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Democracy, Elections and Minorities in India

by Asghar Ali Engineer, 16 February 2009

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(Secular Perspective Feb. 16-28, 2009)

The General elections in India are about to take place within three months and all political parties are readying themselves to draw up their winning strategies. Elections are like a day of judgment for political parties. And, they have to stand before their voters and render account of their deeds and misdeeds. They have begun to woo their voters once in five years again. They have to woo different castes and religious groups and reconcile their conflicting interests in the context of the complex Indian reality.

The Muslims constitute 15 per cent of Indian population and play crucial role in the victory or defeat of the political parties. In the two big northern states of the U.P. and Bihar no political party can win without Muslim support. The Congress once used to win both these states without much problem as the Muslims voted for it for four decades after the independence. However, it lost both the states as the Muslims withdrew their support. The U.P. was lost as soon as Rajiv Gandhi laid foundation stone of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya after instructing the district magistrate to open the lock of the Babri Masjid for the Hindus to worship Ram. The Congress has not been able to rehabilitate itself again in the eyes of the Muslims.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once rode to power in the U.P. on the ’wave of Ram Mandir’ but such waves cannot be generated again and hence the BJP has met, with its speed breaker. During those hey days it even said, ’we do not need Muslim votes’, but it set up its own minority front, promising heaven to them, through some Muslim members like Shah Nawaz and others. It is also projecting Naqvi as its spokesman.

But the BJP does not want to give up its mool mantra (basic formula) of Ram Mandir to woo hard core Hindu votes. Mr.Rajnath Singh, its President, said that it would construct Ram Mandir if it came to power and even would persuade its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies to agree to pass a law for constructing the mandir. Even Advani asked what was wrong in constructing a mandir. Once they demolished Babri Masjid and committed one wrong; then what is the harm in committing second wrong by constructing mandir on the site of Babri Masjid?

The election calculus shows that the BJP would find it extremely difficult to increase its present tally in Parliament. ’The Terror Card’ did not pay even immediately after the Mumbai attacks in November; and the BJP lost the election in Delhi. Thus ’terror card’ no longer arouses emotions to be electorally exploited. The BJP had found one more card when prices began to rise, but as its ill luck would have it, the rise in index fell to and has almost stabilized at below 6%. And raising ’Ram issue’ is flogging a dead horse.

Thus whatever its electoral acrobatics the BJP will find it very difficult to increase its tally of seats won over the last general election in 2004. Moreover, what the lumpen elements of the Sangh Parivar have done in Orissa and Karnataka will hardly help its image. Those who sympathize otherwise with the BJP will also find it difficult to defend its violent attacks on Christians and women. There was a time when some Christian leaders had begun to join the BJP, but after the Orissa events even leaders like Fernandes will be hard pressed to defend the BJP. The BJP has thus increased its opponents.

There is tough competition between Ms. Mayavati the present Chief Minister and Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party in the U.P. for the Muslim votes. Ms.Mayavati, in order to win over the Muslims, has promised 25 per cent tickets for the Lok Sabha elections for the Muslims. It is, no doubt, for the first time any party has taken such a step. The Muslims of the U.P. should welcome it and the Congress has a lesson to learn from it. It is a known fact that the Congress has never done justice to the Muslims in this respect.

However, while welcoming the Mayavati’s step, the real question is: how many seats to which Muslims will be given the tickets, will be winnable ones and what her party will do to see the Muslim candidates win? Also, what will be the stature of those Muslim candidates? These are important questions. It is difficult to expect Ms.Mayavati to give ticket to those who have some stature of their own and are independent by nature.

Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav has entered into a friendship pact with Mr.Kalyan Singh who has the notoriety of overseeing the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 as he was then the Chief Minister and had taken pride for his misdeed. Muslims have hardly forgotten this. Mr.Mulayam Singh claims that he has done so to wipe out the BJP from the U.P. But this strategy is likely to misfire or backfire as far as Muslims are concerned.

