Less than three months ahead of what is expected to be the biggest democratic election in world history, the Muslim population of India is being courted by major political parties for their pivotal votes. All told, more than 725 million people (more than double the entire population of the United States) will cast ballots to select candidates for 543 parliamentary seats. Muslims account for about 13.7 percent of the total population -- some 180 million people (including youths, who cannot vote).
Muslims are the majority population in Jammu and Kashmir in northernmost India, and are about one-fourth of the population in the states of Assam, West Bengal and Kerala. In dozens of Indian parliamentary districts, the Muslim population is large enough to tilt local elections. According to a report by the Khabar South Asia news agency, India’s Muslim communities are a “sought-after voting bloc” since “political parties believe they vote in unison more than any other group.” Jaythirth Rao, a spokesman for C-Voter, an election monitoring agency, told the Khabar South Asia that Muslims account for at least 30 percent of the electorate in 35 parliamentary districts across India. "What is crucial for all [political] parties to understand is that apart from those 35 [districts], there are 183 others that have upwards of 11 percent Muslim voters," Rao said.
On the whole, in the context of Indian elections, Muslims cannot be ignored.
The Hindu nationalist right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party -- which surveys predict will defeat the incumbent Congress Party in the elections -- has made some overtures to Muslims, despite the highly controversial past history of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. Modi is widely blamed for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry during sectarian riots that erupted in his native Gujarat in 2002 and which ultimately killed more than 1,200 people. Following the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims on a burning train in the town of Godhra (Muslims allegedly set the fire), Hindus retaliated by murdering 69 people, mostly Muslims, in Ahmedabad, in a multihour orgy of killing. The violence subsequently spread to other towns in Gujarat.
Modi has denied any culpability at all, but he was widely condemned for failing to use his authority to prevent the killings. In 2012, a special investigations team appointed by India’s Supreme Court absolved Modi of any responsibility in the riots, although one of his former senior ministers was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in the massacres.
Nonetheless, now, a dozen years later, BJP has been trying to re-brand itself as a party not wedded to anti-Muslim views. Indeed, BJP and Modi are counting on attracting broad support by hyping their economic program in contrast to the weakening economy and political corruption that has scarred the Congress-led government of outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. BJP officials have intentionally placed Muslims in the front rows of meetings and rallies as a visual symbol of this “outreach” and “reconciliation” effort. “Only men are brought and told specifically to come in traditional Muslim attire with skull-caps for added distinctiveness,” Arif Mohammad Khan, a former federal minister, told Khabar South Asia. But Dr. Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science and director of the Center for American and Global Security at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies, characterized the BJP’s attempts to reach out to Muslim voters as “cosmetic” at best.
Indeed, Modi could face an uphill struggle in generating much enthusiasm from Muslims for his campaign, although some observers think his perceived success as an administrator and no-nonsense steward of the economy could trump any concerns about his bigotry against Muslims. “Wooing the Muslim vote is nothing new but in 2014, the touchstone is Narendra Modi. ... His image as an anti-Muslim politician has divided the country but he expects that his record as a successful three-term chief minister of Gujarat state will win him national approval,” a former Congress party MP named Obaidur Rahman, a Muslim himself, told Khabar South Asia.
Given the economic bonanza that Modi has engineered in Gujarat -- including attracting investments by foreign firms and 10 percent annual growth on average over the past 11 years -- Muslims in the state are doing quite well, relative to their peers across India. Consider that during the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections, the BJP -- which did not field even one Muslim candidate -- won 12 of the 19 seats in which Muslim voters could have influenced the results. Modi himself claimed that 20 to 25 percent of Muslims across Gujarat voted for the BJP. Most of these Muslims vote for the BJP because it is perceived as the party that can best improve their economic lot, “and based on Modi's economic record in Gujarat, this may be true,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
"There are more Muslims in government jobs in Gujarat than other states of India. The overall economic condition of Gujarati Muslims is quite remarkable,” Irfan Ali Engineer, director of the Centre of Studies in Society and Secularism in Mumbai told Khabar South Asia. But, Engineer added, the “ghost of the 2002 carnage” in Gujarat is likely to cast a long shadow over Modi.
Also consider what happened last year in the northeastern state of Bihar, perhaps the poorest, most backward part of India. Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar severed his ties with the BJP after Modi was named its prime ministerial candidate -- after eight years of sharing power with BJP in the state. Kumar clearly did not wish to alienate Bihar's Muslim communities. But Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP spokesperson, countered: “We don't believe in segregating Muslims and Hindus for votes. Our approach is the all-round [economic] development of the country -- irrespective of any one being Hindu or Muslim.”
