The myth of the Muslim vote bank, though denied by sociologists and debunked by psephologists, refuses to die. It reasserts itself with new vigour at every election. Even those well aware of the diversity within the community cannot resist building their arguments on this spurious claim.
The vote bank theory has been convenient for labelling Muslims and shoving them into handy brackets. It was done in India to explain the political behaviour of Muslims across regional, linguistic, caste, class and social barriers. Today it is done globally to gloss over inconvenient and inconsistent behaviour: it is a one-size fits all formula that cuts across regions and rides over locational differences and circumstances. Whether they are Thai, Chechen, Palestinian or European, Muslims are judged unfailingly by their faith and so-called beliefs. In this foretold story, everything is pre-decided: the crime, the culprit, the cause, the evidence and the punishment.
The vote bank
The idea that there is something called a “Muslim vote bank,” which behaves uniformly across the board, suits equally the Muslim leadership and its right wing Hindu counterpart. Muslim leaders and middlemen can bargain with political parties on behalf of this “collective” vote, as if individual Muslims have no opinion of their own and can be herded together in a pre-determined direction for a price decided mutually between the politicians and the community's self-appointed spokespersons. The Muslim vote bank helps communal Hindu organisations to manufacture their own “Hindu vote bank,” and use the whipped up Muslim threat to achieve their ultimate objective: a Hindu-Muslim electoral polarisation. The secular sections too have become unwitting participants in this game. Their intention is presumably to lift Muslims out of their sense of insecurity but the constant focus has only served to perpetuate the fear and victimhood that have been the bane of the community. Experts on 24x7 TV channels habitually use the vote bank theory to offer pat explanations for Muslim behaviour and to reach pre-fabricated conclusions.
I know I will be roundly attacked for these assertions for they question the very basis on which sectarian elements on both sides have built their arguments. The Muslim Ulema refuse to accept the ground reality of Islam in India which is as much mired in caste politics as any other Indian religion. The plain truth is that Muslim society is as divided as Hindu society and along the same caste and regional lines. Caste is such a formidable Indian/Hindu institution that no ideology can escape it: Islam, Christianity, Marxism, rationalism, modernism have all floundered on the bedrock of this hard reality. Islam became acceptable in medieval Indian society as a caste group and not as a religious group. Mughals, Pathans, Turks, Sheikhs and Syeds were regarded as sub-castes, so much so that other Indian converts to Islam came to be conveniently regarded as outcasts.
Diverse and complex
It suited the Turk/Pathan/Mughal rulers to be treated as caste groups and not as a monolithic religion. Those who understand Western Uttar Pradesh Muslim society will vouch for the existence of castes such as Jhojhas, Ranghars, Gharhas which are peculiar to Muslims of this area. Then you have Muslims divided along Hindu caste lines, among them Muslim Rajputs, Mode Jaat (Muslim Jat ) and Khatri, Gujjar, Tyagi and Teli Muslims. Others such as Ansaris, Qureshis, Rayanis, Sulemanis and Saifis are as divided socially as any other caste groups. Add to this the Shia-Sunni and Deobandi-Barelvi divides and a dozen other divisions based on different school of thoughts, and you have a complex and diverse community.
Before Independence these divisions were not as sharp as they are today, primarily because the British had to be fought as a common enemy. However as electoral politics came to the fore, caste and sub-caste divisions got etched in bolder relief. Caste divisions in Muslim society were never as sharp or as rigid as they are in Hindu society. With the coming of democracy they became distinct political groups, and more so since the Mandalisation of North Indian politics. Today, Muslims in rural India do not vote as a single religious group. Their caste rivalries are so strong that if, for example, the Qureshis vote for one party, the Ansaris will vote for another. And the beauty of this voting is that it is irrespective of the candidate who could be Hindu or Muslim. To be sure, there does emerge from time to time a temporary “Muslim vote,” when the community faces a common threat like the “Ram Mandir” movement, or anti-Muslim pogroms as in Gujarat, Meerut or Bhagalpur. In fact it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which by raising the bogey of the Muslim vote bank, that turns this fragmented vote into a formidable political entity. Muslim leaders in turn play the “Indian Islam/Muslims are in danger” card in order to unite the community under one banner. Contrary to popular assumptions, the Muslim vote never goes en masse to a single party, be it the Congress, the Samajwadi Party or the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Before Independence , even the Muslim League could never get more than 50 per cent of the Muslim vote in U.P. So analysts deliberately obfuscate the truth when they talk of Muslims voting for this or that party under the sway of one fatwa or another. The voting behaviour of Muslims is as varied as that of any other religious group, based on their socio-economic, rural-urban and caste-religion divides.
Influence of global events
In the last 40 years of my active journalistic life I have always been asked this question by my friends from the media: “What will be the impact of Bangladesh or an India-Pakistan war or the situation in Iran or the death of Saddam Hussein on Indian Muslim voting behaviour? Recently it was Salman Rushdie who was thought to be able to affect Muslim voting. My reply has always been that these issues do influence the minds of a section of Muslims but they do not influence their voting behavior. They voted for Indira Gandhi despite her being responsible for the break up of Pakistan. They voted for the Janata Party in 1977 despite the presence of the Jana Sangh in that camp. They went along with V.P. Singh despite his association with the BJP. They voted by and large with the Left Front in West Bengal but moved towards Mamata Banerjee as the general mood changed in that state.
The point I am making is that Muslims don't generally vote against the trend in their State. Even when they vote for a particular party it is never as a single, undifferentiated block. The media and analysts should stop looking at Muslim voters through the prism of a “vote bank” and start treating them as individuals and groups. The subconscious contempt we have for the “other” (read Muslims) leads us to believe that they somehow behave irrationally, as a herd led by their fanatic leaders. The legend of the Muslim vote bank is strong and will be used and reused in this election as in the previous ones. However, for a better understanding of Indian politics it is best that we think beyond the vote bank.
( Shahid Siddiqui is a former Member of Parliament, editor of Nai Duniya and currently a member of the Samajwadi Party .)