‘Muslim vote’ a product of political labs, not polling booths
Going by official socio-economic indices, the average Muslim voter is a school drop-out, earns meagre wages, supports a mid-sized family, is self-employed, resides mostly among his ilk, would have not travelled far beyond his birthplace, is remarkably ‘clued in’, unlikely to vote any one party or candidate, but is generally cagey about Hindutva-based politics.
Muslims, India’s largest minority, get more than a fair share of wooing since they are thought to impact elections by voting as a bloc. Most political analysts say this is an over-hyped myth.
Yet, the elections in UP, a bellwether state the size of Brazil, were being fought as if the outcome would solely be determined by how or whom Muslims voted.
The polls saw most parties court Muslims separately. The incumbent Kumari Mayawati-led government had put out newspaper ads, showcasing the absence of Hindu-Muslim religious clashes under her reign. Given that religious violence has disproportionately claimed more Muslim lives, security lies at the heart of Muslims’ concerns.
In the ensuing UP polls, the trigger for a “superlative Muslim agenda” may have been set off by the Congress. Its government at the Centre announced carving out a fixed share of government jobs and university seats for minority groups from an existing reservation system.
Though not a Muslim-only quota, it was largely aimed at wooing the community. This led the Samajwadi party to pledge a similar but a larger “quota” to Muslims.
Muslims make up about 18% of UP’s 200 million population, making them politically significant for that reason alone. Of the 403 electoral constituencies, they are said to be influential in one-third. Statistics do show that parties have won elections by cornering sizeable votes from “low-caste” Hindus along with those of Muslims.
Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP party both gave 85 Muslims party nominations, only slightly below Dalits who got 88 from Mayawati’s party. Congress fielded 56 Muslims.
Most poll pundits would say India’s all-important Muslim vote doesn’t exist. At least, not in the statistics. If we really want to associate social categories with political categories, then caste is a far bigger factor, Hilal Ahmed, a scholar at Delhi’s The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, tells me.
Political analyst Zoya Hasan of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University too has found little evidence for the “Muslim vote”. Muslim votes are split along caste, class and regional lines, she says.
While Muslims may not vote as a bloc, they do, however, seem to generally agree on who not to vote. This is especially true when they see an emerging threat from communal politics of Hindu nationalists that threaten their identity. “When there is no such threat, they tend to focus on the bigger issues, such as education,” Hasan says.
The BJP, which represents Hindu cultural nationalism, has essentially come to serve as some kind of a reference point in India’s larger electoral equation for Muslims. Statistics do show that Muslims are not very keen on voting the BJP. This may have a role in reinforcing the notion of an “all-important Muslim vote”.
Muslims seldom back a lame horse. Historically, they tend to vote for a party or candidate with the strongest chances of winning, which has also bolstered the view of them being a political category of their own.
When, in the middle of the UP polls, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi quickly rejected any post-election alliance with the SP, it was this tendency of the Muslim voter he had in mind. The idea was to staunch a gaining impression that the SP was ahead in the race, which could potentially see Muslims leaving the Congress for the SP.
The UP polls saw a vigorous outreach of Muslim voters by all parties. The Election Commission, India’s poll regulator, put a leash on law minister Salman Khurshid’s efforts to woo Muslims by pledging to enhance a jobs “quota” for backward Muslims. There is a clear promise, in the Constitution, for affirmative action on the basis of backwardness. And this has been legally upheld in the Indra Sawhney case. Yet, the poll regulator viewed such a promise as an appeal on caste and religious line, which is prohibited.
Khurshid’s promise was not something new or radical. It stemmed from a Congress poll manifesto promise of 2004, where it had talked of a reservation model for Muslims on the basis of backwardness. The idea was to replicate a reservation system for Muslims unveiled by Congress governments in states, such as Karnataka and whose principle has been upheld by the law.
It is possible to argue that political parties are increasingly using the social attributes of Muslims as a disadvantaged minority to treat them as a political class.
Muslims themselves are trying to legitimise such a political approach, after the November 2006 Sachar Committee report, a high level government probe, brought out stark disadvantages faced by the community.
The report found Muslims ranking well below the national average on literacy, while their poverty rates were only slightly better than “low-caste” Hindus. Muslims make up 13.4% of India’s population but hold fewer than 5% of government posts. Despite being self-employed at a far higher rate than other groups, their access to credit is far lower than all other groups, the report found.
Ahmed of the CSDS says one reason why political parties tend to address Muslims as a group has to do with the “legal, constitutional discourse on religious minorities”. India’s Constitution does lay down special safeguards for religious minorities, lending them a social identity.
“It becomes obvious then,” argues Ahmed, “for politicians to encash their group anxiety”.