Historically, Muslims have tended to support the Congress Party, said Ganguly, “However, in recent years, Muslims have also supported regional parties that have sprouted up across the country and which address their needs and concerns by varying degrees,” he said in an interview. Ganguly also pointed out the India’s Muslim population is in no way a monolithic community. “You have to look at regional issues as well as income,” he said. “Muslims have all sorts of different concerns -- the wealthy upper-class Muslims are more worried about the nation’s economy and foreign policy matters than perhaps are lower-class Muslims who don’t have the luxury of concerning themselves with such esoteric issues as foreign policy.”
Indeed, voters’ anger over a stalled economy, regardless of religion, is cited as one of the main factors that will likely topple Congress from power after ten years of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Annual economic growth has plunged from as high as 9 percent in 2009 to just 4.8 percent in early 2013.
Muslims have to balance their concerns about the economy with their identity as a minority in a secular country dominated by Hindus. “As a young Indian, jobs and economic expansion should definitely be my concern,” Khaled Mohammad Rastanvi, a 19-year-old Muslim medical student in Delhi told Khabar South Asia. “But I also have to think about the future of my community, and look at the future through a different prism. Secularism has helped me come up, and so I don't want to just [embrace] a young ambitious professional's notion of nationhood.”
Muslims, like Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and others, worry about jobs, housing and education, issues that have little to do with faith. Still, Muslims -- as a prominent and visible minority with a long history of conflict with Hindus and Sikhs -- must deal with religious bigotry and discrimination. "The two [terms] of Dr. Manmohan Singh may not have created more jobs for Muslims, but at least they have been secure from discrimination and persecution," senior Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi told Khabar South Asia. "I believe secularism will always be the dominant discourse in our democracy."
Some Congress members will no doubt seek to pander to Muslims by dredging up Modi's links to the butchery in Gujarat in 2002. Prime Minister Singh himself warned that a Modi victory would spell disaster for the country. “If by a strong PM you mean someone to preside over the mass massacre of citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, that is a measure of strength I don't think is needed," Singh once said, explicitly referring to the 2002 riots. Channel News Asia reported that even some BJP members worry that Modi's past fiery rhetoric against Islam and pro-Hindu proclamations might drive Muslims to vote en masse for Congress, simply as a way to punish Modi.
Ganguly said he would be surprised if BJP got more than a “sliver” of the national Muslim vote. Other voices suggest, however, that Congress cannot take the Muslim vote for granted. Channel News Asia noted that Shahid Siddiqui, a former parliamentarian, warned: "Muslim youth, if they don't have [a] job, will want employment -- irrespective of whosoever promises and gives it to them. Even Muslim bodies are warning the ruling Congress not to scare the Muslims in the name of Narendra Modi."
Moreover, communal relations in Gujarat have been relatively peaceful over the past decade of prosperity. “This has in time softened the image of the BJP -- or at least of Modi -- in the eyes of some Indian Muslims,” Kugelman noted. Still, Muslims are expected to significantly cast their lot with Congress again. For example, as India Today reported, in recent assembly elections in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Congress grabbed 69.2 percent of the total Muslim vote, trouncing BJP's 18.6 percent showing. In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan states, Congress scored 42.4 percent and 55.6 percent of the Muslim electorate, respectively, versus 18.6 percent and 15.5 percent votes, for BJP. (In all three aforementioned states, Congress fared poorly among the whole public.)
Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims support neither Congress nor BJP -- rather they remain loyal to regional parties led by charismatic politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, both of whom are viewed as sympathetic to Muslims and hostile to BJP. Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has explicitly accused the BJP of seeking to ‘hoodwink’ Muslims. The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that Yadav alleged that any “apologies” by BJP for the 2002 carnage in Gujarat would be phony and self-serving. Yadav also questioned Modi’s claims of Gujarat’s economic prosperity. "More than 30 percent of women and 50 percent of children are malnourished in Gujarat," Yadav countered. "Rivers of the state are among the most polluted. Daily wages given to those working in the unorganized sector are lower than that in [Uttar Pradesh]. You [Modi] call this good governance and development? I call it nothing but baseless propaganda.”
Another cabinet minister in Uttar Pradesh, Azam Khan, even told Muslims at a rally to defeat "the mass murderer [Modi] who had called you a puppy and is now seeking your votes, realizing that you may not be kings but without your blessings nobody could ever become a king either," referencing a remark that Modi made about Muslims last year. But Khan also attacked Congress, blaming the party of Jawaharlal Nehru for the partition of 1947 which split the Indian subcontinent and permanently "drove a wedge between Hindus and Muslims.”
