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THE GRAMMAR OF VOTE BANK POLITICS-The Muslim Community has suffered.

Paper No. 950                                         15/03/2004

by R. Upadhyay

The grammar of vote bank politics in India is a political reality ever since Independence. With the spread of regionalism, proliferation of political parties and unprincipled alliance, elections in India are hardly contested on the basis of political ideology.  Almost all the political parties distorted this vote bank politics according to their political convenience.  Although, its character varies from state to state on the basis of caste, ethnicity, language and regional factors, the Muslims as a consolidated religious group with 12% of country's population remained a most sought after group at all India level in election time.

Manipulation of voters for seizing power in democracy is an art. Since the establishment of democratic and secular polity in India, the Muslim population was bracketed in a vote bank group initially by the congress party and subsequently by all the political parties in the country.  None of them however, offered any remedial solution to resolve the educational and economic miseries of the Muslim masses and allowed their communal conflict with the Hindus growing day by day. They did not even consider it necessary to guide them properly regarding their commitment to the fundamentals of the political blueprint of the Indian polity as free citizens.

Ironically, the Muslim leaders in connivance with the clergies allowed the situation to continue because of their self-seeking interest.  The reflections of the general contours of the Muslim politics consistently remained linked with their religious identity, which hardly faces any danger in the cultural ethos of Indian civilisation.  The efforts of the Hindu nationalists to bring the Muslims into the socio-political mainstream of the country lost its credence in its vote bank competition with the "secular" parties. Generation of heat and dust over Muslim voters therefore, became the electoral strategy of the political parties since Independence.  Initiated by Congress under the leadership of Nehru and followed by all the "secular" parties it has become a bane of electoral politics in the country.

Historically, the Muslim leaders as a group, who were responsible for partition of the country while playing in to the hands of  the colonial power turned their community members hostile to the national aspiration of the Hindus. Unfortunately, the Congress created the minority and majority syndrome and thereby widened the gap of mistrust between the two communities.

The Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS)/Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP), a party of Hindu nationalists with a view to consolidate the Hindu voters in its favour crititiced the Congress for pursuing appeasement policies towards the Muslims. This attitude of the party however, helped the Congress to tighten its hold over the Muslims, who found the party as the only saviour of their religious identity.  Following the footsteps of the Congress all the political parties made a mad rush to woo this community by raising hue and cry for protection of their religious identity. For the last 57 years Muslim personal law, article 370, Urdu language and subsequently Ayodhya remained the only issues to woo the community.  Following the footsteps of the Muslim leadership that played in the hand of the British establishment of the country, the contemporary leaders of the community in post Independence era also played the same divisive game under the patronage of the Congress for over thirty years for sharing political power.  Subsequently with the political decline of the Congress they bargained with the other non-BJP political parties for selling the votes of the community members without showing any interest for their economic and educational developments.

Muslims as a religion-centric society became a demoralised group after partition as they lost their exclusive political identity and bargaining power, which they enjoyed in British India. After Independence the Muslim-centric political parties namely Indian Union Muslim League and Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen with their influence confined to Malabar region of Kerala and Old City of Hyderabad respectively and National Conference and PDP in Kashmir valley had no significance at national level. With new ethos of constitutional privilege to the minority communities, the Congress party made the Muslims more important than they were in British India. The Muslim leaders for their self-seeking interest for sharing political power treated their community members as market commodity and bargained with various political parties.  The minority-majority syndrome virtually vindicated the divisive policy of the British recognising the political distinctiveness of the Muslims, which was however contrary to the democratic concept in a pluralistic society of India.

There are 95 Lok Sabha constituencies in India which have over 20% of Muslim electorates (Electoral Politics and General Elections in India 1952-98 by M. L.Ahuja, 1998, Page 277). The Muslims are however, not in a position to win these seats on their own but they are capable to tilt the electoral balance in a number of constituencies.  Therefore, there has always been a mad rush of the parties to woo them at the time of elections. Traditionally, the Muslims exercised their franchise on the basis of the strength of the party or parties and candidates, who could aggressively fight against the parties, which they viewed anti-Muslim.

The "secular" parties had a common strategy to scare the Muslims of the danger to their religious identity due to consolidation of Hindu nationalists under the banner of the BJS/BJP.  They consistently allured them with a promise to their safety against this imaginary danger. The BJS/BJP on the other hand made consistent attempt to consolidate the Hindus also as a vote bank to counter the political consolidation of the Muslims against them. Though, the party failed to achieve any major success on this issue, it made the Muslims as its permanent political enemy. This Muslim vote bank politics on over 12 0 million of country's population, therefore, caused immense harm to the Indian society in general and Muslim community in particular.

