As political parties brace for the Lok Sabha elections, there is one enigmatic question about India’s 150 million Muslims. Do their votes matter? The question about their electoral insignificance is largely prompted by the BJP’s open anti-Muslim rhetoric and the Congress’ temple-hopping soft-Hindutva.
But the Muslim voting patterns in the state assembly elections conducted after Narendra Modi was elected in 2014 present a far more complex picture, including significant voting for the BJP.
There are three broad trends of Muslim voting in the Modi-era (2014-19).
Also read: 5 myths about Muslim voters in modern India
Politically diversified voting
Political heterogeneity is one of the determining aspects of the electoral behaviour of Muslim communities. Muslims voted for all political parties including the BJP in these elections. Although the non-BJP parties and regional coalitions remained the first choice of Muslim voters at the all-India level, the vote share of the BJP among Muslims in a few key states also increased significantly.
For instance, in Bihar assembly election, the mahagathbandhan secured 75 per cent of the Muslim votes and formed the government. Yet, around six per cent Muslim votes went to the BJP-led NDA.
Muslim votes were also fragmented in the UP election, where 65 per cent Muslims voted for the SP-led coalition, 19 per cent for the BSP and six per cent for the BJP, respectively.
This busts the myth of the ‘Muslim vote bank’. Muslims voted, as it appears, on class and caste lines and went along with the different state-specific electoral trends.
Muslim voting also points towards the centrality of state-specific politics. In Delhi assembly election, Muslims moved away significantly from the Congress and gave an overwhelming support to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). But this was not the case in Goa, where the Congress secured more Muslim votes than the AAP.
Two examples – Assam and Tamil Nadu – further elaborate this regional dimension of Muslim politics.
There are two dominant Muslim linguistic groups in Assam — Assamese Muslims and Bengali Muslims. These two groups always vote differently. This linguistic-political division emerged as an important factor in the 2016 assembly election as well.
Despite the BJP’s anti-Bangladeshi/anti-Muslim migrant-centric electoral campaign, which actually posed a serious challenge to the citizenship status of all Muslims in the state, the Muslim voters of Assam did not give up their linguistic considerations.
Assamese Muslims preferred the Congress, while the Bengali Muslims voted for both the Congress and the AIUDF. It shows that apart from religion, other sociological factors (in this case language and ethnicity) also play a more direct role in determining the political preferences of Muslims.
The Tamil Nadu example introduces us to a very different scenario. Although the AIADMK won the Tamil Nadu assembly election in 2016 and formed the government, the performance of the DMK-Congress alliance was not entirely insignificant, especially in terms of vote share. Both the AIADMK and the DMK received around 41 per cent votes.
The Muslim voting pattern in the state actually contributed significantly to this politically divided verdict. Around 55 per cent Muslims supported the DMK, while 34 per cent voted for the AIADMK.
Obviously, the majority of Muslim voters did not approve of the AIADMK. But this rejection of the party should not be overestimated. Muslims, like other social groups, responded to the larger debates between the dominant Dravidian parties in a variety of ways and went along with the region-specific politics of Tamil Nadu.
Unlike popular perception, Muslims did not consider the BJP a politically untouchable party in the Modi era. It is true that the party did not become the first choice for Muslims in any assembly election, but it gained significant acceptability in many states.
The Muslim support to the BJP in the so-called cow belt is very revealing. Muslim voters, it seems, remained more conscious about the constituency level politics and somehow ignored the anti-Muslim media rhetoric created by the supporters of the BJP in these states.
The outcome was obvious: the BJP got 26 per cent Muslim votes in Gujarat; 15 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 14 per cent in Rajasthan and 12 per cent in Maharashtra respectively. These figures show that Muslim voters did not give priority to the promises made by the political parties; instead, they voted for their preferred candidates at the constituency level.
Two broad inferences can be drawn from these voting trends.
First, the highly diversified voting behaviour of Muslims in the last five years underlines a crucial difference between the discourse of election and the substance of election. The BJP has been trying to create an impression, at least in the public debates, that it has achieved the ‘Hindu vote bank’ and that Muslim voters are not integral to the party’s performance.
This communal overtone changes significantly at the constituency level. A region-specific political vocabulary is employed by political parties, including the BJP, to open different channels with all groups, including Muslims. This indirect form of mobilisation helps the political elite create winnable social configurations at the constituency level. Muslims as voters find a legitimate space in such local informal alliances.
Second, the Muslim voters have refused to be recognised as the main opponent of the BJP’s Hindutva politics. The anti-Muslim propaganda, lynching of Muslims in the name of cow, and ‘love-Jihad’ etc. are separated from the electorally substantive issues such as employment and education.
So, the counter-intuitive takeaway is that communal polarisation may work politically but doesn’t always play out in neat boxes electorally. And yes, Muslim votes do matter – primarily because Muslims do not want to be approached only as a religious group.
The author is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
This article is part of a series by the author on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and how Muslims vote. Read the others here.