Let not Mulayam forget the fate of the Congress in the U.P. after it laid the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Mulayam made Kalyan almost to apologize for the demolition of the Babri Masjid under pressure from the Muslims, but the way Mulayam is expressed his solidarity with Kalyan may backfire. The Congress has also expressed its displeasure for this newfound solidarity of the SP leader with Mr.Kalyan Singh, but that only has provoked the Mr.Mulayam Singh to ask the Congress to mind its own business, and he even said that he and Mr.Kalyan Singh are farmers and, what is more pehelwans (wrestlers)! It is surprising, even enigmatic, that a shrewd politician like Mulayam was making such statements!

The way Muslims are reacting to the alliance with the Kalyan Singh apparently shows it would be hardly politically wise for Mulayam to shake hands with Kalyan, if he is interested in Muslim votes in the U.P. After all he may not have the last laugh in this complex game of politics and electoral arithmetic. Mayawati may have the last laugh, after all. If the Muslims of the U.P. vote for Ms.Mayawati, both the BJP and the Congress may not gain much in the U.P. The Congress may, perhaps, gain marginally but the BJP may not benefit even that.

In Bihar the BJP has no independent base at all. It is beholden to Nitish Kumar the present Chief Minister of Bihar is unhappy that the BJP is creating problems for him by raising Ram issue again. Nitish Kumar is Bhumihar. Yadavs are not his electoral base. He also got two Muslims working for the OBC Muslim cause nominated to the Rajya Sabha. However, that may not mean much electorally in complex caste politics of Bihar Muslims.

However, it appears Nitish too does not have brighter chance and may not be able to improve his tally of seats won over 2004 elections. He has failed to deliver his promises and the Koshi flood disaster may prove a millstone a round his neck. The BJP may not be able to reap much depending on Mr. Nitish Kumar, who is the only support for the BJP in Bihar.

It will be seen from above that Muslim votes, like other non-Muslim votes, are now determined by regional politics. For quite sometime past Muslims have been voting for the regional parties, and the Congress has only some regions like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh etc. where the only alternative happens to be the Congress. It is a healthy development that the Muslims are less swayed by emotional issues and now realized that it would be a political disaster. But, for that matter, even, some Hindus, at one time, were swayed by the Ram Mandir issue, and the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) by Mandal Commission issue; and these two issues brought some crucial change in Indian politics and both issues were highly emotional in nature.

As the Muslims have now come out of that emotional phase they should do bargain hard with regional parties, and the aim should be: (1) to isolate and defeat communal forces and (2) to extract promises of implementation of economic and educational benefits along with proper share in political power for Muslims. For this they must shun emotional rhetoric altogether and have to be hard bargainers.

It is important to note that since the Muslims began to vote for regional outfits in the U.P. and Bihar, the epicenter of communal violence has shifted to Maharashtra, and Maharashtra has emerged with the dubious distinction of a state with highest communal incidents in the last few years. The government’s own statistics show this. The media have also reported these statistics. There are other dilemmas too for the Muslims in Maharashtra.

These incidents have taken place during the Congress regime, especially during the chief ministership of Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh. Mr.R.R.Patil of the Nationalist Congress party also failed to handle the communal riots properly. At Dhule is its worst example. But again only alternative to the Congress in Maharashtra is the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance which Muslims cannot opt for. There is no other regional party here like the U.P., Bihar etc.

It is indeed very challenging situation for Muslims in Maharashtra. Again separate political party of Muslims is no solution. It is a remedy worse than the disease. Besides voting for clean secular candidates in whichever constituencies available, the Muslims should go for frank dialogue with the present Congress leaders, preferably at the Central level. Regional leadership often colludes with the Shiv Sena and is under the awe of Mr.Bal Thackeray. Even Mr.Sharad Pawar, Mr.Bhujbal and other Congress leaders meet him, touch his feet and have dinner with him.

In democracy, only hard bargain pays, nothing else. Our elections are based purely on caste and religious identities, nothing else. The weight of minorities must be felt by the political parties.