Secular Is As Secular Does
By Mujibur Rehman
24 Apr 2009
The consistently secular voting behaviour of Indian Muslims since the first parliamentary election is perhaps the most significant and least acknowledged fact of our electoral politics. The reason is the superficial manner in which secular discourse is framed by our political elites, which often give it a populist spin at the cost of the substantive elements of secular practice. Consequently, the idea of secularism today resembles a shapeless hat, whose meaning for political parties changes depending on who wears it for what purposes, and in what manner. While its political significance in this election remains as strong for rival political elites as in the past, for Muslim voters secularism as campaign rhetoric emanating from the politics of fear is less appealing this time compared to the 1989, 1991 or 1996 elections.
According to the Census 2001, in 182 out of 593 districts, Muslims constitute 10 per cent or more but less than 25 per cent of the district's total population. Thus, in situations of multi-cornered contests, en bloc Muslim voting in constituencies located in these districts could define the majority character of any regime. Furthermore, Muslims show a relatively younger age distribution.
The emergence of the Third Front and Fourth Front, together with the remnants of the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA, offers wider opportunities to Muslim voters regardless of the post-poll fate of these fronts. This time, Muslim voting behaviour will be determined by a combination of national, local and global factors, but the first two factors may overwhelm the third in most situations. Also, the nature of that combination is contingent upon the class and region to which the voters belong. Thus, Muslims in Azamgarh will have a different mix of considerations determining voting choices compared to, say, Muslims in Nandigram.
The Sachar committee report, the UPA regime's most important pro-Muslim accomplishment, may have generated enormous enthusiasm among Muslim elites, secular civil society groups and the media. But its electoral reward is likely to be limited for UPA partners, especially the Congress. Muslim voters are not going to vote for a UPA partner because it has told them that they are backward. Moreover, selective implementation of the Sachar report's recommendations has also not helped in generating electoral loyalty.
The relationship between Muslim voters and the Congress party has been a complex one. While Muslims have traditionally been loyal to the Congress for historical reasons, their mass alienation from the party occurred for the first time in 1977. A series of issues the Congress's inept handling of the Ayodhya movement, its practice of soft Hindutva and the emergence of leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Kanshi Ram and their parties in northern India created further conditions for mass alienation which finally transformed into enduring de-alignment vis-a-vis the Congress. While the party has made some effort to regain the lost trust of the community, token measures like an apology for the Babri masjid demolition are unlikely to bring electoral results. The Congress also seems to have failed to realise the limited capacity of its discredited Muslim leadership, especially in north India, to persuade Muslim voters.
Massive Muslim participation in Left-organised anti-Bush protests in 2006 seems to have deluded Left leaders into believing that Muslim voters are akin to their party cadre. So the Congress party's decision to sign the nuclear deal with the US is seen as good enough reason for Muslim voters to oppose the Congress and vote for whoever the Left parties recommend. However, the outcomes of recent assembly elections in Delhi and Rajasthan, or local elections in West Bengal, do not endorse this argument.
Of course, anti-Americanism exists among Muslims and it is stronger than the anti-Americanism of the Indian communists. But Muslims have been sceptical of the Left as a viable alternative in large parts of India, barring Left bastions, despite recognising the high secular credentials of these parties. The Left's electoral disconnect with Muslim voters is linked to its inability to grasp the particular nature of Muslim backwardness. The West Bengal government's North 24 Parganas minority report only reinforces this explanation.
The BJP, on its part, has shown no interest in connecting with Muslim voters this time unlike in the 2004 election. The outcomes of the recent assembly elections may have forced the party to realise that issues like strong POTA-type anti-terror laws have no electoral appeal. And its manifesto does have a section devoted to the minority, though it does not even mention the Sachar report which Murli Manohar Joshi, chairperson of the party's manifesto committee, has publicly denounced. But the BJP's decision to rake up the Ayodhya issue, its patronage to Varun Gandhi and its decision to field Kandhamal riot-accused Manoj Pradhan and cast Narendra Modi as its star campaigner all of this has sent the unmistakable signal that, given favourable conditions, the party would approve hostile designs against all minorities.
Thus, the major beneficiaries of Muslim voting decisions are likely to be secular regional parties in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Assam or Tamil Nadu. However, considering the populist character of these parties, the implications of Muslim voting may prove disappointing so far as the community's economic welfare is concerned.
The writer is assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.
Source: Times of India