Why Indian Muslims can no longer be ignored – OPED

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SHAFAQNA - It would perhaps be a revelation for many that the Indian Muslim voter carries influence in over 200 Lok Sabha seats across India where he or she constitutes a minimum of 11 per cent of the popular vote. Yet the share of the Indian Muslim in the political space of India, nationally and regionally, has been negligible so far and continues to decline steadily, leading to a serious question mark on the inclusive nature of our polity and the myopic nature of political strategies, prevalent in all “secular” parties, when it comes to Muslims.

Representation

In the current Lok Sabha for instance, Muslim representation went down to a historic low of 22 seats. Muslims constitute 14.2 per cent as per the 2011 Census so proportionally speaking they should have had 77 seats in the 16th Lok Sabha. Thus, the under-representation rate stands at a whopping 71.42 per cent for Indian Muslims.

Since independence, the highest number of Muslim MPs ever sent to Parliament was 49 in 1980 and even back then Muslims were under-represented. This has been a phenomenon Indian Muslims are contending with since the first General Election in 1952.

Although the BJP did coin a phrase of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” in the run-up to the 2014 elections, acknowledging the importance of appealing to the minority vote, by making a perceptional shift in its brand of politics, it did not take the extra step of providing due representation to Muslims.

For instance not a single Lok Sabha seat was given to Muslims in Uttar Pradesh by the BJP which accounts for over 3.5 crore Muslims and a lion’s share seats in Parliament. Of course, the BJP in the short term was banking on reaping the gains of a covert majoritarian consolidation, post the Muzaffarnagar riots in UP, which did take place as per its game plan. But its failure to meaningfully co-opt Muslims in its power structure can be considered as a lost opportunity from the long term perspective of reinventing itself as a truly representative party. Even when you look at the states, except for the state of Jammu and Kashmir which has a Muslim majority, there has not been a Muslim chief minister in India since 1982!

The last one was AR Antulay from the Congress party who served as the Maharashtra CM between 1980-82. Apart from him, India since independence has had five Muslim chief ministers. Just one of them MOH Farook, managed to complete a five-year term. Political under-representation of Muslims well exceeds 50 per cent in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Strategy

In the 2014 elections, 1.7 lakh first time voters (FTVs) were added to every parliamentary constituency, of which almost 90,000 are in the age group of 18-22 years. Sixty-four per cent of Muslims, as per the NSSO survey, are below the age of 30 years. In 2010, the media age of Muslims in India was 22 compared to 26 for Hindus and 28 for Christians. As per the latest census, the population of India below 35 years of age is 51.8 per cent. It’s quite clear, when you read the above statistics together, that purely in proportional terms, Indian Muslims constitute a larger part of this young, first time voter. Given the rise in voter turn-out across state elections since 2012 and the 2014 General Election, it can be safely concluded that more young Muslims are voting and making their voice heard.

Another factor that every party is now trying to focus on is the “urban vote”. If one considers the statistics in this regard, about 3,000 towns form part of about 200 urbane Lok Sabha seats. Now, when it comes to the urban vote as well, it would be interesting to note that according to the 2001 Census 35.7 per cent of the Muslim population was urban compared to 27.8 per cent for the overall population. Thus, the proportionate influence Muslim voters wield in urban areas is also higher.

It is time that national parties realise a few self-evident truths: Firstly, that any long-term future strategy of electoral and political success cannot discount the influence of the Muslim voter. There must be a concerted effort to mainstream young, grass-roots Muslim leaders, working actively on a sociopolitical, socioeconomic agendas, into the political mainstream by giving them tickets to contest, appointing them to leadership roles within the party organisation and accommodating them within other structures of political power and to do away with “sarkari Muslims” who mean nothing to the community and have become objects of ridicule.

Secondly, parties must not package them just as just “Muslim leaders” because most issues of Muslims, evidently coincide with the issues of other young, urban and other equally-deprived citizens of the country. There is no gain in having exclusivist agendas for Muslims. Electorally that pays little dividend and would end up benefiting the party that resorts to polarisation of non-Muslim votes.

Identity

Of course identity is a major issue for Muslims, particularly when a saffron agenda is being unleashed with impunity, but such issues will not strike a chord with the intended audience unless voiced by those with whom the community can identify with in the first place. The earliest opportunity for parties to test this would be in West Bengal (42), Assam (14) and Uttar Pradesh (80). These states will go to poll in 2016 and 2017 and are three of the six states in India where the number of voters between 18 and 19 years of age per constituency is higher than the national average. As per 2001 Census, population of Muslims in these states was about 25.2 per cent, 18.5 per cent and 30.9 per cent respectively, well above the national average of 13.4 per cent.

The key to success for any party would be on the integrity and commitment it shows in negotiating a meaningful, participatory political dialogue with Muslims. Anything short of that would be seen as mere lip service and may well facilitate the rise of parties with exclusivist agendas, polarising the landscape with a majority versus minority narrative.

By Shehzad Poonawala

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Shafaqna

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