Three decades of anti-BJPism hasn’t brought much for India’s Muslim community. It hasn’t helped refine the political strategies of non-BJP parties either. And Indian democracy is poorer for it.
By now, it has been proved beyond doubt that Muslims cannot stop the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from coming to power. Muslims comprise 14.2 per cent of Indians and despite dominating stray constituencies, they are no longer the deciding factor, at least in national politics. There are only 15 Lok Sabha constituencies where more than 50 per cent voters are Muslim. In the rest of the 528 seats, Muslims don’t hold the relative power to sway the election result anymore.
Since the 1990s, especially after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a new era of anti-BJPism ushered in where Muslims especially started to vote for the party that stood the best chance to defeat the BJP. Obviously, this strategy didn’t work. In states like Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is now able to get nearly 50 per cent of the polled votes. It is evident that the BJP, when it comes to welfare, is not bothered about Muslims. The BJP does not have a single Muslim MLA in UP but that hardly creates any problem for the party.
The BJP has worked assiduously on the project of creating a Hindu-Muslim binary and proved that a party can rule India without the support of Muslim voters. It is one of the most tragic tales of Indian politics as well as of our democracy.
So, what are the consequences of this? In this article, I argue that the anti-BJPism of Muslims has created unintended distortions in the Opposition space and is making the political parties lazy.
Opposition parties take Muslims for granted
Any party, just by virtue of being the strongest opposition to the BJP, can get most of the Muslim votes in a constituency. In Hindi-speaking, areas politicians often say: जो बीजेपी के खिलाफ सबसे मजबूत नजर आएगा, उसे मुसलमान वोट दे देंगे! – Anyone seen as the strongest contender of the BJP will get Muslim votes.
This implies two things: One, that the party or candidate is not required to do anything for the betterment of the Muslim electorate. Two, the work done or promises made to the community are no longer the criteria to get Muslim votes. If a candidate can garner, or just create an impression that they would get, the largest chunk of non-BJP votes, it automatically makes them the foremost claimant to the Muslim votes as well. In most cases, the candidate may eventually get the largest share of Muslim votes and endorse the belief.
It is true that anti-Muslim politics of the BJP has pushed the community to the wall, leaving Muslims with very little manoeuvring space in a communitarian ethnic politics. But even by the yardsticks of teleology, their endeavour to stop the BJP with this strategy is not succeeding. In states where the BJP has lost the election, the marginalisation of Muslims continues. Take, for example, the case of Delhi. Muslims overwhelmingly sided with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2020 election, but despite winning 62 seats in the 70-member assembly, the party failed to do anything to contain the riots in the aftermath of the election result. Security and safety are major concerns for Muslims today but it seems that the secular parties are not delivering even the bare minimum.
Rather, these so-called secular parties have become lazy and complacent because they are getting a large number of votes without putting any real effort. If a party in Uttar Pradesh can manage even 10 per cent of its own votes along with the impression that no other non-BJP party has such numbers, theoretically it can garner 19.3 per cent additional Muslim votes (percentage of Muslim population in UP according to 2011 Census). With almost 30 per cent votes, it will become the principal opposition party in the most electorally crucial state in India. While it won’t be able to defeat the BJP with this vote share, it will manage to survive politically.
Where Opposition needs to focus now
The key to stopping the BJP is not to get BJP votes. It’s like a game of football where the midfielders make the move, take the ball near the goalpost and then anyone in the forward line can put the ball in.
In the game of Indian politics, the BJP is well entrenched in its own half and is playing the ball in the Opposition’s territory. To defeat the BJP, the Opposition has to create moves at the midfield – the territory where it must garner the Hindu votes. The support of Muslims will matter only when the Opposition dominates the midfield.
If they are expecting that Muslims will create the move in the midfield and also score the goal, then that is simply not possible and that’s why it’s not happening either.
So, the question is not about which non–BJP party is getting the Muslim votes. The more relevant question is which secular party is able to get enough Hindu votes.
As we now know, CSDS Lokniti data has also shown that in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu ‘upper caste’ is voting overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP. That leaves the secular Opposition with only two voting blocs where it can hope to get some traction – the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (SCs). But the BJP has made deep inroads in these communities as well.
If any political party is seriously taking up the task of defeating the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, it needs to galvanise these Hindu votes. Muslim votes can still make them a political force to reckon with, but it won’t be enough to bring them to power.
It is also time that the Muslim community realise when a party is taking their votes for granted and start demanding more from the secular parties. It’s not a bad option to have political formations led by Muslims.
That will force the secular parties to synthesise secularism with social justice and other democratic ideas.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)