The Congress party's hat trick in Assam in the recent state polls almost overshadowed a significant development that marks what could be a new chapter in the Indian Muslim narrative.
Here, in only its third election, the six-year old Muslim-dominated All India United Democratic Front, floated by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, beat the BJP and the AGP to emerge as the main opposition force. It almost doubled its seats, from 10 to 18, came second in another 17 constituencies and bumped up its vote share from 9 per cent in 2006 to 13 per cent in 2011.
It was a remarkable achievement. Muslim political parties - with two honourable exceptions, the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala and the All India Majlis-Ittehad-ul-Muslameen in Hyderabad - have rarely been more than a flash-in-thepan phenomenon, never surviving beyond one election. But, as the rise of the AIUDF indicates, things seem to be changing.
Indian Muslims, like the Dalits and the OBCs, are increasingly rejecting the politics of patronage and opting for identity politics through community-based parties. In Assam, they've put their faith in the AIUDF. In Uttar Pradesh, it's the Peace Party of India that, in just three years, is making waves in Muslim pockets. And more recently, the ultra-conservative Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which has consistently opposed electoral politics as "haraam", announced its political debut with the launch of the Welfare Party of India.
The trend is bound to fracture India's complex electoral mosaic further. At the same time, it signals the start of a long over-due process of mainstreaming. For six decades, Muslims have functioned on the margins of Indian politics, haunted by insecurity to seek protection and patronage from the so-called secular parties.
In the aftermath of Partition and widespread communal violence, they turned to the Congress. Later, as the BJP rose, and the Congress declined, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, they surrendered their votes to regional secular formations like Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal.
Today, they are emerging from the shadows of fear to behave like other social groups that are leveraging their numbers through political parties of their own for a better deal. And like these groups, Muslims too are staking claim for their share of resources and more equitable development.
What is significant is that unlike past efforts by Muslim groups to mobilise community votes, the political idiom of the newer parties is notable for the absence of emotive, or communal, rhetoric. Mobilisation is no longer on the basis of religion. Parties like the AIUDF and PPI talk mainly of education, employment, health care and social justice.
The push for a new politics, according to Manzoor Alam, chairman of the Institute of Objective Studies, is coming from the youth who have understood the dynamics of the democratic electoral process and want to leverage it to fulfill their aspirations for a better life. "The idea is developing a better bargaining capacity for the community by influencing votes in Muslim-dominated pockets. It is a strategic and tactical move, nothing to do with communal polarisation, " he says. "Dalits and OBCs have their own resistance. Why not Muslims? They are only trying to get their due within the constitutional framework."
The eye-opener was the Sachar Committee report which, in 2006, mapped the community's falling human development indices in excruciating detail to declare Muslims as worse off than Dalits. "Muslims realised that mainstream secular parties have done nothing for them. They use Muslims during elections and then forget about them. They make promises without delivery, " says Alam. Since then, the community has been introspecting for effective ways to use its considerable numbers to get ahead.
Given the high level of trust deficit between Hindus and Muslims, there are many who see this as a dangerous trend. Certainly in Assam, the growing political strength of the AIUDF polarised the Hindu vote in favour of the Congress, especially in the communally-sensitive districts. But political scientist Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies disagrees. "I would say that Muslim politics is finally becoming normal, " he maintains. "Muslims are using their identity like everyone else. They trade it, bend it, stretch it, gerrymander it. Let me stress that it's not communal. The appeal is not Islam. It is identity. Muslim-ness is very much constitutive of that identity. "
The discernible shift in the mood on the ground has sent a frisson of anticipation through the community. It's the hot topic of debate in Urdu newspapers and on Muslim websites which have become platforms for avid discussions on the Jamaat's new political face or the success of the AIUDF. Interestingly, a survey done by psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh's C-Voter in November 2010 found that more than 50 per cent of Muslim students in minority colleges and madarsas wholeheartedly supported the idea of having political parties for, of and by the community.
While the Sachar Committee report was the catalyst for change, the BSP seems to have been the role model. "Muslims have seen how the BSP has given respectability and status to the Dalits, " says social activist Tanweer Alam. "White collar Dalits are coming forward and bargaining with Brahmins. They are talking as equals. After seeing the success of the BSP, Muslims have started realising the value of their vote."
Certainly, the AIUDF and PPI are trying to use the electoral calculus of the BSP to do their poll mathematics. In other words, cultivate a core community vote base and then add to it by putting up candidates from other social groups. The AIUDF, for instance, fielded as many as 30 non-Muslim candidates in the 80 odd seats it contested in Assam. Two of them actually won. The PPI in UP has recently entered into a coalition with seven non-Muslim parties including Ajit Singh's Jat-based Rashtriya Lok Dal.
The alliance has potential in western UP where the Jat-Muslim combination was used by Singh's father, Charan Singh, to lethal effect. Deshmukh acknowledges that he has started factoring in the PPI in his pre-poll surveys for UP where assembly elections are due in 2012.
These are early days yet, but community analysts believe that Muslim politics is finally coming of age in India. "Muslims have moved on, " says Aijaz Ilmi, editorial director of the Kanpur-based Siyasat group of publications. "For decades they were fed on a diet of Islam being in danger. Now they have realised that Muslims themselves are in danger of economic and educational obliteration. So they are taking matters into their own hands and realising that they have other options."
He believes that the Muslim psyche changed after the BJP was comprehensively defeated in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Suddenly, the BJP no longer looked invincible and it happened through the power of the ballot. It was a huge affirmation of democracy. This is borne out by Yadav's findings of the Muslim vote share in 2004. The morale of the community was so poor that it recorded a low voting percentage that year. But with their faith in the electoral process restored, Muslims came out in large numbers to vote in 2009, a trend that was seen again in the recent assembly elections.
Muslim politics is still evolving and it is too early to predict whether a pan-India Muslim party can come up or be successful. The community is as disparate and as divided on caste and regional lines as the Hindus.
But Manzoor Alam believes that the community is realising the importance of political mobilisation, if only to act as a pressure lobby. In West Bengal, for instance, where Muslims voted almost wholesale for Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (she won 70 per cent of the seats with sizeable minority populations), the All India Milli Council has formed a watchdog to monitor delivery on the party's election promises.
At the very least, it expects her to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee report by increasing the community's representation in government jobs, educational institutions and grassroots political bodies like panchayats and municipal boards. "If she fails to deliver, another Muslim political party may emerge in the state where Muslims are 28 per cent of the population," he warns.
Tanweer Alam too sees the trend increasing unless mainstream secular parties like the Congress start addressing the developmental aspirations of the community. "Muslims should vote for mainstream parties," he says. "Unfortunately, mainstream parties have ignored their needs for too long."
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