Kamal Faruqi, a former secretary of the Samajwadi Party, a regional socialist party that rules Uttar Pradesh, claimed that Congress won the 2004 election only after Muslims flocked to the party in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots. "Congress got [the] advantage of 2002 [riots] in 2004 [election]," Faruqi told Al Jazeera, adding that Muslims played a significant role in bringing Samajwadi to power in Uttar Pradesh.
Still, Uttar Pradesh itself was struck by communal rioting late last summer, costing about 60 deaths and 50,000 displaced persons in Muzaffarnagar in what was viewed as a targeted attack on Muslims. "The Samajwadi Party which is in power in my state [Uttar Pradesh], was always thought to be pro-Muslim. But… there were riots in Muzaffarnagar under its watch,” Simran Khan, 20, a Lucknow-based computer professional, told Khabar South Asia. “There are reports that the riots were engineered secretly by parties just to prove the insecurity of the Muslims. We don't know whom to believe.”
Outside of Gujarat, Muslims are largely beleaguered by poverty, even in states where their electoral support helped bring the current regimes to power, suggesting that politicians often ignore Muslims after courting them during campaigns. "Look at West Bengal, the state has not witnessed a single riot in 40 years, but Muslims there are living in pathetic conditions,” Zafar Sareshwalah, an Ahmedabad-based businessman, told Al Jazeera. “In West Bengal only 2 percent of government jobs and 3 percent of police jobs are held by Muslims, as opposed to 12 and 11 percent, respectively, in Gujarat.” Ironically, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress party, an offshoot of Congress, has long catered to Muslims and sought their support.
As such, Muslims must be circumspect about whom to vote for.
"Muslims have always been neglected and used as a ‘vote bank’ by political parties. Nobody has delivered on their promises made for the community," Ahmed Bukhari, chief cleric of Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) agency. "All political parties are harmful and we have to choose the one which is least harmful for us as there is no time left for us form [our own] political party.”
Mufti Mohammad Ashraf, president of the Muslim Personal Law Board in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh (the state that witnessed deadly Hindu-Muslim riots last August) complained that Muslim voters are being used by political parties and even by Muslim politicians who don’t really represent the interests of their constituents. "They don't think about the [Muslim] community any more. Now it is on us to change our situation and not let these politicians exploit us by giving fake promises," he said.
Kugelman stated that he does not think Muslims in India will necessarily pull the levers for Congress this time around. “Recent polling and research indicates that the most important issues for Muslims in India are economic and development issues. These are Narendra Modi's perceived strengths,” Kugelman said. “Coupled with Congress's immense unpopularity and the perception that it has squandered the economic gains of recent years, there's a good chance that many Muslims will vote for parties other than Congress--including Modi's BJP, despite its association with the anti-Muslim riots.”
Ganguly noted, however, that given India’s first-past-the-post voting system (which requires only a 50.1 percent majority for victory), Modi and the BJP might not even need the Muslim to win the general elections. “Congress is so unpopular that many Hindus and other non-Muslims who otherwise wouldn't vote for the BJP will probably vote for it,” Kugelman commented. “Additionally, a perceived ‘third way,’ the [anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party] AAP party, is not yet sufficiently political mature to have developed a mass voter bank. This all suggests the BJP will get plenty of votes to win.”
However, in a close race, the Muslim vote could still play a big role in choosing the victor. “The BJP, however, should easily get enough votes (though not enough to ensure an outright majority) to win a majority of votes and gain the right to form a coalition -- and it should be able to do this without wondering if Muslim voters will swing the election,” Kugelman concluded.
Any discussion of Indian Muslims must also include India’s historic enemy and principal foreign policy question, Pakistan. Some Indian Hindus, particularly the most rabid right-wing nationalists, have long questioned the loyalty of the country’s Muslim population, often accusing them of siding with Pakistan over India (somewhat similar to how Jews in the United States are sometime accused of being more loyal to Israel than the U.S.), placing India’s Muslim community in an uncomfortable, awkward corner. One might think that Pakistan would favor a Congress government in India over one ruled by the pro-Hindu BJP. Ganguly, however, takes a contrarian view. “I actually think Pakistan would be delighted to have the BJP running the Indian government,” he said. “This would allow Pakistan to show the international community that India is being governed by bigots with blood on their hands. It would play right into their conspiratorial delusions and perhaps lead them to gain more sympathy from the global community.”