They don’t vote in a bloc. Parties will need to approach the community armed with more than vote bloc guesswork.
It’s often said that Indians don’t so much cast their vote as vote their caste. This is supposed to be even more true for minority voters, with claims that parties deliberately cultivate votebanks and India’s minorities frequently vote as a bloc. But this view needs rethinking. Research on Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh demonstrates that, in fact, they often cross identity lines in order to make pragmatic decisions about who to vote for based on local considerations. As we analyse the 2014 campaign, especially in large battleground states like UP, where over one-third of the seats will go to the polls in the last two phases, it is worth drawing upon the lessons of the 2012 UP assembly elections.
During the 2012 assembly election, I surveyed Muslim voters across 45 assembly constituencies to study how they responded to party strategies and local constituency dynamics. Muslims, I found, do not vote as a cohesive bloc. Overall, approximately 54 per cent of Muslim voters supported the Samajwadi Party and 20 per cent supported the Bahujan Samaj Party. In contrast, only 8 per cent supported the Congress.
While the SP has traditionally gained the largest chunk of Muslim votes, the BSP has been making great strides among Muslims. Communal violence has been low under BSP governments. Since 1989, the BSP in UP has consistently included the highest percentage of Muslims in their candidate lists. The SP has only matched this percentage since 2007.
The BSP’s efforts have rendered it a realistic option for many Muslim voters, who have proven willing to change party choice from election to election. In 2012, 57 per cent reported changing their party choice from 2007. Importantly, this trend is not limited to Muslims; according to 2007 survey data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 47 per cent of all voters changed their party choice between 2002 and 2007. Neither Muslims nor the larger population are beholden to a particular party. This makes it difficult for them to vote cohesively.
Another misperception is that religious leaders steer minority votes. Over 50 per cent of survey respondents claimed that the Shahi Imam’s endorsement of the SP in 2012 had no impact on their vote choice. If voters are not particularly influenced by religious or community leaders, bloc voting again seems an unlikely phenomenon.
Except for some loyalists, voters in India are generally interested in supporting the party most likely to win, and my interviews indicated that Muslims in UP are no exception. A constituency’s MLA has a major impact on the well being of her constituents. An MLA can disburse funds purely on her own discretion and intervene on behalf of voters in matters ranging from medical care to continued…