With support from a section of vested interest Muslim elite, the Congress exploited the Muslim voters for over thirty years to rule the country and kept them appeased as a permanent vote bank. This appeasement policy of the party reached to highest peak in mid 1980s, when the Congress leadership surrendered to the dictate of Muslim clergies in Shabano case by negating the Supreme Court verdict by a parliamentary amendment. It in fact thoroughly exposed the self-acclaimed secular character of the party.  Sensing the reaction and likely consolidation of Hindu votes against the party, its Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi played a pragmatic Hindu communal card to negate the folly by laying the foundation of Ram temple at Ayodhya, which has been a disputed issue between the Hindus and the Muslims. This action of the Congress distanced the Muslims from the party and they moved towards the parties of caste leaders, who came in prominence after polarisation of backward castes following the implementation of Mandal Commission report.

Despite the fact that there is no Hindu vote bank as such, the political mobilisation of Muslims as a vote bank made disturbing progress in the closing decades of last century. Such unprincipled maneuvering of votes aggravated the conflictual relations between the Hindus and the Muslims from bad to worse.  It seems there is apparent absence of capability among the political parties to wipe out communalism from democratic and secular politics. They have in fact promoted communalism with the slogan of secularism. The electoral growth of the BJP during the period on the other hand particularly after the demolition of Babri mosque and the party coming to power at centre as a leader of coalition government created a panic among the Muslim masses. Thus, the hate-BJP became their sole political ideology though, they considered both the Congress and the BJP equally responsible for demolition of Babri mosque. It was however ridiculous that they had no inhibition to support the parties aligning with the Congress in electoral battle.

Even though, movement on Hindutva plank paid dividend to the BJP, it put the contentious issues like Ayodhya, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370 of Indian Constitution away from the NDA agenda when it came to power as head of a coalition government.  But its leaders reiterated time and again that they had not given up these issues and would fulfill their ideological commitments once the BJP comes to power at their own.  This attitude of the BJP leaders kept the Muslim masses always suspicious against them. Post Godhara communal riots in Gujarat aggravated their fear.

The RJD in Bihar and SP in Uttar Pradesh, which could emerge as a political force on the basis of caste politics took advantage of the situation and aggressively propagated against the danger of Hindu communalism. The Muslims found in them as the saviour of their religious identity and accordingly went for collective but tactical voting with a sole objective to defeat the BJP. Their tactical voting was based on the ground assessment at constituency level about the strength of the party or candidate to defeat the BJP. They supported Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh and BSP of Ms Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and RJD of Laloo Yadav in Bihar. The Congress replayed its political game of pragmatic communalism in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, which was however counter productive due to significant consolidation of Hindu voters in favour of BJP.

Despite the preference of the Muslims for the non-BJP parties to whom they had voted for, the plight of the community remained the same, as these parties hardly did anything to rescue them from their educational and economic backwardness. The Muslim leaders on the other hand continued treating the community as a marketable commodity and bargaining with different political parties in election time for their individual benefits.

The consistent disappointing situation of the Indian Muslims perhaps prompted the BJP leaders to think in term of gaining their confidence. Despite the success of the party in recently concluded assembly elections and the acclaimed "feel good" scenario, they were not sure  of increasing  their electoral gains of 13th Lok Sabha poll in the 14th Lok Sabha election. They realised that the party could not afford to ignore the Muslims that constitute second largest religious majority. To rule over one billion population of the country on its own without taking the Muslim voters into confidence may remain a remote possibility against unlikely consolidation of Hindu votes in party's favour due to the diverse character of Indian society. They considered it necessary to win over the confidence of the Muslims in ensuing Lok Sabha election and accordingly the tactical shift of the party from Hindutva to development was a move also to woo the Muslim voters. This is a major shift in the history of over half a century of party's electoral politics.

A.B. Vajpayee while addressing a BJP-led convention for development of minorities (New Delhi, February 25, 2004) made an appeal to the Muslims to shed their hate BJP mindset, judge the party on the basis of its performance during last five years of its governance, come out of their fear psychosis, think independently and asked them to vote with a free mind. L.K.Adwani on the other hand appealed to them (New Delhi, March 3, 2004) to " beware of vote bank peddlers and concentrate on education". He also said, "Many problems arise today because Muslims have so far only been thought of in terms of votes.  I am happy that Friday holiday (earlier granted by Mulayam Singh, Chief Minister of U.P. since withdrawn) was first criticised by Muslims" (Pioneer dated March 5, 2004). Promod Mahajan, General Secretary of the party made an honest admission that "the BJP too, has realised it cannot rule one billion people without the participation of 120 million of them (Muslims)". He added, "The BJP and the Muslims have realised their folly in excluding each other from their scheme of things" (Ibid.). The RSS, the parent organisation of the BJP is no more found having any obsession to the hand of friendship extended by the BJP to the Muslims. The Sangh Parivar is reportedly serious to discuss and remove misconception from the mind of Muslims against them.

It is difficult to predict whether the Muslims would respond to the appeal of Vajpayee in the coming Lok Sabha election or not. Some of the critics of Vajpayee including from within the Sangh Parivar have criticised the move also as an appeasement. "With the best of intention, both Gandhi and Nehru failed to win over Muslims. It would be a miracle if Mr. Vajpayee succeeds where icons of India failed" (Pioneer dated March 3, 2004). They are of the view that despite his best efforts Mahatma Gandhi failed to win over the confidence of Muslims to prevent partition. 

