The results of the Assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and earlier Delhi offer insights into the fresh churning in Muslim politics in India owing to the perpetuation of Hindutva politics. When the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) won five seats in the Bihar Assembly election in 2020, some secular voices interpreted it as a reflection of the party’s growing national footprint. They also saw it as a threat to Indian secularism as they saw the party’s advancement as a new trend of Muslims voting for Muslim parties in post-Partition India. But in the recent West Bengal election, AIMIM fielded seven candidates and drew a blank. In Bihar, the AIMIM received just 1.24% of the vote share and in Bengal, only 0.02%.
A persisting myth
In Bengal, it was argued that the Indian Secular Front, formed by Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric of the prominent Furfura Sharif, was going to be a spoiler for the Trinamool Congress by giving an advantage to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, a vast chunk of the Muslim votes went to the Trinamool, including from the traditionally loyal Muslim voters of the Congress and Left parties. Mr. Siddiqui’s party fought 27 seats and managed to win only one. Once again, the myth that Muslim voters are blindly loyal to Maulanas or the clergy was busted.
These results have established once more that Muslim voters are exceptionally politically savvy and secular in their electoral preferences. This myth that Muslim voters are swayed by Maulanas , however, has a long history. It acquired national prominence when the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Abdullah Bukhari, appealed to Muslim voters to vote against Indira Gandhi in 1977. He appealed to voters to vote for her in 1980, which saw her return. Ever since then, nearly all the tall leaders of major ruling parties in New Delhi such as the Gandhis, V.P. Singh, Deve Gowda and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee have given credence to this myth through their gestures. In the 2004 parliamentary election, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Ahmed Bukhari, urged Muslims to vote for the BJP, which backfired. But the myth continues to have its own life, and fatwas are delivered at the behest of various parties.
Politics of counter-polarisation
In Assam and Bengal, Muslim voting behaviour was clearly dictated by the politics of counter-polarisation leading to the closing of ranks among Muslim voters as a response to the politics of polarisation.
In Assam, Muslim voters endorsed the ‘grand alliance’ led by the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front. In Bengal, Muslim voters emulated the Muslim voters in Delhi who chose to abandon the Congress in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) believing that Arvind Kejriwal would demonstrate his secular credentials once elected. However, Mr. Kejriwal’s conduct during the Delhi riots and later has led many to believe that he is anything but a closet secularist. The decision of most Muslim voters to move away from the Congress in Delhi and from the Left and the Congress in Bengal, on the one hand, and stay with the Congress as part of the ‘grand alliance’ in Assam and with the Left in Kerala, on the other, does not imply that they consider the Trinamool or AAP as being more secular than the Left or Congress. In their reasoning of the politics of counter-polarisation, Muslim voters hope to send an unambiguous message that parties like the Congress or the Left, while seeking future alliances, need to factor in the greater threat that Hindutva poses to their security and welfare instead of simply seeking to save their electoral turf. If they do not, they better face decimation.
There is a fair chance that Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh will emulate the voting wisdom of their counterparts in West Bengal. Given the colossal failure of the BJP government in dealing with the second wave of the pandemic, their decisions could contribute to the making of an anti- Hindutva politics.
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims