Many seemingly contradictory conclusions have emerged from the recent assembly polls. Self-styled spokesmen of the Muslim community may have railed against the Congress’s continuous treatment of their community as a captive vote bank. Yet, according to the Lokniti-CSDS poll published in The Indian Express (‘Behind BJP, Upper Castes, OBCs and Rich’, October 21), 53 per cent of Muslims voted for the party. If the figures are to be believed, these “spokesmen” need to get in touch with their own community at the grassroots. Again, notwithstanding the continuing arrests of Muslims on terror charges under the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-controlled state home ministry, Sharad Pawar’s party got the second highest percentage of the Muslim vote: 16 per cent. Five candidates from the Congress and one from the NCP got elected.
What explains this continuing trust among almost 70 per cent of Maharashtra’s Muslims in the two parties that have ruled them for 15 years, but done little for them? Could it be the enduring legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, seen as the architect of our secularism? Or of Indira Gandhi, still remembered by elderly Muslims as a friend of the poor, thanks to her rural welfare schemes? Could it be the fear of the Sena-BJP, which the “secular” parties, especially the oldest of them, the Congress, have always invoked to keep Muslims under their wing? For the average Muslim in Maharashtra, Narendra Modi invokes the same fear and loathing that former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray did.
This fear was played up to the hilt during the Lok Sabha campaign, again by self-styled Muslim “leaders” (with generous Congress backing), who were alarmed at the way their youth was deserting its “secular protectors” and turning to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party in droves. But six months later, many of the same “leaders” were rooting for Modi and Uddhav Thackeray, to “teach the Congress-NCP a lesson that they can’t take us for granted”. For the first time, the BJP won 13 per cent of the Muslim vote, even more than the Shiv Sena’s 11 per cent. Even the strident “love jihad” and “Hindutva-is-India’s-identity” campaign by the BJP/ RSS in the four months of Modi’s rule at the Centre didn’t drive Maharashtra’s Muslims away completely.
Why did one-fourth of them vote for the saffron parties?
The Congress is primarily responsible. It has ruled the state since its formation in 1960, except for two brief intervals. Recurring communal riots, benevolence towards both Hindu rioters and the partisan police, and arrests, torture and prolonged imprisonment without trial of young Muslims for alleged acts of terror, have left the community seething. Indifference of and discrimination by the state, especially the bureaucracy, have led to 59 per cent of them living below the poverty line, in ghettos, lagging behind in education and employment — findings of the Mehmood-ur-Rehman Committee, set up in 2008 to study the community’s condition.
But these concerns have rarely been voiced either in the assembly or outside by the community’s leaders. Comprising 10.6 per cent of the state’s population, Muslims have never had more than 12 MLAs representing them out of a total of 288. Nominated as Muslims, elected by Muslims, and made ministers only for being Muslim, these representatives have betrayed their community to stick to power by remaining silent on the community’s problems — this is the bitter complaint.
Part of the reason for this betrayal lies in the kind of Muslims who are given tickets by the Congress. First, the party, despite its much-touted commitment to secularism, does not nominate Muslims from Hindu-dominated areas, arguing that they won’t win (thereby assuming that voters are communal). This can be countered by throwing the party’s weight behind the Muslim candidate. But actually working for secularism has never been thought worthwhile by the Congress.
Second, despite the presence in the party of educated, broad-minded Muslims who can work with all communities, successive chief ministers have deliberately given tickets to mostly uneducated and conservative Muslims, who prefer the company of their own kind, especially maulanas. The Congress’s thinking is that these are the kind of Muslims the community would vote for. Once elected, these worthies have neither the intellectual capacity nor the will to raise the community’s genuine issues, let alone work for them.
Despite knowing all this, Muslim intellectuals joined the majority of their community in Maharashtra to vote for the Congress-NCP in the Lok Sabha elections, hoping this would keep Modi out. But Modi’s triumph and the decimation of their parties brought home a bitter reality — for the first time, their votes didn’t matter. This feeling of abandonment, indeed, of disenfranchisement (voiced openly as a goal by some BJP and RSS members — remember the threat “Those who don’t vote Modi can go to Pakistan” by a BJP candidate from Bihar who won), alienated the community as never before. What happened next was sad — they accepted the harsh reality that a party could come to power without their votes, but instead of finding fault with the party for ignoring the country’s biggest minority, sections of politically active Muslims started blaming themselves for falling into the trap of the Congress’s vote-bank politics, which had kept them aloof from the “mainstream”.
This alienation was intensified by the strident anti-Muslim rhetoric of Modi’s supporters after he came to power, particularly during the Uttar Pradesh by-election campaign. But the BJP’s defeat in the UP bypolls, and the party’s subsequent dissociation from the venomous campaign, provided sections of the community’s leaders a straw they could clutch at. Then, both the longstanding alliances in Maharashtra broke, leaving every party and every candidate chasing every vote — even that of the “anti-national” Muslim. The result: a mention of Wakf land in the BJP manifesto (significantly, not in the Sena’s), and Muslims campaigning for both saffron parties.
But this alienation and frustration also led to another outcome — the successful debut of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in assembly elections outside its Hyderabad base. Its two victories and creditable performance in nine other constituencies of the 24 it contested are courtesy the emotional and religious exploitation of the community’s feeling of helplessness by the Owaisi brothers. Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi and Telengana MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi projected themselves as saviours of the threatened Muslim identity, the way Bal Thackeray used to for Hindus. While mostly unemployed and uneducated youngsters thronged their rallies, an alarming number of discerning and older Muslims saw nothing seriously wrong with their religious rhetoric. Indeed, their impassioned description of the wrongs done to Muslims gave them the halo of fearless champions of a cause no politician dared speak up for.
But there is a considerable number of Muslim intellectuals who despair at the isolation their community could be headed for if they followed the AIMIM’s polarising politics. They just need to remember that the Samajwadi Party, which encashed Muslim anger in the same manner after the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, was wiped out in the state within a decade and is today left with only one seat — that of its chief, Abu Asim Azmi. Second, Muslims form 10.6 per cent of the electorate. Only 0.9 per cent voted for the Owaisis. The community rejected 13 of 24 AIMIM candidates, choosing mainstream parties instead.
The writer is a freelance journalist