There may be some logic in the criticism of Vajpayee for his new gesture towards the Muslims but the open admission of the party leaders that they cannot ignore the second largest religious group of population is a reality of contemporary politics. It has at least prompted the Muslims to lend their ears to the emotional appeal of Vajpayee that " the time has come to talk to the BJP". Though, only a limited section in the community has at least viewed the new gesture of Vajpayee in positive manner, the well meaning people are found it as an encouraging signal for improving the Hindu-Muslim relation. His appeal has seemingly hit the mental nerve of the community members.

Encouraged with the new gesture of Sangh Parivar some sections of Muslims are found responding positively. They are learnt to have even offered suggestions for "inclusion in the BJP's political agenda free education to girls up to graduation level and modernisation of Madrasas".  Some of the Muslim leaders are either found joining the BJP or hobnobbing with the party to come closer to it. They have perhaps realised that the "secular" parties had only exploited the community for vote but were hardly serious for their educational and economic developments.

Arif Mohammad Khan, former Minister in Rajiv Gandi government of Congress (I) and a defeated hero of famous Shahbano case and Anwarul Haq, RJD M.P. from Bihar have joined the BJP.  Similarly, a senior Congress leader Ms Najma Heptullah, Deputy Chairperson of Rajya Sabha has praised Vajpayee for which she has faced the wrath of her party leadership.  Arif Mohammad said, "It was my mistake that for decades I ignored Atalji's (Vajpayee) hand of friendship. I failed to sense the sincerity of his approach. Why should I blame others. It was my grave error too, that I rejected his hand" (Organiser dated March 7, 2004). Ms Heptullah remarked, " Vajpayee, a good man, who thinks of the nation".  She added, "Vajpayee is a leader, you can trust. The Congress leadership has lost that respect" (Ibid.).

The BJP is contesting the 14th Lok Sabha election on an "India Shining" plank.  How far the folly of the party as realised by the top leaders of a party that is commonly viewed as anti-Muslims and the soft gesture of some of the Muslim leaders would attract their community voters in favour of the BJP - only time will say. But the way these Muslim leaders have either joined the party or are found in the process of soul searching exercise seems to be an encouraging development towards communal harmony in the country. Besides, the slogan of the BJP has at least blunted the sharpness of the aggressive assault of the "secular" parties against Hindutva to some extent. If the new initiative of the BJP leaders works to change the Muslim opinion about their tactical voting against them, the party may get direct or indirect benefit out of it.

Historically, the conflictual relation between the Hindus and the Muslims is an inescapable fact in the political developments in the Indian subcontinent.  However, the political leadership in Independent India never took serious note to resolve the consistent bitter relation between the two major religious communities. In one hand the political parties continuously scared the community against the imaginary danger to their religious identity at the hands of the Hindu nationalists, on the other hand the leaders of the community never allowed them to integrate in Indian society.  The reason behind their economic, educational and social backwardness was never an issue of concern for either the political or community leadership.

With his long political experience Vajpayee realised the diversity of Hindutva and perhaps ruled out the possibility of the political consolidation of Hindus as a vote bank to counter Muslim vote bank. If his appeal could break the strong locker of Muslim vote bank being operated by the "secular" parties for last 57 years and free the community to exercise their franchise conscientiously, it will be a great service to the Indian society and help in bringing harmonious relation between the Hindus and the Muslims.

The medieval mindset of the Muslims as a distinct political community was a communal interpretation of history. Isolating themselves from the social and political mainstream national current, the Muslims failed to develop their national identity due to their economic and educational backwardness. Social identity is closely linked with educational and economic identity for which religion hardly has any role to play. There are sizeable members in the community, who have full faith in democracy but their voice is so feeble and weak that they are unable to bring out their community from their religion-centric identity. In a wider context of Indian society, modernisation of Muslims is possible only with their educational and economic development. But assertive institutionalisation of the communal distinctiveness of the Muslims by their leaders obstructed them to think independently about their overall development as a part of Indian society as a whole. They in fact created a myth about the fear of the cultural absorption of the Muslims by Hindu majority.

The sum and substance of the discussion is confined to the socio-political triangle of the BJP, the non-BJP and the Muslims. Of them the BJP has "realised its folly". The party also claims the same realisation by the Muslims but the Muslim masses in general and larger section of their leaders is yet to endorse this claim.  No other party is so far ready to accept that there has been any folly on its part. The message in Vajpayee's appeal to the Muslims is certainly thought provoking and it is time that all the three hands of the triangle come out in one platform and admit their follies and resolve the conlictual problem between the Hindus and the Muslims. If all the political parties rake up the issues related to the social, economic and educational identity of the Muslims for their integration with national identity, it will have a far reaching impact in bringing the communal harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.