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 police cases. A pragmatic voter would like to vote for the winning candidate because she believes she is more likely to benefit if the candidate she voted for wins.
As a result, local factors play an important role in determining an individual’s vote choice. My interviews revealed that voters paid close attention to local dynamics, the record of the candidate and the local vote base of each party. Most respondents were aware of the caste composition of their constituencies and used this information to make an educated guess about which party was most likely to win and, therefore, who they should support. An analysis of my survey data showed that voters were more likely to vote for the
BSP than the SP when the Yadav population in their constituencies was low. Voters were also more likely to support the Rashtriya Lok Dal over the SP when the Jat population was higher.
Even these findings, however, do not indicate that all Muslims in such constituencies voted for the BSP or RLD. On average, only half the Muslims within a constituency supported the same party, with the other half dividing their support across multiple parties. So we do not even see cohesive voting within individual constituencies. Why not? One major reason is that UP elections feature many competing parties, each with continuously shifting support bases. Voters thus face a complex task in working out which party is likely to win, and therefore which bandwagon to join.
The 2012 UP assembly elections can also tell us about vote bloc dynamics in 2014. Before the 2012 elections, the BJP was a weak force in the state, winning only 47 of 403 seats. In 2014, however, polls show a BJP resurgence. Are Muslim voters likely to change how they vote in response? It is safe to say that the vast majority of Muslim voters are unlikely to support the BJP in 2014, even though the BJP might seem like the likely winner in many constituencies. However, tactically voting against the BJP is also unlikely.
If UP were a two-party state, voting tactically against the BJP would be simple. But the state is home to two strong regional parties in addition to the two national parties. In the 2009 national elections, the BSP, Congress and SP all won approximately 20 seats from UP. More importantly, the competition within each constituency is also between more than two parties. If a Muslim voter were to vote tactically against the BJP, which party would she pick? As in 2012, in 2014 we can expect many voters to try to support the most likely winner apart from the BJP, but this is a difficult prediction to make. Margins of victory within most constituencies tend to be small and different voters are likely to come to different conclusions about which party is likely to win.
How then can we assess the influence of Muslim voters in elections? Parties would like to believe that by gaining the support of prominent leaders, they can efficiently add a large vote bloc to their tally. It is easier to plan a campaign when one believes that a few individuals control the will and political choices of many. This has allowed previous governments in UP to pay little attention to the relatively high levels of socio-economic deprivation among Muslims. On the other hand, the fact that Muslims do not vote as a bloc has started to change party behaviour.
As the BSP demonstrates with its nomination of Muslim candidates, Muslim votes are coveted and covetable. In 2012, for the first time in the history of the UP state assembly, the percentage of Muslim MLAs matched the percentage of Muslims in the population. Whether or not Muslim MLAs actually enhance Muslim welfare is an open question. Interestingly, survey analysis showed that Muslims were not more likely to support a party that nominated a Muslim candidate in their constituency.
The fact that Muslims do not vote as a bloc does not indicate that their influence is insignificant, but rather that they cannot be ignored in a state like UP. Parties should have strong incentives to not exclude any particular group, but to focus their campaign and policy efforts towards inclusive development. Rather than vote bloc guesswork, the real work for a party should be to deliver benefits when in office
so that they aren’t voted out with such consistency.
The writer is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in the department of political science, Yale University, US