voters stand in a queue outside a booth at polling station in Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, April 16, 2009. (Reuters photo)
India, the world’s largest democracy with a total of 714 million voters, is undergoing these days a marathon election exercise over five phases which will conclude on 13 May. Results will start coming in from 16 May and the new parliament will be in place on June 2.As usual, India’s 160 million Muslims, making up about 14 percent of the population, are taking part in these elections both as voters and as contestants.
Indian Muslims are the biggest minority group whose vote is critical in key swing states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the north, Assam in the northeast, West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south.
All parties, including the BJP which is perceived as anti-Muslim, have fielded Muslim candidates from places where Muslims may win as a result of large concentration of Muslims in at least 80 out of the current parliament’s 543 constituencies or in order to show that the concerned party cares about the community’s political empowerment.
Indian Muslims have been traditionally complaining that they are always under-represented in the national parliament as well as in provincial legislative assemblies. In the outgoing parliament there are 37 Muslim members out of their proportional entitlement of 76 seats. The highest number of seats Muslim could ever win was in 1980 when they secured 46 seats. [See the chart here, page 15]
|Indian Muslims are found in sizeable numbers in over 80 constituencies, especially in north India.
Under-representationThe Muslim under-representation is due to a number of reasons, such as disunity in Muslim ranks, major parties’ disinclination in nominating enough number of Muslims in winnable constituencies and reservation of Muslim-dominated constituencies as reserved seats for Dalits, the so-called untouchables, in addition to the age-old trick of gerrymandering aimed at dividing Muslim-dominated pockets over a number of constituencies in order to break Muslims’ strength.
Among glaring examples is the nomination of actress Jayaprada from the traditionally Muslim seat of Rampur by an alleged Muslim-friendly party. In Delhi, where Muslims deserve at least one seat, no major party has nominated any Muslim in these polls.
Indian Muslims are found in sizeable numbers in over 80 constituencies, especially in north India, where they can help any candidate win or lose by voting for or against them. Muslims are concentrated in about 16 states where 97% Indian Muslims reside, with 1% or more in each state.
They have sizable concentration in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Assam and Kerala. In another nine states, namely Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat, MP, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Haryana they have a lower proportion.
Constituency-wise, there are only 14 Muslim majority constituencies, in addition to another 28 with high Muslim-concentration of above 30% and 60 other constituencies where they constitute more than 20% of the electorate. All these 100 constituencies or so are targeted by secular parties to secure maximum Muslim votes for their candidates.
|The Congress failed to act decisively on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee which found out that Muslims were at the bottom of the Indian society by any yardstick of backwardness.
Background Traditionally, Indian Muslims voted for the Congress Party, but this started to change in mid-1970 as a result of the excesses during the Emergency period.
As a result, the Congress for the first time was voted out of power in 1977. The demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 was the final proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in almost total boycott of the Congress party by Muslims. Many other parties and coalitions ruled, as a result, and the Congress could come back to power only in 2004, as the leader of a coalition called UPA.
The half-hearted implementation of the Congress-led government’s various pro-Muslim schemes have failed to win back the trust of the Muslim voters. The Congress-led government for the first time in India established a “Minority Affairs Ministry” which has literally done nothing apart from disbursing a few thousand scholarships to Muslim students. Even its meager budget for the last year was not fully utilized.
The Congress failed to act decisively on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee which found out that Muslims were at the bottom of the Indian society by any yardstick of backwardness. Sachar report disclosed that Muslim representation has plummeted to as low as three and five percent in the government and public sector companies.
The Congress has also consigned to the cold storage the report of the Mishra Commission which recommended 10 percent reservation for Muslims in government jobs, schemes and bank credits. The Congress has consistently followed an anti-Muslim policy in Assam which has a 30% Muslim population.
The Congress failed to stop the anti-Muslim campaign in the name of fighting terrorism which was unleashed by the previous BJP-led government which ruled during 1999-2004. In fact, the campaign only intensified especially in states ruled by the Congress like the Mahrashtra and Andhra Pradesh which have witnessed some of the worst excesses, including extra-judicial killings, against Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism.
The Congress government at the Centre has also failed to take any action against the tainted Gujarat government of Narendra Modi who presided over the pogroms of 2002 and still rules the state. The Congress government has steadfastly refused a judicial enquiry into the cold-blooded murder last September by the police of two Muslim alleged “terrorist” youths in what is known as “Batla House Encounter”. As a result, Muslims are voting for all kinds of “secular” parties in the current elections.
|A new phenomenon this time is the emergence of a number of small Muslim parties.
