In 1977, when all of India was in the throes of the JP movement, the southern state of Karnataka was a rare exception. Led by Devraj Urs’s immaculate coalition of backwards, Dalits and minorities, the Congress had managed to retain the state despite a hostile political environment across the country.
Indira Gandhi, the brilliant social tactician that she was, learnt from the Karnataka experiment and scaled up the electoral coalition into the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) experiment for the rest of India (with dollops of help from Madhav Singh Solanki in Gujarat). Throughout the 80s, Congress (I) relied upon the KHAM vote bank to win elections—definitely a cone down from the rainbow coalition of almost all social groups that the original Indian National Congress had built through the freedom movement.
This new social experiment by Congress and Indira had many unintended consequences which totally altered India’s political landscape. For the first time, specialized political movements began to take shape that catered to specific social groups (the Dravidian movement preceding this was based on a platform of larger linguistic/cultural political scope rather than representing any particular social group). This paradigm was fundamentally different from the JP experiment which had actually replaced one rainbow coalition with another rather than attempt any radical social change.
But the first and immediate reaction to Indira’s experiment also came from Karnataka. Feeling left out by the Urs coalition, the powerful middle and upper castes of the state—Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Brahmins—came together under the Janata tent created by Ramakrishna Hegde, that consummate political thinker. The second reaction to the Indira experiment was more militant and had far-reaching implications for Indian polity. Indeed, Mandal politics has come to dominate the political landscape for close to three decades now as specific caste-based parties became the prime movers on the electoral chessboard in politically significant northern India (even a BSP, which emerged as Dalit-specific political party, was built along similar lines).
Throughout these three decades, the close to 20%-strong and almost evenly spread electoral group of Muslims kept oscillating between the national stream of the Congress and the regional stream of caste-based parties. Such an oscillation created the now infamous ‘Secularism Politics’, which was nothing but a euphemism for adding the Muslim vote bank to the core-vote kitty. Muslim voters were happy to be mere addendum to add electoral firepower to a party rather than emerging as core-voters themselves. Of course, all of this changed in the summer of 2014.
Among other things, the emergence of Narendra Modi on the Indian political scene all but ended the Mandal cycle of specific socio-political movements and created another rainbow coalition (which we have termed as the ‘United Spectrum of Hindu Votes’). To that extent, we have come full circle now in terms of ‘rainbow social coalitions’. As a corollary, the Muslim vote simply lost its electoral firepower almost overnight. We first witnessed this phenomenon last year when BJP won close to 80% seats in the Rajasthan assembly elections despite Muslims voting overwhelmingly for the Congress. Then, in the summer elections, we saw an even greater erosion of importance of the Muslim vote when BJP+ won a whopping 73 seats in UP despite tactical voting by large sections of the Muslim populace to defeat the saffron party.
Turnout was really the key factor in 2014 as more and more Hindus had the incentive to go out and vote, unlike the two previous elections. Thus, that additional 8% turnout from a larger electorate base meant an addition of nearly 14 crore votes in absolute terms (13,67,14,592 to be precise) as compared to 2009. In the past, while Muslim voter turnout was unusually high, average voter turnout would be much lower, but in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, average voter turnout was either at par with the Muslim turnout or was only slightly lower. This is why the ‘United Spectrum of Hindu Votes’ was able to trounce the veto enjoyed by the Muslim voter.
Slowly but surely, the average Muslim voter has begun to realize that he can no longer enjoy the luxury of being just an addendum in the vote jungle of Indian elections. The question now is how do we chart the future trajectory of the Muslim vote and understand which way the Indian polity is heading. Over the years, our political class has carefully cultivated a nationally widespread Muslim vote bank which, although not a monolith, is known to largely vote unidirectionally during elections. What options does such a Muslim vote bank have in the foreseeable future?
The Primary Direction for this neo-Muslim vote is towards the creation of a Muslim-centric political outfit along the lines of caste-based parties (especially in the heartland) which could then exclusively cater to the Muslim vote bank as their core constituency and then form social coalitions with other marginal Hindu castes to become electorally viable. Such an experiment has already been attempted locally in various Muslim-dominated pockets with varying degrees of failure.
Let us first take the example of two of the largest states in India—Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra—where the Muslim parties have caught media attention disproportionate to their own electoral presence. In Maharashtra, AIMIM got 0.9% of the total votes in the recent assembly elections—4,89,614 votes—which gave them a grand tally of two assembly seats. Similarly in Uttar Pradesh, the two big Muslim parties, QED (Qaumi Ekta Dal) and Peace Party, together won six assembly seats in 2012 owing to their ‘impressive’ 3% vote share which amounted to a grand total of 22,01,810 votes in all of UP.
