And the Muslim vote went to…Hindus
Make-believe worlds are dangerous places. They are built on myths. Myths always eclipse truths out. The just-concluded elections to the Lok Sabha have yet again punctured this great myth called the Muslim vote.
Rather than being credited for their overwhelming participation in the democratic process, the fact that Muslims tend to vote in large numbers is sometimes held against them. This saddens me. (Even responses in this blog have alluded to such an accusation.) And this is what we have been spreading around in our society. That Muslims vote differently, according to the diktats of clerics and gravitate towards only Muslim candidates.
Half truths to the contrary, the way Muslims vote is the greatest evidence that the majority of Muslims will not let religion decide politics. We as Indian Muslims are very much rooted to party-based, secular, democratic traditions of our great country.
Muslims make up 13.4 per cent of the country’s population, and perhaps make up an even smaller percentage on the electoral rolls. In most constituencies, Muslims do not make up for even 15 per cent of the total vote.
Although predominantly a Hindu-majority country, yet India has some 150 million Muslims, making it the state with the second-largest Muslim population in the world next only to Indonesia.
Much of the myths surrounding the Muslim vote have been propagated not by the voter but by Hindu nationalist politicians, who have used anti-Muslim sentiment to win votes.
Such Hindu nationalists draw voters into make-believe worlds that I began this essay with. They make up threats to India’s Hindu heritage and make religion a rallying cry. Their interest is at the core very anti-Muslim, says Ashutosh Varshne (http://sitemaker.umich.edu/varshney/home), an expert on Hindu-Muslim affairs at the University of Michigan. Hindu nationalists argue that Indian Muslims and Christians who converted from Hinduism should reconvert to the majority religion.
More importantly, according to Varshney, “The more Hindu nationalism wanes, the better Hindu-Muslim relations will be.” His most recent work *Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India* (Yale University Press, 2002 and 2003) won the Gregory Luebbert Prize of the American Political Science Association for the best book in comparative politics in 2002.
The National Election Studies (NES) of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies or CSDS (http://www.csds.in/) has demonstrated conclusively that Muslim turnouts are not very different from the rest of the electorate. The evidence presented by NES shows that in the last four general elections, the turnout among Muslims was 59 per cent while the all-India figure was 60 per cent. “In fact, the figures in 2004 suggest the turnout among Muslims was much lower than average,” the study states.
One of the conclusions of the study was that when it came to who to vote for, the voting behaviour of Muslims was no less or more strategic than voters of any other faith. This is a very significant finding.
The other significant conclusion of the NES was that evidence suggests that Muslims votes tend to consolidate but it is nowhere sufficient to suggest that *Musalmaans* vote en bloc. Yet Muslims can impact elections, and appear to be using their power as a voting bloc to gain concessions from parties who appeal to them.
However, I would like to take an entirely different stand. Even if Muslims were to use their vote as a strategic tool, what could be so anti-national about it? Is it not enough that they vote and believe in the democratic process? As long as they vote, it should not matter who they vote and how they vote.
There is a strange parallel between Muslims in India and the African-Americans in the US. Muslims are against the BJP largely, like African-Americans are against the Republicans. So, the BJP will do nothing to shed its rightist nationalist skin to court Muslims. Even talking about this would be preposterous. On the other hand, the Congress knows Muslims will vote for them, like the Democrats know they will get traditional Black support anyway. Certain Muslim organisations like the Milli Council and Ulema Council, etc, used this predicament to argue that the tragedy with Muslims is that they are still enslaved voters. This is hardly the truth and a genuine concern. These outfits are driven by their own selfish goals. If Muslims do vote for the Congress, it is not because of a lack of alternative, but because they believe in whatever the party stands for. If there was a genuine lack of alternative, Muslims would have come up with the alternative themselves.
Muslims have either brushed religion-based parties aside or barely voted for them. The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Party has not been able to push beyond just one seat, Hyderabad. The Assam United Democratic Front managed to get just one seat, Dhubri.
Figures thrown up by any national election can be mind-boggling. But I have discerned one beautiful fact from Election 2009: that Muslims have voted for Hindus. Some might argue that there were hardly any Muslim candidates to vote for in proportion to the Muslim population. In that case, did they abstain? They did not. They will not. For Indian Muslims, Islam has never come in the way of India.