Amidst the disastrous news for the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, there is perhaps a small consolation for it. While the party performed poorly among its traditional voters, namely Dalits and tribals, the overall support of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, for the grand old party continues to be high. More importantly, the support did not see a decline. The National Election Study (NES) shows that the nationwide Muslim vote for the Congress was 38 per cent (excluding allies), the same as it was in 2009. In fact, since 1996, Muslim support for the Congress has been in the range of 30-40 per cent. One could however argue that the Congress was able to retain its Muslim vote not because of any particular fondness for it among the community but purely because of the fact that Narendra Modi, seen by many Muslims as being responsible for the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, leaving the community with little choice but to vote for the party best placed to defeat the BJP. The question we then need to ask is this: why did the Congress not get more votes among the Muslim community?
Since the Congress and its allies are the BJP’s main opponents in many of the large and populous States of northern (Rajasthan), central (Madhya Pradesh) and west India (Gujarat, Maharashtra), the Muslim vote here consolidated behind the Congress thus helping the party maintain its Muslim base. NES data clearly shows that in States where the Congress is in a direct competition with the BJP, it got nearly three-fourths of the overall Muslim vote. On the other hand, in States where there is also a presence of strong regional parties (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Delhi, Assam etc.), overall Muslim support for the Congress dropped to about one-third, as the community also voted for non-Congress options. In fact, in many of these States, particularly Uttar Pradesh, the presence of several viable non-Congress options seems to have resulted in a division of Muslim votes thus resulting in BJP victories. Even seats such as Rampur and Moradabad, where Muslims account for nearly half the population, saw the Samajwadi Party’s Muslim candidates finish second to the BJP as the Congress’s and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Muslim candidates got a sizeable proportion of votes.
Increase in vote share for BJP
Interestingly, the BJP too saw its vote share among Muslims rise to about 8 per cent at the national level compared to four per cent five years ago. While undeniably an improvement, one needs to be cautious about reading much into this survey finding as it is much less in comparison to the Hindu support for the BJP which went up from 22 per cent in 2009 to 36 per cent this time. Hence the gap between Hindu and Muslim support for the BJP which was 18 percentage points in 2009, went up to 28 percentage points this time. It appears that the Modi factor touched a section of Muslims (mostly Shias as per the CSDS survey) but clearly and understandably not to the extent it impacted the Hindus.
Voting en bloc
Finally, the Muslim community’s overall preference for the Congress has led to an oft-repeated charge by the BJP that Muslims vote en-bloc for the Congress. However, survey data shows that this phenomenon of high support by a particular community for a party is in no way unique to Muslims. This aspect can also be seen among upper castes with respect to their support for the BJP. While about two out of every five Muslims voted for the Congress in this election, upper caste support for the BJP was one out of two. In fact, data since 1996 clearly suggests that the charge of en bloc voting, if at all it is to be made, cannot be made at the doorstep of Muslim voters alone. Upper caste voters too display this trait. So even as the Muslims rallied behind non-BJP options, a counter Hindu upper caste and OBC consolidation much greater in magnitude seems to have rendered the Muslim votes ineffective, even in seats where Muslims have always been in a position to make a difference to the final outcome. Out of the 87 seats where Muslims are over 20 per cent of the population, the BJP won 42 as opposed to just 15 seats in 2009. That the voice of 15 per cent of the country’s population could be rendered ineffective expresses a paradox present in our democracy.
Shreyas Sardesai is with Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi