The perennial regret of the BJP had always been that Muslims punch way above their deserved political weight in India. It was stated most pithily in conversations by BJP leader, key intellectual voice and my former colleague in the Express Group, Balbir Punj. “Muslims,” he said, “have a veto on who will rule India and who won’t.”
The timing of that conversation was just after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s second NDA government had been defeated in the Lok Sabha by a solitary vote in 1999 as all ‘secular’ parties came together against it. Not long ago (1996), Vajpayee’s first NDA government was defeated in all of 13 days.
The second NDA government lasted just over a year, and Punj made an arguable case that everyone who had any interest in seeking the Muslim vote, or fear of losing it, was happy to bury the hatchet to deny BJP power. The Muslim vote was much too valuable for them to lose, and their commitment to secular values, in that view stated by Punj, was merely a cynical cover. I bet this view would have been further strengthened after UPA-1 came up, with even the Left supporting the Congress-led government, all to keep the BJP out. The difference in seats between the Congress and the BJP was marginal then, 145 to 138.
The BJP had, at various points of time, tried to reach out to Muslims. Vajpayee himself was the party’s friendliest and most inclusive face for minorities, L.K. Advani cultivated many prominent Muslim intellectuals, even the Muslim-Left. From participating in Muslim festivals to praise for Jinnah, to the choice of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Vajpayee-Advani BJP tried to breach the fortress of Muslim voters. But the party lacked conviction, and failed.
The BJP translated this as the Muslim veto on who will rule India. The UPA decade, when the BJP’s power declined across the country, strengthened that view. Then, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah rose in 2014, and turned the equation upside down, or inside out, take your pick. They won a full majority without much — if any — help from India’s Muslim voters.
A new template had been set in Indian politics. Many BJP leaders were upfront with it: “We have now accepted we have to fight in a field with only 80 per cent voters, leaving Muslims and most Christians out.” Once they accepted that reality, the challenge was simple: “Get about 50 per cent of that Hindu vote, and we could rule India with a comfortable majority.” They proved this again in 2019.
A most unexpected transformation in Indian politics had come about: The large Muslim population, now nearly 20 crore, had been rendered electorally irrelevant. Don’t buy into any folklore about Muslim women being grateful for the triple talaq ban, or aspirational younger Muslims having voted for the BJP. Demographic analysis of every reliable exit poll underlines this for us. It stunned the BJP’s ‘secular’ rivals. It also left the Muslims searching for answers.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of one of our 20 crore Muslims, and the picture may look something like this: My vote has lost its power, alright. But, should I be deprived even my rightful place in the power structure?
The Modi cabinet, in its sixth year now, has only one Muslim: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, in charge of minority affairs. It is also one of those unfamiliar junctures in our history — and it’s a long one — when none of the key constitutional positions, President, Vice-President, Speaker of Lok Sabha, heads of armed forces, security and intelligence agencies, Election Commission or the judiciary, feature any Muslims.
There isn’t one state with a Muslim chief minister and the one that might have needed to have one, Jammu and Kashmir, isn’t even a state any more. None of the secretaries in the key ministries is a Muslim, nor any important regulator. We can search deeper, but in my quick recollection, Nasim Zaidi as Chief Election Commissioner (2015-17) was the last Muslim to hold a constitutional position of consequence, besides Hamid Ansari, of course. Among India’s 37 states and union territories, there are just two Muslim governors: Najma Heptullah and Arif Mohammed Khan. Where does it leave me in today’s India?
We know the arguments from the BJP: Sabka saath, sabka vikas, to begin with. The absence of major communal riots being the next. Then, we can go on. As stories by ThePrint’s reporters Sanya Dhingra and Fatima Khan have recently shown, under the Modi government, the success rate of Muslim candidates in IAS etc., has, if anything, risen marginally and more minority scholarships are going to the community’s students than under the UPA.
But certainly, a 15 per cent population in a truly equal state would believe it also deserves a place in the sun, a slice of the power and governance pie. We will give you the post-2014 BJP’s answer to this: “You can’t first insist on voting against us en bloc, as if we are enemies, and then also demand a share in power. Much chutzpah?”
The question we are raising, by choosing a headline like “Do Indian Muslims matter?”, draws precisely from this and seeks to argue against this deeply diluted and qualified notion of constitutional equality. You have your vote, scholarships, jobs and opportunity. For a share of power, maybe you should rethink your voting choices.
Or, too bad that 15 per cent of you are so scattered as to count for no more than 27 Muslim MPs in this Lok Sabha. You’ve seen this model elsewhere. The large Muslim minority in Israel is the only Arabic population anywhere to have a free and equal vote, safety, economic and social opportunity. But the political office they can rise to, a place in the governance structure, is limited. It’s a republic, but a Zionist republic. The new deal for Muslims in India also seems to be a similar one. Except, India was never imagined or designed to be a Hindu republic. That is where this argument fails.
Indian Muslims are not a monolith, nor are the subcontinent’s. Think about this. Forty per cent of all of the world’s Muslims live in the subcontinent. And yet, the number of the region’s Muslims in ISIS has never crossed a few low hundreds. Of these, Indians have never reached even three figures. Why is it so?
It is essentially because the subcontinent’s Muslims have a strong nationalism of their own in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. They have a flag, an anthem, a cricket team to support, and politicians to adore or detest. The fantasy of a Caliphate as a mythical new and pristinely Islamic nation-state has no lure for them. In different parts of the subcontinent, Muslims also lean on diverse denominators or identities: Language, ethnicity, culture, political ideology, and not just religion. Bangladesh came into being as cultural and linguistic identity took precedence over the religion-driven two-nation theory.
This is a great strength of the region, and no liability. It applies most of all to India. The continued isolation and sullenness of the Muslim minority at their post-2014 irrelevance is not what India needs. Don’t confuse silence for acquiescence. Indian Muslims have also grown a new middle-class. An educated and professional elite has emerged. They no longer follow the old dynastic Left-Urdu aristocracies or the Ulema (clergy) as their leaders. As young Delhi University scholar Asim Ali wrote in an article last week, they are now asking them tough questions. Punishing them for their voting preferences may bring some vengeful, serves-you-right joy. But it will be self-defeating. No country or society ever prospered or remained secure by marginalising more than one-sixth of its own.