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A capital test for Muslim candidate defying vote bank politics

Ajaz Ashraf
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Delhi is no exception to what is an axiom … Muslims are considered capable of winning only from what are called Muslim constituencies. —PHOTO: AKHILESH KUMAR
Delhi is no exception to what is an axiom … Muslims are considered capable of winning only from what are called Muslim constituencies. —PHOTO: AKHILESH KUMAR

In this season of stoking of communal passions, it is incredible that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) should have fielded Shazia Ilmi to contest the December 4 Delhi Assembly election from the R.K. Puram constituency, where Muslims are barely 4.5 per cent of the electorate. Now, when was the last time you heard a candidate bearing a Muslim name contesting and winning from a constituency, Assembly or parliamentary, which has a negligible Muslim presence? Is the AAP trying to challenge the politics of identity, or is it mistaking Delhi for a cuckooland, or afflicted with a death-wish?

From the AAP’s perspective, Shazia Ilmi isn’t a nobody whom the party would want to sacrifice for upholding a political ideal to score brownie points. She is a member of the AAP’s national executive committee and a readily recognisable TV personality. Psephologists would have advised the AAP to field her from an area where Muslims constitute at least 15-20 per cent of the electorate, enhancing manifold her chances of victory. Indeed, all the five outgoing Muslim MLAs in Delhi won from constituencies in which their community accounted for over 35 per cent of the electorate.

Delhi is no exception to what is an axiom: Muslims are considered capable of winning only from what are called Muslim constituencies. It is deemed electorally suicidal to field them from places where Muslims do not constitute at least 10-20 per cent of the electorate. This is precisely why they are not perceived as leaders without the prefix Muslim; no, not even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whom the Congress fielded from Rampur in the first Lok Sabha election.

Five important States

To test the apparent novelty of the AAP’s experiment, ask the question: how many of India’s Assembly and parliamentary constituencies elect Muslims where they account for less than 10 per cent of the electorate? Further, are these MPs or MLAs considered their party’s key leaders? I requested the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which has a rich experience in conducting opinion polls, to share its electoral data with me.

I was given the percentage of Muslim electorate of parliamentary constituencies from where Muslims were elected in 2009, barring those in the States of Jammu and Kashmir and Assam, for which the CSDS had no data. In addition, I was sent a list of constituencies of five States — Karnataka, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — where Muslims accounted for less than 10 per cent of the electorate. The five States were chosen for their fairly large Muslim electorates and also because these have become a playground of competitive communal politics.

But these lists also came with a warning — the unavailability of voters data for some constituencies had the CSDS enter ‘0’ (to mark non-availability) against their names. It was possible, the CSDS warned, that the computer could have automatically clubbed them in the group with a Muslim electorate of less than 10 per cent. So, in case there was a Muslim MP from any of these constituencies, there had to be an independent verification.

The current Lok Sabha has 26 Muslim MPs, of whom six are from Kashmir and Assam. Of the remaining 20, only one was elected from a constituency with less than 10 per cent Muslim voters — Theni in Tamil Nadu, which according to the CSDS data, where Muslim voters total four per cent.

In the five States under review, Bihar has 19 MLAs, none of whom won from constituencies with less than 10 per cent of Muslims. This is also true for the 11 Muslim MLAs in Rajasthan.

In all there were 12 Assembly constituencies — four each in Karnataka, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh — that voted in Muslim candidates, and where, according to CSDS data, the Muslim electorate was less than 10 per cent.

But, the CSDS warning proved right. For instance, it is quite well known that the Muslim electorate in Narasimharaja and Shivajinagar in Karnataka, and Kolkata Port and Metiaburuz in West Bengal, is over 25 per cent.

So I did a check on the remaining eight Assembly constituencies, and the Lok Sabha constituency of Theni too. I spoke to the legislators of the two remaining Assembly constituencies in Karnataka and West Bengal, and the four in U.P., as well as to local journalists in each. Only one Assembly constituency has a Muslim electorate less than 10 per cent — Zahoorabad, Uttar Pradesh, from where Syeda Shadab Fatima was elected in 2012. It has a Muslim electorate, she said, of around 8.5 per cent.

In Theni, its MP, Dr. J.M. Aaron Rasheed, said Muslims constitute 12 per cent of the electorate; West Bengal’s Kasba turned out to have 23 per cent, and Raniganj, 11.5 per cent; Karnataka’s Shantinagar 12-13 per cent (Christians another eight-nine per cent) and Gangawati 15 per cent; Uttar Pradesh’s Matera has 42 per cent, Husainganj 28 per cent and Sikanderpur around 12 per cent.

Perceptions

The perception of legislators from these constituencies about Muslim representation also varied considerably. Some preferred Muslim constituencies as it provided them a voter base to which they could graft the votes of other communities to win. Others thought contesting from minority-dominated constituencies was perilous as rival parties too fielded Muslim candidates, thus dividing Muslim votes. Since they anyway had to rely on non-Muslim voters to win the election, they would wish to contest from areas where the community isn’t numerous and would consequently emerge as mass leaders rather than just Muslim netas . Almost all blamed the political parties for not countering the politics of identity.

Significant

It is against this dismal backdrop that AAP’s decision to field Ilmi from R.K. Puram stands out. It was keen on a woman candidate from this constituency because it was here that the grisly rape of the physiotherapist took place last December. It was also here that some of the rapists worked and lived. Third, not only is the sitting MLA from R.K. Puram a woman (Barkha Singh), she also heads the Delhi Commission for Women. R.K. Puram seemed an ideal turf for gender politics.

Ilmi offered to contest from here, resisting the temptation to wade into Old Delhi, or other constituencies with a significant Muslim presence. Why R.K. Puram, then?

“I wanted to break away from identity politics. You have Hindu politics, Muslim politics, Jat politics… So, I said why not gender politics, why not fight for gender justice? I want to be in politics as a citizen of this country, not as a Muslim.” Ilmi laughed and added, “All my affluent friends, though, tell me I should have chosen a Muslim constituency.”

Despite the AAP’s emergence in Delhi’s electoral firmament, evident from several opinion polls conducted recently, Ilmi does face tough odds on the road to victory. But whether or not Ilmi wins, her candidature does crack, if not shatter, the mould of identity politics. In R.K. Puram constituency, one aspect of the idea of India is on test.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist. E-mail: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com )

The Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to field Shazia Ilmi in the Delhi elections from a constituency with insignificant numbers of Muslim voters is

a rare instance of a party nominating a minority candidate for her gender rather than religion


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