By Gilles Verniers
May 30, 2019
The new Lok Sabha has 26 Muslim members of Parliament (MPs), only three more than in the previous legislature. Only nine of them are re-elected incumbents, including veteran parliamentarians Farooq Abdullah (National Conference), Asaduddin Owaisi (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) and Badruddin Ajmal (All India United Democratic Front). Barring Shafiqur Rehman Barq (Samajwadi Party), who is returning to the Lok Sabha for a fifth term (he lost in 2014); all other Muslim MPs are first-time elects.
The Muslim MPs hail from 11 different states and belong to 10 different parties. Nearly half of them come from Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Kerala. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress are sending four Muslim MPs each to the Lok Sabha, while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Muslim League (ML) in Kerala, the National Conference (NC) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) are sending three MPs each. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had nominated six Muslim candidates, has drawn a blank.
To analyse the significance of these numbers, one must first put them in historical context. The argument here is that any conversation about Muslims’ under-representation in Parliament should start with the observation that it has been a long-term phenomenon and not a consequence of the BJP’s rise. As such, the BJP followed and amplified a movement that can be traced back to Independence.
There were around 5% of Muslim MPs in the first two Lok Sabha. Muslims were barely represented under the Congress’ dominant one-party system.
The rise of the Opposition in the 1970s created more avenues for Muslims’ representation, although the socialists did not include many of them in their organisations or among their candidates. Post 1980, Muslims’ representation declined steadily in a backdrop of strong communalisation of politics. The BJP’s rise, which occurred over this period, did not create the political marginalisation of Muslims. Instead, it amplified the trend as it conquered more political space.
The data from the national and state-based parties reveal that Muslim representation decreased after 1984 despite the fact that the share of tickets given to Muslim candidates increased marginally over time. The political marginalisation of Muslims was rendered more stark by the fact that their overall share in the population increased over time, rising from 10.4% post-Partition to 14.2% in the 2011 Census.
As far as 2019 is concerned, even though the campaign has been marked by multiple communal statements and provocations, the question of Muslims’ representation has been almost completely absent for the simple reason that no party chose to talk about it. The BJP did not – for obvious reasons. They claim inclusiveness in word but contradict themselves in deed, refusing to nominate Muslim candidates.
The Congress remained silent on the issue, too, for tactical reasons. Ever since Sonia Gandhi’s infamous statement in March 2018 to the effect that the Congress ought to dispel the notion that it is a pro-Muslim party, the party has virtually stopped raising issues concerning minorities. It has not made the violence that Muslims have been subjected to over the past years a significant campaign point. Lastly, regional parties – with the exception of small formations like the AUDF, the AIMIM or the IUML – have also not been particularly vocal in defending Muslims or raising matters of particular interest to Muslims.
As a result, perhaps, nominations by major parties decreased from 10% in 2014 to 8% in 2019. But contrary to perception, this decrease did not come from the Congress. The numbers of Muslim candidates nominated by Congress has been stable since 1999, at 6-7%. And despite the “soft Hindutva” bend of its electoral strategy, they actually nominated a few more Muslim candidates this time than five years ago, rising from 32 to 35.
The overall drop of Muslim candidates actually comes from regional parties. Some regional parties have given tickets to Muslim candidates: the SP, the BSP, the TMC and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. But many important parties completely excluded Muslims, as in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Maharashtra. This is a good reminder that Muslims also tend to be under-represented in states that are not dominated by the BJP, mostly in the South.
Muslim’s representation within the BJP is anecdotal. In the last round of 28 state elections, the BJP fielded 22 Muslim candidates of which only three were elected, among 1,282 MLAs. In this election, they gave only six tickets to Muslim candidates, all of them weak figures with a history of underperformance in local elections, to boot.
Various factors limit Muslims’ representation. Some are obvious, like demographic concentration. Muslims tend to get fielded in seats with larger concentrations of Muslim voters. Some of these seats are reserved, thus limiting their demographic advantage (the Sachar Committee report had underlined this fact, but Francesca Jensenius has demonstrated in an article that Muslims are not more disadvantaged than other groups by reservations).
Split voting is another factor of limitation of Muslims representation. Several Muslim candidates can undercut each other and pave the way for a third-party player – generally non-Muslim – to pull through. This has enabled the BJP to win a few seats in Rohilkhand, for instance, where the Muslims population is very high.
There are internal political and sociological barriers that are specific to Muslim communities as well: crippling factionalism among Muslim elites, a strong party bias that favours upper-caste Muslims candidates over the larger population of backward Muslims.
One could very well question the validity of this exercise of headcount. In a recent piece, Hilal Ahmed has correctly argued that Muslims’ empowerment cannot be reduced to the number of seats they occupy in assemblies. But experience shows that access to institutions is a key element to obtaining the State’s attention. Looking at the representation of Muslims’ interest in Parliament through a study of parliamentary questions, Saloni Bhogale found that substantive representation does derive from descriptive representation. One’s interests truly tend to be better represented once one has actual representation in public institutions. It remains to be seen whether the recent declaration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be translated in action. If it does, it would reverse a much larger trend than the exclusion of minorities that stems from his own party.