New PhenomenonThe new phenomenon of small regional parties has offered new choices to the Muslim voter as an alternative to national political parties. Small Muslim parties are concluding alliances with small regional parties for their mutual benefit.
A new phenomenon this time is the emergence of a number of small Muslim parties. Muslims already have the Indian Union Muslim League in the southern state of Kerala (with 2-3 members of Parliament and a sizeable presence in the provincial legislative assembly) and Majlis Ittehadul Muslimin in the southern city of Hyderabad (one member of Parliament and about a dozen in the provincial assembly).
A new Muslim entrant from the last year is the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) in the northeastern state of Assam which won nine seats in the provincial assembly elections last year and expects to win 4-5 seat in the current national elections. The AUDF has now stretched its wings to other states too and is fighting elections in a number of northern states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. [See the map of Muslims distribution here, page 13]
Another new entrant is the Ulama Council (UC) of Uttar Pradesh which emerged as a protest movement against the “Batla House Encounter”. UC’s popularity in the Azamgarh area of Uttar Pradesh led it to enter the elections in a number of constituencies in that state.
This is a new Muslim experiment which will stabilize by the time the next general elections are held in five years times. For the first time since independence in 1947, Indian Muslims are seeking to stand on their own two feet to ensure their political empowerment. Earlier they used to be part of various parties and thereby bound by the agendas and policies of those parties.
Ilyas Azmi, a seasoned member of Parliament, candidly portrayed the position of Muslims in various parties when he said recently that the position of Muslim members of Parliament in their respective parties is “worse than that of slaves”. These members are not allowed to have their own independent views or air them in public without prior clearance with their leadership which is Hindu even in the case of communist and socialist parties.
|Major Muslim organizations like the All India Muslim Majli-se Mushawarat (AIMMM), Jamaat-e Islami Hind (JIH) and Jamiat Ulama-e Hind are trying to empower Muslim voters.
Empowering Muslim Voters There are said to be no less than 22 small Muslim-led parties contesting elections mainly in the north though their chances are slim. These parties include Peace Party in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Muslim Munettra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu and People’s Democratic Council in West Bengal. They all claim to be “secular” parties working for the weak and marginalized sections of society.
These parties, including the UC, will at best only split Muslim votes and thereby indirectly helping the Hindu extremist BJP to win elections as the Hindu vote will be cast solidly for a single candidate while secular and Muslim votes will be split among a number of candidates.
Major Indian Muslim organizations like the All India Muslim Majli-se Mushawarat (AIMMM), Jamaat-e Islami Hind (JIH) and Jamiat Ulama-e Hind are trying to influence Muslim voters by advising them to vote for a Muslim candidate in Muslim-majority seats and for strong and winnable secular candidates in other seats.
While AIMMM has concentrated this time round on a single demand, i.e., reservation for Muslims in government jobs and facilities, others like JIH have issued elaborate charter of demands.
Muslim organizations this time have refrained from supporting any single party. Instead, they are supporting specific candidates belonging to various secular parties based on the record of the party and the winnablity of its candidate. The only exception is the Hindu communal parties, like BJP and Shiv Sena which have a clear anti-Muslim agenda.
Even these anti-Msulim parties have tried hard to show that they are not anti-Muslim and have included in their agendas some promises for Muslim uplift. Muslim organizations are also supporting Muslim candidates who are fighting elections as independents.
|The change in the Indian part of Kashmir was observed last year when people overwhelmingly took part in the provincial assembly elections.
Important DevelopmentAnother important development in these elections is that one of the two wings of the separatist Hurriyat Conference is not asking people this time round to boycott elections while Sajad Lone, a leading Kashmiri separatist who is the leader of People’s Conference, has for the first time since 1988 decided to take part in the polls.
The change in the Indian part of Kashmir was observed last year when people overwhelmingly took part in the provincial assembly elections. Hitherto the separatist groups had held that Kashmiris should not take part in elections before the solution of the problem of Kashmir.
Presently, there are no truly national parties which may be in a position to secure an overall majority in the next parliament and form a government on their own. Moreover, there is no political unity even among the secular parties as they operate more or less as regional or local parties.
For Election 2009, three political formations have emerged, headed by the INC, the BJP and the Left. This leaves out a few unattached parties which are now talking of a fourth front.
A new alignment will emerge after the elections in which many of the parties now in the third and fourth fronts will go back to the Congress-led coalition.
Muslims will still be out of the political equation due to their disunity.