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In 2024 BJP will Play Muslim Card Only When They Realise They aren’t Winning, Says Prof. Sanjay Kumar

SANJAY KUMAR, former Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), is currently Co-Director of LOKNITI, a CSDS Research Programme. His published books and edited volumes include Elections in India, Women Voters in Indian Elections, Post Mandal Politics in Bihar, Indian Youth and Electoral Politics: An Emerging Engagement, Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class, Measuring Voting Behaviour in India (with Praveen Rai), Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies (with Christophe Jaffrelot), and Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions (with Peter R de Souza and Sandeep Shastri). A renowned Psephologist and Political Commentator, he has also served as international election observer in many countries. In an interview with MOHD NAUSHAD KHAN, he said the Muslim vote bank will be used as a trump card if all other strategies would seem like failing. Excerpts:

In today’s context what is the meaning and significance of Muslim votes?
If we look at the demography of Muslim population, they are in the range of roughly 13 to 14 percent of India’s population. Historically, Muslims to some extent are seen as a sort of vote bank.  They have been voting for the same party over a period of time, that is Congress.  For Congress, the Muslim vote has been very important throughout its course as a political party and that is how this whole concept of the Muslim vote bank has emerged in India. Initially, if I look at the initial four-five decades post-independence, there was no commotion around the issue of Muslim votes because the political competition was very less and the Congress was the dominant party nationally as well as in many states. There was no debate or contestation on Muslim vote bank or Yadav vote bank and so on.

But things have taken a different path over the last two decades, especially after the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. As a result, regional parties like RJD, JDU, SP, BSP, BJD, etc. especially in North India states have started playing a very important role in Indian politics. As the role of these parties gained importance in the state’s politics and some even in national politics, Muslim voters started looking forward to an alternative to Congress because they started realizing that even though they have been voting for the Congress and have stood behind the Congress over a period of time they have not been benefited accordingly. They never thought of voting for the BJP because of BJP’s Hindutva ideology.

So, Muslim votes started shifting towards regional parties in many states. This is when the whole concept of Muslim vote bank emerged and contestation around Muslim votes started happening. The Congress started realising, though a little too late that this was a crucial vote bank for them and it has moved away and started inclining towards regional parties.

This is when the BJP came to play an important role in national politics in the late 90s because in 1998 they came for the first time to power in alliance with other parties. So, they realised that this was one group around which one could play politics. I say politics, because they kept sending out messages that this is a vote bank and because of this vote bank the Congress has been in power for so many years and now it has shifted towards many regional parties, leaving Congress behind. The BJP then tried to create a perception that the Congress has given undue favour to the Muslims while Muslims remained loyal to the Congress.

This led to another message being sent out that among all parties, the BJP is the only party which is championing the cause of Hindutva. All other parties are playing the game of Muslim vote bank. This is how the concept of Muslim vote bank has emerged in India. During the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and even early 90’s there was no discussion around the Muslim vote bank. The Congress now wants to win the Muslims back to their fold and the BJP still wants to send a signal that Muslims had always voted for the Congress and that is why they were given preference by the Congress which led to the Hindus being neglected. This is the reason why the BJP has gained so much in national politics by mobilising the Hindus.

The BJP has always charged the Congress and regional parties with appeasement politics but the Sachar Committee Report and all other indicators do not justify BJP’s claim. How would you like to respond to that?
Present day politics is all about narratives and nobody is looking at the evidence. If you talk about the performance of the present government, we can keep on mentioning several things such as how the narrative has become so important and how common voters are not even looking at the evidence and that applies to what you mentioned about the Muslims.

If you were to look at any data (the data is the evidence) whether it is Muslims’ participation in government jobs, their level of educational attainment or representation in assemblies and parliament, you cite any data, you won’t find Muslims doing very well or are well-off as compared to other communities in the country.

But there is this narrative that has been created around the appeasement of Muslims. The narrative is that Muslims have not only been favoured but also helped at the cost of the Hindus. The narrative is that Congress and regional parties have always favoured Muslims.

What would be the value of Muslim votes in the upcoming assembly elections and 2024 Lok Sabha polls?
As you have used the phrase ‘the value of vote’, technically Ambani’s and any poor citizen’s vote carry the same value. But we are talking of Muslims as a vote bank. If you look at the states which go to polls in the next three to four months, there is very little talk of the Muslim vote. The states which go to polls are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. If you look at Rajasthan, Muslims are roughly 8 to 9 percent, in Madhya Pradesh it is almost the same and Chhattisgarh even less. So, mobilization or contestation around Muslim votes is going to be very less in the assembly elections. If we talk about Telangana, there are sizable numbers of Muslim voters. In Telangana, focus would be how to mobilise the Muslim votes by the ruling BRS. In Mizoram, there won’t be any discussion about Muslim vote only.