This electoral scenario dramatically alters as we travel to states where Muslims are either a majority or close to being a majority. For instance, in Kerala, the Muslim League managed to win 20 of the 23 assembly seats it contested in 2011, with 8%—3,83,670 in absolute numbers—of total votes. In Assam, the AIUDF got an impressive 17,37,415 votes or 13% of the total votes, which resulted in a tally of 18 MLAs in 2011. Finally, in Kashmir in 2008, even if one just accounts for the two major Muslim regional players, the National Conference and the PDP their vote share was a big 39%, which amounts to 15,25,193 votes, and a tally of 49 seats in an 87-member assembly.
The bottom line is that Muslim-centric parties have a maximum share of 80 lakh votes across India which amounts to less than 1% of the total number of the country’s eligible voters—roughly 85 crore (83,41,01,479 in the 2014 general elections). So, at the outset, a pan-India Muslim League of the 21st century looks like a non-starter.
Yet, one of the unintended consequences of the new Modi rainbow social coalition could be the creation of a new Muslim-centric political alliance in India as the Muslim voter gets desperate to rediscover his value. Attempts have already been made to bring all these sub-regional Muslim parties like AIUDF, AIMIM and Peace Party under one tent to create a pan-India outfit, but these attempts have been half-hearted till now. Once the Modi electoral juggernaut gains greater momentum by winning more and more states and the realization that the ‘secular parties’ are no longer viable alternatives begins to invade the Muslim psyche, the creation of a new Muslim League could become inevitable.
What the new ‘Muslim League’ desperately needs is a semblance of a national leadership—a Jinnah of the 21st century who could potentially offer a moderate media/ public face. Such a Muslim League could easily take off on the fuel of a huge national electoral chunk proportionally equivalent to the size of the Congress vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls!
If such a Muslim League were to exist in 2019, it could potentially vie for a huge 12.5 crore vote pie and if it were to cleverly add some of the disgruntled marginal Hindu castes as extra votes to its kitty by accruing some of the by-then dismantled political apparatus of the erstwhile regional parties (essentially, the mirror replicas of say the M-Y combos of Lalu Prasad Yadav/ Mulayam Singh Yadav or the Dalit + Muslim potency of Mayawati), then such a political outfit could even become the main opposition to a Modi-led BJP.
The Second Direction for this neo-Muslim vote is to go is in no direction at all, or in other words, to maintain the status quo. This is the easiest option that has been available to the average Muslim voter for almost three decades now, wherein he simply chooses the most viable party among the Congress and the assortment of regional alternatives in order to defeat the BJP.
Many of the regional parties, desperately trying to remain relevant in the wake of Modi’s development politics, are already coming together by trying to once again recreate the Janata Dal. While on the other hand, Congress is reaching out to its splinter groups like TMC and is even open to a broad alliance with the Communists. Although it is too premature to either plot the trajectory of such political realignments or gauge the potency of these political overtures, the impact of these new political realities on a desperate Muslim vote cannot be ignored.
In the eventuality that the Muslim vote remains in limbo, pulled by the different political pressures of the ‘secular polity’, then it would be virtually a repeat of the 2014 scenario. The Muslim vote would once again be pulled between the Congress front and the Janata front without really adding any electoral lethality. In case both these fronts come together in a grand alliance (unlikely at present due to disparity of egos), it could potentially help the counter-mobilization of the Modi rainbow coalition which may only end up being stronger.
There is of course a Third Direction in which the neo-Muslim vote could flow. In the early and mid-1940s, if someone were to suggest that the Congress could be the eventual home of Muslim votes in India, it would possibly have only evoked laughter from both political pundits of that time as well as the general public. The mood in India in the 1940s was one of deep divisions as the Muslim League was the overwhelming recipient of the Muslim vote while the Congress by and large got the Hindu vote. Yet, within a decade, by the 1950s, the Congress had ended up becoming the number one choice of India’s Muslims.
The current Indian political scenario is somewhat similar to that of the 1940s. Will history repeat itself and the precedent of the expansion of a rainbow coalition go along a similar trajectory? Can our new Prime Minister win the trust of neo-Muslims? Can the average Muslim voter shun a fundamentalist worldview and embrace the politics of development? Can the Muslim religious leadership change its medieval mindset and upgrade itself to the 21st century?
One possible highway for the Indian Muslim vote to reach the BJP passes from Srinagar to Delhi via Calcutta. The ongoing Jammu and Kashmir elections are a historic opportunity for Muslims as well as Modi and the BJP to reach out to each other. BJP’s newly discovered friendship with Sajjad Lone and the portrayal of young, educated, fresh women Muslim faces like Darakhshan Andrabi, Neelam Gaash and Hina Bhatt in the valley are all very positive steps which have opened doors hitherto always locked and the keys thrown into the Jhelum.
How Kashmir reacts to BJP’s overtures and how that is marketed across India will possibly determine the Indian Muslim’s first reactions towards this third possible direction. The second pitstop on this highway is likely to come in Bengal where early reports indicate a massive churn among the restive Muslim populace fed up with lack of development.