, aided and abetted with fake encounters, particularly at Batla House in South Delhi, which is still shrouded in mystery, has convinced Muslims that both Congress and BJP, in the guise of terrorism, has one agenda: to garner votes as well as to prosecute Muslims respectively.

Towards creation of separate political parties
In 1953, a group of intellectuals mooted the idea of forming a political party for the Muslims and spoke about the low representation of Muslims in government. More than 55 years later very little has changed, so far political space for Muslims is concerned. However, feeling trapped between two monsters - Scylla (the appeasers) and Charybdis (critics of the appeasement policy) - Muslims in recent times find subterfuge, not to be appendage to any political party any more, but to create exclusive political identity, which is based more on reactionary response than genuine concern for community's development. The ultimate result is the emergence of a host of Muslim political outfits in different parts of the country. Whether Muslim League Kerala State Committee (MLKSC) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), with their influence confined to Malabar region of Kerala and Hyderabad , PDP, National Conference - all one seat each in 14 th Lok Sabha. However, one party that has made mark is Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal that bagged 10 seats in the last Assembly election.

Uttar Pradesh United Democratic Front (UPUDF), a conglomeration of over 20 minuscule Muslim political outfits, under the patronage of Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, former Union Minister C.M. Ibrahim and others with the avowed intent to replicate the Assam experiment in UP, the UP Milli Mahaz, Ulema Council, a newly created party that held rallies in Delhi and Lucknow, Secular Ekta Party, MMK launched in Chennai, Peace Party of India floated by a surgeon, Dr Mohammad Ayub to unite Dalits, Muslims and the backward classes, or People's Democratic Front (PDF) or Insaan Dosti Party led by former director-general of police S.M. Naseem - all have little political presence with leaders, who keep on wafting on minority issues.

The logic that other minorities like Sikhs, Dalit and backward caste Hindus have their own political parties cannot be an alibi for creating a separate political party for Muslims. There is more than one reason for it: one of the long-nursed view that Muslims were responsible for partition makes every Indian wary of any Muslim party, even though it is genuinely nationalistic in contour and content; second, Muslims have no clout, or credit among Hindus to win a single seat across the country; third, Muslim leaders, like Syed Shahabuddin, always harp on issues exclusively for Muslims, not for different communities as whole; and fourth, communal appeals, not the community appeals, make Muslim leaders suspicious of their intent. If Sharukh Khan, Sania Mirza, and Pathan brothers can be celebrities in India , why can't Muslims be equally successful on political front?

Rather than creating exclusive Muslim political parties, what Muslim leaders, unlike the sycophants and tattlers in different parties at present, need to hammer out is a plan as to how to work with mainstream political parties and bargain hard with them to isolate and defeat communal forces and extract promises of implementation of economic and educational benefits along with proper share in political power for the community. While Muslim leaders demand secular ideals from all others, they just fail to show courage to exhibit it in words and spirit when election time comes, or when issues are related to Hindus. Instead of going the Jinnah way, Muslim leaders must follow the Gandhi way. Non-involvement of Muslim leaders of various national political parties on issues that concern Muslims is as big a culprit as silence on issues related to Hindus. Amartya Sen, in his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, wrote: "A person's religion need not be his or her all-encompassing and exclusive identity. In particular, Islam, as a religion, does not obliterate responsible choice for Muslims in many spheres of life. Indeed, it is possible for one Muslim to take a confrontational view and another to be thoroughly tolerant of heterodoxy without either of them ceasing to be a Muslim for that reason alone".

For all the new leaders and ulemas, mainstreaming Muslims into political space within the existing system, or alliances with secular parties could be the ideal option, though with little more speedy effort and leadership skills. Maunala Abul Kalam Azad is an example every Muslim leader of today must consider while floating a new political party. Else, either Muslim parties would be confined to ghetto conclaves, or branded communal, giving greater reason for the communal parties to encash Hindu vote bank. The sum and substance of a formidable Muslim presence on equal footing in the elections is the pragmatic approach as to how Muslims could contribute to the development of both the country and the community via astute political affiliations and alliances, rather than open confrontation and tacit separation. Time has come for Muslims to act.


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