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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

The politics of the 'strategic vote'

The community faces a challenge when it comes to deciding who to vote for in the changed circumstances, writes K.K. Katyal.

What is generally called the Muslim factor in Indian politics is, in effect, the sum total of a bewildering variety of problems, dilemmas and uncertainties. For over five decades after Partition, the Muslim community was engaged in the search for a balance between the issues of identity and assimilation. The task proved too challenging and remained unfinished. During this period, it experimented with allegiances to different parties, big and small. Meanwhile, new forces emerged and the political landscape in the country changed. As a result, the community's electoral behaviour has changed.

How does it express itself now? Apart from the secular parties, the Muslims speak through a number of community-specific groups; however, there is no organisation with a nationwide or even regional appeal. It is a fascinating — and challenging — subject for psephologists to analyse, in detail, the swings and shifts in the thinking of the community. Equally important is an overview of Muslim politics, which could broadly indicate the community's voting trends.

Muslims in India number some 13 crore of the total of over 100 crores. They are spread all over the country — concentrated as they are in pockets, they are in a position to influence voting trends in 100 to 110 constituencies. To assert themselves and to take the fullest possible advantage of their numbers, they have learned to adapt. Their support pattern, therefore, was bound to vary from State to State, and even within a State.

Notable among the Muslim parties (political and non-political) are the Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organisation, the Milli Council, the Jamat-ul-Ulema, the Jamat-e-Islami, the Indian Union Muslim League (Kerala-based), the Tablighi Jamaat, and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. The last two organisations are non-political, set up to address specific problems of the community. Then there is the SIMI, the underground student group, which hit the headlines in the past but, mercifully, has been contained.

After Independence, Muslims, by and large, supported the Congress initially. Later, they were attracted to influential regional groups — the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, to cite two cases. From among the community-specific bodies, the Mushawarat is the most active in electoral politics but its main job is to offer advice to Muslim voters, on the parties and individuals to be supported.

Oflate, the BJP is making a bid to reach out to the Muslims. This came at a time when high-profile Muslims, including the former Union Minister, Arif Mohammed Khan, floated the idea of engaging the RSS and the Sangh Parivar on the community's problems. Mr. Khan, who joined the BJP, felt that being in the party he would be in a better position to push the Muslim cause. This won backing from several prominent Muslims, including the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman, Najma Heptullah.

However, at this stage, two points are clear. One, Muslims, by and large, are not impressed by the BJP's overtures. Their cold response is there for all to see, as a glance through the pages of the community's Urdu newspapers will show. Two, the most-favoured line continues to be "strategic voting," that is, support to candidates who stand the best chance of defeating the BJP.

The other day, the Mushawarat circulated a list of 140 constituencies, figuring in the first phase of voting (on April 20) where there will be a direct contest between the Congress and its allies, and the BJP-led alliance, with a plea to back the former. The Muslims were advised to "exercise their right to vote and vote unitedly, rising above religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, cultural or tribal affinities and overcoming every obstacle meant to divide their vote".

The allies of the Congress were identified as the Telangana party in Andhra Pradesh, the RJD of Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, the JMM in Jharkhand, the JD (S) in Karnataka, the NCP in Maharashtra and the CPI in Meghalaya. The advice for other States will come later. In U.P. the Mushawarat would like the SP and the Congress to join hands, even at this late stage, so as to deny the BJP the advantage of a split in the secular camp. And if that does not happen, the Mushawarat would like the Muslims to support the strongest candidate from among the three parties — the SP, the Congress and the BSP.

There are signs of some Muslims in Uttar Pradesh having second thoughts about supporting the SP, because of the suspicion that its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, has a tacit understanding with the BJP. This could work in favour of the Congress if the theory of "strategic voting" holds good. But given that the support base of the Congress in the State has shrunk over the years, it is debatable how far this will help the party.

Why is the BJP distrusted by the Muslims, despite the Prime Minister's assurances? The answer is available in the Urdu press and in the views of the Muslim leaders. They are worried by the various manifestations of Hindutva — the Sangh Parivar's insistence on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the emphasis on "cultural nationalism". There is also a strong reaction to top BJP leaders urging the Muslims to "accept the symbols and inspirational sources of our national culture such as Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir, Nanak," and others.

In the final analysis, how the Muslim masses will vote will be largely determined by their core concerns, including the question of individual and community security, educational and economic backwardness and the fear of erosion of identity.

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