Politicians: back to old ways again

Not so long ago, it was widely presumed that, in a modernizing and fast-growing India, sickening religious clashes aimed at garnering votes would be a thing of the past. The western UP rioting, like those preceding it in Bihar, points to the opposite. “Communal polarization” has staged a comeback.

Worryingly, more riots could be looming, as India heads into a general election in 2014, analysts say. When such clashes happen, they tend to disproportionately claim more Muslim lives, according to Prof. Paul R. Brass, a leading India expert at the University of Washington.

Muslims make up about 18% of UP’s 200 million population, rendering them politically significant for that reason alone. Of the 403 state electoral seats, 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.

As political parties prepare for the rough and tumble of 2014, the right-wing BJP, the main opposition, has emerged as a key challenger. It increasingly began to appear that the polls would be fought on issues of a weakening economy, stubbornly high prices and a series of high-profile corruption scandals. Not religion. What then has changed?

A possibility is that parties invariably will find it very difficult to deliver on parameters on development. A series of opinion polls has suggested that although the Congress is unlikely to do well, the BJP isn’t gaining much either.

It is possible that politics of development alone, as being epitomized by BJP mascot Narendra Modi, wouldn’t be enough to bring the party to power in 2014. Therefore, the easier option is to play one community off against the other.

Driving a wedge between majority Hindus and Muslims, India’s largest minority of over 150 million people, tends to help all parties. Hindu nationalists have typically made use of this. In June, riots had erupted in parts of Bihar soon after the ruling JD(U) had snapped ties with the BJP.

“Secular parties too often tend to play a double game. First you create a sense of insecurity for minority and then seek to address them,” said Mohd Sanjeer Alam of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, India’s best-known political think-tank.

In UP, this strategy miserably failed, when a scuffle over eve-teasing, involving Hindus and Muslim youths, was allowed to spin out of control.

Research has also pointed to a correlation between stable economic development and social harmony. When India’s economy tends to flag, a restless Indian middle-class becomes prone to easy mobilization. In a recent study, political scientists Anjali Thomas Bohlken of the University of British Columbia and Ernest John Sergenti of the World Bank, using a statistical model, found that just 1% rise in India’s GDP decreased the expected number of riots by over 5%.

In Uttar Pradesh, Muslim anger at the moment is piling on the Samajwadi Party’s doorstep. “Never have I seen,” says Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind leader Mahmood Madani, “a government become so unpopular among Muslims in so little time.” For Muslims, the more political choices, the merrier. But now in UP, there could be one less party to choose from, Madani said.

That is less of a problem in a remarkably diverse democracy. The worry is that political parties have fallen back on devious old ways of communal polarization. “It’s back to basics,” Alam said.

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