That is why we look at the strategy of all political parties. Look at how the Congress is strategizing in Madhya Pradesh. We don’t see any statements which would be favoring the Muslims. Look at all the initiatives taken by the Congress, which is being led by Kamalnath in Madhya Pradesh. It is all in the path of taking soft Hindutva lines while some even suggest aggressive Hindutva lines.  So, in the coming assembly election neither the Congress will talk of the Muslim votes nor the BJP because BJP in these states will not gain anything by targeting appeasement politics. In these states Muslim votes do not matter. If it were Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and UP going to polls, they would have been contesting around Muslim votes.

In 2024, certainly there are a lot of indications and along with this my own sense is that the way BJP is going to build their strategy is that they would first try to go in a positive mode without juxtaposing against Muslim votes. They would not try to mention the Muslim vote right at the beginning. First, they will try to mention their achievement. Ram Mandir is going to be at the forefront of their agenda. Article 370 and UCC will be played out by the BJP in a big way.

The Muslim vote bank, appeasement politics would take a backseat. But if Congress were to come to power, or Muslim would gain dominance in national politics then only this issue would be raised by the BJP. The Muslim vote bank will be used as a trump card if all other strategies would seem like failing or if BJP is confident that contesting elections on the issue of Ram Mandir will not be a guaranteed way of winning the election. They don’t want to only win elections but they want to win elections in a big way. Generally, if you start using this card again and again right from the beginning, I think there are sections of voters who are not and will not be very excited over it. But my own sense is that it will be used by the BJP as a trump card only at the end if they realise that the party may not do very well. They will not go into election right from the beginning using this as a central theme of the election.

How has the voting behaviour of Muslims emerged in the past few elections?
First, let me talk about the BJP because there are a lot of discussions regarding this. There is a belief that in several states, whether it is about appeasing the ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims, all this is leading to a shift in the Muslim vote in favour of BJP especially after the issue of triple talaq. I am using the belief because there was belief that Muslim women have started voting for the BJP and many people attributed this to the big victory of the BJP in UP. But evidence from our survey suggests that there is hardly any shift of Muslim vote in favour of the BJP whether it is in state or national elections. Roughly in the range of 5 to 7 percent Muslims have always voted for the BJP and I am citing the date right from the 1996 Lok Sabha elections till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Muslims support for the BJP has never gone beyond 8 percent and this has been consistent right from 1996.

The Congress has over the period of time lost a large number of Muslim support. We have data from a 1971 survey that shows that almost about 67 to 68 or we can say about 70 percent of Muslims voted for the Congress in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections. After that we did not collect the data systematically over a period of time but since 1996 and till 2019 we have seen a massive decline in Congress support among the Muslim voters. In 1996-98 it ranged between 40 -35 percent but there is a slow and gradual decline in Muslims’ support to the Congress nationally. And if we look at the latest elections 2019, there is only one-third of the Muslim votes for the Congress, that is roughly around 33 or 34 percent.

Regional parties have become very popular among Muslims voters, getting roughly in the range of 45 to 50 percent of Muslim votes. Regional parties have damaged the support base of the Congress among the Muslims. If we look at different parties, Trinamool Congress, RJD, BRS, Samajwadi Party and AIUDF get a colossal number of Muslim votes.

So, simply put, many regional parties have eaten into Congress Muslim support base. This is a national picture, but we also tried to bifurcate and look at what happens in the state where regional parties are not present or in the state where there is bi-polar contest. And I should also add AAP in Delhi as they have also eaten into Muslims’ support base of the Congress.

A phenomenon of bi-polar contest occurs in states like in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal and Gujarat. In these states the Congress still is the favourite of Muslim voters. Congress gets roughly about 75 to 77 percent Muslim vote. And BJP gets roughly in the range of 18 to 20 percent of Muslim votes. And in the case of Gujarat, a sizable number of Muslims have voted for the BJP in the state and Lok Sabha elections over a period of time and it is more than 20 percent. One also needs to note that in all the states where there is bi-polar contest between BJP and the Congress, Muslims are not in sizeable numbers and none of these states has more than 10 percent Muslim votes, roughly in the range of 7 to 10 percent votes.  That is why even the BJP is getting 20 to 25 percent votes; however, this should not be seen as a significant shift because this is a candidate specific vote. From this, one should not draw the conclusion that Muslims have started shifting in favour of BJP.  The percentage of Muslim vote is rather because of constituency and candidate specific.

What is the status of political literacy among Muslims?
If you go by awareness, we don’t see any difference if you compare Muslims with Hindus. Political literacy and education does not necessarily go hand in hand. Even if the literacy level is low among the Muslims, that does not mean that politically they would be less literate. We don’t find any difference.

