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Changing features of Muslim representation in India

Updated - December 30, 2022 05:49 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2022 12:16 am IST

It remains to be seen whether the secular political parties of North India are able to use elements of the more robust south Indian model, promising ‘substantive representation’ while warding off allegations of ‘appeasement’

In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The meaning of representation in any representative-democracy is necessarily a contested concept; a productive force which shapes and reshapes the structure of political competition. Given our historical context, the representation of Muslims has become even more of a lightning rod for present-day political divides, especially since the ascendance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the position of national dominance.

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Much editorial ink has been spilled on the refusal of the BJP to provide even tokenistic political representation to the Muslim minority. But an interesting facet is the adaptation made by the non-BJP Opposition parties, over the last decade, on the political question of representation of Muslims. This adaptation was partly a response to the BJP-dominant system; but it was also a response to long-term structural changes in Indian politics.

To chart this evolution, we shall make use of three dimensions of political representation (descriptive representation, symbolic representation, and substantive representation), borrowing from Hanna F. Pitkin’s seminal treatise, The Concept of Representation (1967). At its basics, descriptive representation means the degree to which the representatives resemble the people they claim to represent, such as the social/cultural identity of the representatives. Symbolic representation denotes the ways by which the representative “stands for” the represented — through speech, actions and symbolic gestures. And, substantive representation means the ways in which the representative serves the interest of the represented, such as by advancing the political agenda or policy preferences of the represented.

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The example of Uttar Pradesh

In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the accommodation of the significant Muslim minority (nearly a fifth of the State) had been done by the previous Congress and Samajwadi Party (SP) regimes by providing them a mix of descriptive and symbolic representation. While the descriptive representation of Muslims (such as the proportion of Muslim MLAs and Ministers) in the Congress period of dominance often lagged behind its population share, the Congress also offered symbolic representation: “standing for” the protection of a package of ‘Muslim issues’. These ‘Muslim issues’ (mostly cultural issues such as Urdu, Uniform Civil Code (UCC), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and later Babri Masjid) symbolised a compact between the Congress elite and a politicised religious leadership, skilfully constructed as a “stand-in” for the entire community.

Later, the SP tweaked the terms of the bargain and became the favoured party of Muslim voters, although one hastens to add that the so-called ‘Muslim vote’ continued to be split three-ways (between the SP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress), with a single party rarely cornering more than half of all Muslim votes. The SP strategy had three components. One, there was an increase in rhetorical emphasis given to the role of “protecting” the package of Muslim issues, driving a contrast with the Congress which was hemmed in by the breach of its upper-caste vote bank from an ascendant BJP. Two, the role of “protector of minorities” was intensely personalised into the benevolent-strongman image of the party leader, played by Mulayam Singh Yadav in U.P. and Lalu Prasad Yadav in neighbouring Bihar. And three, while the Muslim legislators were supposed to play only a rubber-stamp role, a State-wide Muslim party face was constructed to periodically give vent to ‘Muslim angst’ and reinforce the protector role of the party leader. This role was played by leaders such Azam Khan of the SP in U.P. and Mohammed Ashraf Fatmi of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.

But the big change brought on by the BJP dominant period is that the kind of “symbolic representation” practised by the SP and the RJD has now ceased to be part of a viable strategy of accommodating Muslims. The three aforementioned components of symbolic representation have been hollowed out in practice. One, the SP and the RJD have been studiedly silent in their rhetorical response to the BJP’s policies relating to cultural concerns of minorities (UCC, madrasas, AMU, Babri Masjid, etc). Two, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejaswi Yadav have self-consciously shirked away from the role of “protector” of minorities. And three, Akhilesh Yadav has adopted a markedly indifferent attitude towards the systematic destruction of the political career of Azam Khan by the ruling BJP, even as Tejaswi Yadav has pushed out Ashraf Fatmi from the RJD. The pitch that parties such as SP and RJD (as well as the Trinamool Congress) are now offering to Muslim voters is centred on a very narrow conception of security and a vague promise of “development for everyone”, crucially supplemented with the narrative that they are the only alternative to the BJP. It has worked so far. it has worked so far. All the three parties cornered upwards of three-quarters of the Muslim vote (an unprecedented figure), according to surveys, in their last Assembly elections, respectively. But the long-term viability of this strategy also remains uncertain.

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In Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a shared element has been the centrality given to substantive representation in their (otherwise substantially different) pathways of Muslim accommodation. Even as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) allied with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in an earlier period of expansion, outbidding the Congress in symbolic terms, they quickly expanded their own political constituency among Muslims and consequently marginalised the IUML. They did so by, partly, appealing to the shared Tamil heritage and the participation of Muslims in the Dravidian movement, and, partly, by accommodating Muslims in the backward paradigm. This involved an early inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christians in the existing backward reservations, as well as the later extension of a separate reservation block towards Muslims. The poorer Muslims left out of the welfare net, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, were taken up by the paternalistic pro-poor populism of the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazahgam (AIADMK). The incidence of poverty among Muslims in rural Tamil Nadu, reduced from 37% in 1993 to 1% in 2011 (Kalaiyarasan).

However, the resurgence of parties such as the IUML and Manithaneya Makkal Katchi in the DMK coalition provides another complicating subplot. In the last election, the DMK-Congress gave these (Muslim communitarian) parties five tickets, to some extent as symbolic point-scoring over the AIADMK, which was allied to the BJP. The DMK coalition did garner 69% of Muslim voters (compared to 24% for the AIADMK), a significant increase in the gap over previous elections. But this partial outsourcing of the task of mobilising Muslims — stemming to some extent from a long-standing under-representation of Muslims in party organisation — remains a risky political manoeuvre.

And Kerala

In Kerala, the Left parties made significant gains among Muslim voters (from 35% to 39% of Muslim votes) on the back of pro-poor welfare schemes. Left Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan makes direct populist appeals to all communities including Muslims (signalling such as personally taking over the Minority Welfare Department), even as his party attacks the Congress-IUML coalition for encouraging minority communalism. But the overarching feature of Kerala’s minority accommodation remains tethered to the theme of greater substantive representation.

It remains an open question whether the secular parties of North India can integrate the productive elements of the more robust southern model, promising “substantive representation” to Muslims while fending off the BJP’s ‘attacks’ of “minority appeasement”.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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