The voting preference of Muslims in States is not an outcome of any national strategy; rather it is constituted at the grassroots level

The electoral behaviour of India’s Muslims is often presented as one of the most inscrutable aspects of Indian politics. We are told that India’s Muslims form a closed, homogeneous social group. As rational political agents, they are fully aware of their legal-constitutional status as a religious minority and they always evaluate the ideologies of political parties and the statements and acts of political players. Eventually, they make certain strategic political choices.

This interesting formulation leads us to two obvious conclusions: (a) Muslims of India constitute a political community, and therefore, (b) there is a clear market-type political relationship between Muslims and various political parties which revolves around a much talked about phenomenon — the “Muslim vote bank.” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh’s so-called apology to Muslims, the Congress’ election hoarding depicting a skullcap-wearing Muslim face with Rahul Gandhi, along with a slogan “Main nahi, hum,” and Lok Janshakti Party president Ram Vilas Paswan’s “issue based support” to the Narendra Modi-led BJP can be seen as relevant examples in this regard.

This dominant portrayal of Muslim political responses needs to be evaluated more critically. We may ask three fundamental questions: Do Muslims vote only on the basis of religion? Do Muslims vote strategically at an all-India level? Does the Muslim caste structure affect Muslim political behaviour? These questions might help us in deconstructing the established image of Muslim electoral politics.

Only on the basis of religion?

It is important to note that although Islam as a religion provides a unifying religious identity to various Indian Muslim communities, Muslims tend to follow various sect-based interpretations of religious texts and region-based rituals and customs. It is this religious-cultural distinctiveness which makes Indian Islam a highly diversified phenomenon. The question of politics, especially electoral politics, is inextricably linked to this unique Muslim diversity. This has been the reason why the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti’s National Election Studies (NES) does not ask this question directly. Instead, the question is reformulated as: “While voting, do you give more importance to the party, to the candidate, to your caste community or to something else?”

In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, most of the Muslim respondents (around 52 per cent) said that they gave more importance to parties while voting in elections. In contrast, only eight per cent of Muslim respondents said that they found caste and community considerations to be important. This response is not at all a deviation from the general attitude of the voters. A majority of Hindu respondents (55 per cent) also said that they gave importance to the party in elections in comparison to caste and community affiliation (around seven per cent). This trend continued to dominate the preference of Muslim electorates in 2004 and 2009 respectively (though in 2009, the question was asked only in relation to candidate and party).

Broadly speaking, all this evidence suggests that caste and community affiliations remained a relatively less important concern for Muslims in the last three Lok Sabha elections. However, this inference should not be overgeneralised. It is possible that the consideration of “community” might be employed by a respondent to assess a candidate or a political party at the constituency level. In addition, the meanings of the term community can also be interpreted in various ways. Despite these possible limitations, one can certainly suggest that Muslim voting preferences are not entirely different from those of Hindus. As a result, political parties emerge as the most preferred and acceptable factor in voting. This takes us to our second question, which is related to the idea of strategic voting by Muslims.

Do Muslims vote strategically?

NES data suggests that the Congress is the first choice for Muslims at the all-India level, followed by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Left parties and the BJP. This trend is quite consistent.

This national picture needs to be seen in relation to State-specific data. The BJP, which turns out to be the third choice for Muslim voters at the all-India level, gets a very different response in States. For the sake of clarity, we may compare the BJP’s performance in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

In the 2004 election in U.P., 2.50 per cent voted for the BJP. This rose to 5 per cent in 2009. On the contrary, the BJP’s performance in Gujarat is very different. In 2004, 18.60 per cent voted for the BJP; this went down to 12.40 per cent in 2009. In Gujarat, we

found a very clear polarisation of Muslim votes between the Congress and the BJP. U.P., therefore, has virtually failed to get Muslim support in the last three general elections. In fact, the party could not maintain its national average in the State.

This inference need not to be exaggerated. The performance of political parties in a State depends on State-specific political configurations. The availability of viable political alternatives determines the voting behaviour of electorates.

Politics in U.P. is dominated by a number of strong political players, who associate themselves with various caste-religious communities in the State. On the other hand, politics in Gujarat is quite polarised where 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. Thus, Muslim voting to any particular party in States is not an outcome of any national strategy; rather, the voting preferences of Muslims, it seems, are constituted at the grassroots level.

Does caste affect voting?

The Muslim caste is not taken as a “serious political factor” by political observers. In fact, the increasing role of Pasmanda Muslim politics, which has been quite active in mobilising various marginalised Muslim communities, especially in U.P. and Bihar, has not been given adequate attention. NES has tried to look at the impact of Muslim caste in electoral politics.

The difference between the voting behaviour of Muslim Other Backward Classes (OBC) and other Muslims is not very significant; yet, the plurality of Muslim political attitude is quite apparent. We also find that Muslim caste groups change their political preferences quite considerably. For instance, in 1999, other Muslims (read as non-OBCs, or Ashrafs) overwhelmingly voted for the Congress (45 per cent) in comparison to Muslim OBCs. But, in 2004 and 2009, this equation changed almost completely and the Congress managed to win over the Muslim OBC support. The case of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is more revealing. As a political party, it is officially committed to the political ideology of Bahujan that seeks to fight against caste-based discrimination. The party, however, does not evince any interest in the Muslim caste question. Yet, data suggests that Muslim OBCs (which includes Dalit Muslims as well) are more inclined toward the BSP in comparison to other Muslims.

Muslim caste-based voting patterns, we must note, becomes more complicated at the State level. The case of Bihar is very relevant, where the Janata Dal (United) has offered a space to Pasmanda political groups in order to consolidate itself among marginalised Muslims. This trend is quite relevant because a number of Pasmanda Muslim organisations have already passed the resolution (“Political Agenda of Pasmanda Muslims in Lok Sabha Elections, 2014”) seeking direct political support for caste-based Muslim reservation and other demands.

This discussion offers us a rather complex picture. Muslim communities, like any other social group, participate in electoral politics and follow established norms and patterns. Yet, the distinctiveness of Muslim identities is always asserted in political terms. This is the reason why anti-Muslim violence (Gujarat 2002, Assam and, more recently, the Muzaffarnagar riots) emerges as a serious political issue for Muslim electorates, at least in the region-specific sense. And, at the same time, the inclusion of Muslims Dalits in the list of Scheduled Castes, reformulation of OBCs to accommodate more Muslim castes, and economic safeguards for Muslims artisans and small businesses have become equally powerful Muslim concerns. Interestingly, political analysts as well as political parties still evoke the old idioms of secularism-communalism to deal with this discursively constituted and highly diversified Muslim political identity.

This kind of political-intellectual apathy cannot help us in appreciating the fluctuating patterns of Muslim electoral behaviour. There is a need to give up the “top to bottom approach.” Instead, we have to pay close attention to Muslim engagements at the local and regional levels to make sense of the role of “Muslim votes” in the 2014 election.

(Hilal Ahmed is assistant professor, CSDS. )

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