Muslims are not a monolith. Recognizing the status of Muslim communities, particularly at state level, as religious-cultural minorities, cannot be called appeasement
The suggestive overtone of the article ‘Why Muslims must give BJP a fair chance’ by Syed Zafar Islam (IE, May 4) is not entirely unusual. Indian Muslim communities are often advised to give up “their” closed inward looking worldview and get involved fully in a pious (read official) project called “nation-building”. However, in the article, Zafar Islam goes one step further to advocate that Muslims, who “have yet to recover from the shock of” the BJP’s victory in UP, should come out from the state of denial and embrace the BJP. According to him, “the Gujarat example should serve as a role model for the Muslims of UP and other states… where the BJP has been winning state elections without giving tickets to Muslims for 20 years”.
I do not wish to evoke the rigid secular-communal binary to respond to such over-generalised claims. An unnecessary and populist stress on the secularism of non-BJP parties, in my view, cannot help us in analysing the nuances of Muslim political responses. After all, the so-called secular parties prefer to compartmentalise Muslim communities as a closed social group and do not articulate Muslim exclusion as a national concern. I find three serious difficulties with Zafar Islam’s article: A problematic imagination of Muslim homogeneity; a superficial understanding of Muslim political behaviours and finally, an unsubstantiated portrayal of the Modi-led BJP as a real emancipator of Muslim communities.
Zafar Islam relies heavily on a strong assumption that India’s Muslims form a closed homogeneous social group — as if they think, feel and act (or react) in a simple, straightforward and standardised manner. This imagination does not correspond to the actual social-cultural norms and values of those communities who follow various forms of Islam and recognise themselves as “Muslims” in India. Sociological variations determine the nature of political preferences in different regional and local contexts. Since the author does not understand this complex making of the Muslim plurality, he fails to realise the fact that Muslims do vote for the BJP as well.
Let us look at the national voting pattern of Muslims in the last four Lok Sabha elections to elaborate this point. The BJP usually gets 5 to 6 per cent Muslim votes at the national level. The Lok Sabha election of 2014 is an exception in this regard. The BJP secured around 9 per cent Muslim vote, which makes it the third possible choice for Muslim voters. The claim that Muslims “are being made to believe that the BJP is communal and a confirmed anti-Muslim party”, therefore, is factually incorrect from the point of view of a significant number of Muslim voters.
This aggregate national level Muslim electoral response, however, needs to be unpacked for avoiding simplistic conclusions. For the sake of clarity, we may compare the BJP’s performance in UP and Gujarat. (In the article, Zafar Islam is very concerned about these two states.) The CSDS-Lokiniti surveys show that the BJP’s performance was quite poor in UP before 2014. It failed to get any significant Muslim support in the last three general elections. But, in 2014, the party did exceptionally well as the BJP-led alliance got 10 per cent Muslim votes. The Congress alliance, which receives maximum Muslim electoral support at the all-India level, interestingly, managed only 11 per cent Muslim votes in UP. This means that a significant number of Muslim votes rejected the Congress and moved towards the BJP in 2014.
On the other hand, one finds a very clear polarisation of Muslim votes between the Congress and the BJP in Gujarat. The BJP on an average gets 15 to 17 per cent Muslim votes in the state. But, this state-level performance of the BJP cannot be overestimated. The party has failed to become the second choice for Muslim electorates in the state as around 17 per cent of Muslim voters rejected both the Congress and BJP in 2014. The performance of political parties in a state, we must remember, depends on the state-specific political competition. UP politics is dominated by a number of strong political players, who associate themselves with various caste-religious communities in the state. On the other hand, Gujarat politics is quite polarised and regional parties have not yet carved out a space for themselves. In this sense, the constituency-level configuration of party and candidate plays a more significant role for the Muslim electorate in Gujarat.
Zafar Islam’s enthusiasm to propose a “Gujarat Model” for Muslims of the country seems rather problematic. The survey results show that the Muslim voting for any particular party at the state level cannot be seen as an outcome of any national strategy; rather, the voting preferences of Muslim communities are constituted at the grassroots level. The rise of the BJP in UP and its relative decline in Gujarat among Muslims are revealing examples of this political trajectory.
The depiction of the Modi-led BJP as a decisive option for Muslims is the third problem with this article. The contemporary BJP speaks of Muslims in two distinct ways: Muslims of India are part of an international Islamic umma, which does not satisfactorily respond to the nation’s patriotic demands; and, Muslims are an unimportant constituent of a larger national community, and therefore, need not be addressed as a specific social group. Zafar Islam does not deviate from this standard response — he talks of the increased Hajj quota by the Saudi Arabian government to show that Modi is engaged with international leaders of good Islam for the religious needs of the community. At the same time, he applauds Modi’s efforts to offer the benefits of the Ujjawala Yojana to Muslims without appeasing them.
The strategy of the BJP to ignore the India-specific Muslim exclusion in a more direct fashion, interestingly, is not addressed by Zafar Islam. He offers us a clear (read final) solution: Muslim communities should behave as a single monolithic group; they should recognise the fact that the BJP can win elections without them; they should only vote for the BJP for the sake of prosperity; they should learn from Gujarat where the party does not give tickets to Muslims; and, there is no need to worry about social exclusion and marginalisation as these concerns are inseparable constituents of Modi’s “sab ka saath” slogan.
This naïve explanation goes against the philosophy of constitutional democracy. Muslims must be addressed as common citizens but recognising the status of Muslim communities, particularly at the state-level, as religious-cultural minorities, cannot be called appeasement. It is important for the Modi-led BJP to give a fair chance to Muslim communities by acknowledging the political limits of “sab ka saath sab ka vikas”.