Muslims are politically aware, conscious, literate, sensitive to the extent that now they are looking at how their importance in Indian politics has been declining in the sense that in a constituency where even they are in sizeable number, they are not able to get their candidate elected; and for that there are several reasons.

So, in political literacy we don’t find any difference between the Muslims and the Hindus. They are more sensitive than Hindus especially now because they see that the effectiveness of their votes has come down. If there is a constituency which has a sizable number of Muslim voters, they are able to elect the leader of their choice. But now with the Hindu vote getting mobilised and consolidated, the effectiveness of their vote has come down.

So, there is slow and gradual disenchantment which I see among Muslim voters. But it is also related to the nature of political contest. If they see any hope of a party they want to support winning elections, the mobilisation level of Muslim voters goes up and the recent example of Uttar Pradesh assembly elections 2022 when Samajwadi Party was seen as a party which was posing a challenge to the BJP. This was the one election which witnessed the highest polarisation of Muslim voters in favour of SP. This is again from the data which we had collected that showed that almost 80-85 percent of Muslims voted for SP. If we see in other elections, SP never got more than 60 percent Muslim votes; it was always playing along the boundaries of 55, 56, 57 percent votes. Congress has always got around 10-12 percent Muslim votes in Uttar Pradesh. BSP is always at 18 to 20 percent. With this we can see bifurcation of Muslim votes in UP. But in 2022 when there was a sense that SP could pose a challenge or even win the elections, there was a massive enthusiasm among Muslim voters. Hardly have we seen any community be so polarised in favour of one political party. There was a time when Jatav used to vote for Mayawati in such large numbers, 85 to 87 percent, but that has also come down.

My own sense is that in 2024 elections, with the way the 2024 elections are moving forward, we might see more enthusiasm among Muslim voters in 2024 if we compare to what we saw in 2019 or what we saw in 2014 because there is a sense and general perception that INDIA alliance can pose a challenge to the BJP.

What would be the impact of poor representation of Muslim MPs, MLAs in assemblies and parliament on our democracy?
When we talk about democracy, we always convene that representation should be proportional. This is not the case when we talk about women voters. Women are 48-49 percent of India’s population but the representation of women has always been less than 10 percent, it has now gone up to 12-13 percent. Same is the case with regards to Muslims whether you look at the state assembly elections or parliamentary elections, the representation of Muslims has always been lower. There is always a belief that if a community is represented in sizable numbers or in proportion to their share in population, they would be able to raise their issues and concerns of their own community as then they would be in the place of policymaking. But I think it does not make much difference.

The parliamentary form of government is run on the party line. If a legislation is to be passed in the Lok Sabha and the assembly even if you belong to a particular community and you don’t agree to that legislation, still there is very little scope of dissenting and you have to toe to the party line. Look at the Dalit and Adivasis, their representation has always been equal to their population percentage because of the system of reservation but can we say that their representation in Parliament has been a tool for whatever development has taken place in their lives.

What has been the attitude of major political parties towards Muslim representation?
I don’t think this is a topic of debate among political parties. If you were to talk to political leaders one to one and ask this question, I think they may be excited to talk about this. I don’t see this as an issue that arises when political parties are meeting on their own platform. We don’t see it in the discussion in the legislative forum. With the way the country’s politics is moving, no political party can even dare to say that they champion the cause of Muslims. But even the parties which have a sympathetic attitude towards minorities, especially the Muslims are also not concerned about Muslims’ representation in assemblies, parliament, or even in their parties or party forums.

We can see the BJP has a ‘soft corner’ for ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims. Is it genuine or a conspiracy to slice out Muslim vote bank?
There is hardly any doubt that BJP is doing all this not for the welfare of the Muslim community. If welfare had been their only aim, they could have done that 10 years ago when they came to power in 2014. But the idea is to send out a message that the parties which have championed the cause and are working for them have never initiated any such policies to benefit Muslim community. Two messages are being sent out to the Muslim community, one message is being sent to a social group in which there are a number of Muslims who are socially and economically backward and a message is being sent out that this is despite Congress being in power for several decades, this is despite regional parties have been in power for few decades. They have not done enough to uplift the Muslim community. The message being sent out to a large number of Muslims that you are still backward and poor – economically, socially and politically.

So, they are trying to create a contrast that at least the BJP is trying to do something.  Yes, there is politics and the idea is if they are able to create some kind of a divide, there could even be some shift in Muslim votes in favour of BJP in coming years. There is a possibility that if the party becomes soft on Muslim issues, they might start losing the core Hindu votes. But this is not the fear among the BJP leaders because they are using it as a socio-economic tool – not referring to only Muslims but stressing the point of poverty among the Muslims.


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