By Hilal Ahmed
There are two features that politically distinguish the Muslims of Bihar. They participate in all kinds of political processes while retaining their socio-religious identities. Although this form of political participation is not exclusively Bihar-centric as Muslims in other parts of India, too, are actively involved in various kinds of politics, the enthusiasm with which politics as a sanctified activity is imbibed in the cultural universe of Muslim communities of Bihar is certainly unique. Secondly, the upsurge of Pasmanda politics in the 1990s, which raised the question of internal power structures among Muslims, has transformed the debate on affirmative action in the country. Thus, it is imperative to ask: do Muslims vote as a political community in Bihar?
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A CSDS-Lokniti survey of 2014 offers some interesting trends. It shows that over 60 per cent Muslims (including OBC Muslims) went with the Congress-RJD alliance, while 21 per cent went with the JD(U). Muslims, as was expected, overwhelmingly rejected the BJP. This is also true about the Yadav votes. The RJD again emerged as their first choice. Is it thus appropriate to say that the Yadav-Muslim alliance has resurfaced as an important configuration to counter the Modi-BJP? If that is the case, can we say that “defeating” the BJP or securing “secularism” might provoke Muslims to act as a political community in an electoral sense?
In the 2010 assembly election, Muslim OBCs simply went with the Congress. However, it did not affect the Muslim support of the RJD as both general and OBC Muslims continued to support it. What is most interesting is the noticeable Muslim backing to the BJP, which emerged a significant choice for both categories of Muslims.
However, a very different political picture comes up in 2014. Though Muslim OBCs did go with the JD(U) to a significant extent, the RJD was the first choice for most Muslims.
These figures lead us to a general inference that Muslims in Bihar do act collectively as an electoral group. However, this general conclusion needs to be qualified. Two possible interpretations can be drawn. It is true that the BJP’s aggressive politics and Modi-centric campaign played a role in organising Muslims at the state level. But this reconfiguration was not unidirectional. Muslims, it seems, did not follow any active agenda in trying to defeat the BJP. The Muslim vote was divided among the political formations that offered various socially cohesive alternatives.
Secondly, we must note that the big electoral ideas — development, poverty eradication and even protection of secular values — actually translate at a constituency level. Muslims voters, like other social groups, perceive these slogans in their own locally constituted political universe and respond to them accordingly. The fragmented Muslim vote share secured by various parties in 2014 demonstrates this aspect well. Modi’s anti-Muslim image or BJP’s pro-Hindu politics, in this sense, is not necessarily received by Muslims at constituency level in a homogenous way.
The overwhelming support from Muslim communities to non-BJP parties in 2014 indicate a strong possibility that the RJD-JD(U) coalition would secure a significant Muslim vote. This possibility, however, should also be understood in relation to the nature of this coalition. The JD(U), which has been advocating Pasmanda politics for a long time, might get the support of Pasmanda groups; at the same time, the RJD, which had secured most of the Muslim votes in the last election, might consolidate the Muslim-Yadav equitation. In other words, the possibility that Muslims will support the grand alliance is inextricably linked to the internal Muslim diversity of Bihar. In fact, the debate on the possible fragmentation of Muslim votes after the AIMIM’s decision to contest in Seemanchal should also be seen in relation to Muslim social heterogeneity.
Muslims’ political responses in Bihar, nevertheless, have shown that their political identity functions like a pendulum that oscillates between extreme ends-— sociological diversity constituted at constituency level and the perceptible political homogeneity that is often given to them by forces like the BJP. It would be interesting to observe the trajectory of this political identity in the 2015 election, which, in any case, is going to redefine the nature of our competitive politics.
The author is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
This article is part of a series from Lokniti-CSDS that analyses various dimensions of Bihar politics using evidence from surveys conducted by Lokniti over the last two decades