By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
A new generation of Muslims is not content to be just kept alive; it expects a lot more from those it elects to office. Crucially, its expectations are not for Muslims as Muslims, but as citizens of a nation with which it is much more at ease than its parents and grandparents were. That is why tears of sympathy and promises of job quotas don’t cut too deep.
IN THE wild and eccentric world of Indian politics, there is one golden rule that always seems to hold: if you lose, blame it on Muslims. Mayawati trot down the well-worn path on Wednesday, holding the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh to account for the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) humiliation in the recent assembly elections. Her logic: the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raised the issue of Muslim reservation midway through the polls, polarising the electorate along communal lines and pushing Muslims into the arms of the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The Congress, whether it says this publicly or not, must be feeling similarly dejected vis-à-vis Muslim voters. While Salman Khurshid was promising them a job quota, the party was making sure that Salman Rushdie does not enter the country after a huge hue and cry had been raise over the matter. Indeed, it also invoked party chief Sonia Gandhi’s tears—shed or unshed remains a mystery—over the Batla House “incident” three winters ago. But alas, Muslims weren’t moved.
The Yadavs of SP are celebrating right now, but they too, when they have lost in the past, pointed accusative fingers at Muslims. As have an assortment of other parties around the country. And when the parties don’t, the media does. With the Hindu votes supposedly split neatly along caste lines, the Muslim vote appears to be the only “variable” in every election—fickle as a pickle. And everyone who is not from the BJP seems to think they have a natural claim over it.
Well, not quite. Muslims have come a long way from voting for whoever had the best chance to defeat the BJP in a particular election—which itself was a long way from voting blindly for the Congress in every election.
These voting patterns were premised on fear: the fear of riots, the fear of death. It’s a potent fear, and for a long time it remained very real. And so the “secular” Congress was for decades the only alternative. But when disillusion with the grand old party set in in the ’80s and ’90s, the secular tag was appropriated by the offshoots of the original Janata Party and other “third” parties.
Today, however, that fear is gone—and with it the hold that these parties had over Muslim votes. A new generation of Muslims is not content to be just kept alive; it expects a lot more from those it elects to office. Crucially, its expectations are not for Muslims as Muslims, but as citizens of a nation with which it is much more at ease than its parents and grandparents were. That is why tears of sympathy and promises of job quotas don’t cut too deep.
Evidence? Muslims voted for the BSP in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, but they weren’t alone in doing so. Voters of various communities felt the party needed a chance to prove its worth, and their combined votes helped it form the first single-party government in the state in many years. But Mayawati’s ego-splurge on statues and birthday parties hardly met their expectations. So this time around, Muslims have voted for the SP—and again they are not the only ones to have done so. The SP has won more seats than even the BSP five years ago.
In between, Muslims voted for the Congress in the 2009 parliamentary elections—when everyone was doing so. As for the secular-communal polarisation, Muslims appear to be voting regularly for the Janata Dal (United) combination in Bihar despite its alliance with the BJP, again along with most other voters. Meanwhile, they continue to reject “Muslim parties”, such as the Peace Party this time around.
Apparently, Muslims are playing their role in a larger shift in the Indian polity. Voters, irrespective of their caste and creed, are rewarding performance and punishing parties that take votes for granted. The best example of this shift was the defeat of the 34-year-old Left Front government in West Bengal last year. Lalu Prasad’s relegation to near irrelevance after a decade and a half in power is another illustration. Contrast these results with back-to-back victories for Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh.
Regional parties’ dominance of the political landscape is also becoming entrenched—as SP’s decisive victory in Uttar Pradesh following a similarly decisive victory for the BSP five years ago shows. Where national parties are in power, they typically have to rely on regional partners. The BJP couldn’t have won in Bihar or Punjab without the help of JDU and SAD respectively; indeed it is the junior partner in both these coalitions. Ditto for the Congress in West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Maharashtra (although it is the senior partner in the latter)
In states where national parties rule on their own, they depend on strong regional leaders to do so—such as Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Narendra Modi in Gujarat (all BJP) and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan (Congress).
These are trends that the Congress will have a more difficult accepting than the BJP. All through its post-independence history but particularly since the time of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, the party has discouraged regional satraps while privileging a strong central leadership, which is invariably in the hands of the Gandhi dynasty. That is the reason why leaders like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee, who enjoy strong regional support, broke ranks with the Congress to form their own outfits.
The party was compelled to reconcile with these very leaders and form coalitions to return to power. However, it continues to be averse to encouraging regional leadership or entering alliances as a matter of principle, and publicly states its long-term policy of returning the country to one-party (read one family) rule.
Indian society is changing, and so is Indian politics. Muslims, in being an essential part of this evolution, show they are much better integrated with Indian society than they are usually credited for.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.