‘The tough choice before Muslims’ in the 2014 Indian elections

Mumbai's famous Haji Ali shrine. Housing the grave of a famous Muslim saint, it is one of India's many sites that transcends religion, where people of all faiths congregate.

Devotees walk to Mumbai's famous Haji Ali shrine. Housing the grave of the legendary Muslim saint Haji Ali, it is one of India's many pilgrimage sites that transcends religion, where people of all faiths congregate. Voters in Mumbai cast their vote today. Photo by Ashraf Engineer

‘The tough choice before Muslims’ in the 2014 Indian elections

24/04/14

By Ashraf Engineer

India is home to 1.2 billion people and hundreds of religious denominations. Muslims account for 13.4 per cent of this staggering diversity, outnumbering the Muslims in Pakistan and trailing only Indonesia in headcount.

Their large numbers, however, haven’t prevented their trailing the rest of India on many indicators. In rural areas, the percentage of Muslims living below the poverty line is high in many states such as Assam (53.6 per cent) and Gujarat (31.4 per cent), according to the Tendulkar Committee report. In urban areas, Muslims’ poverty levels are the highest –56.5 per cent in Bihar and 34.9 per cent in Gujarat, for instance.

Perhaps only the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are worse off. A pilot survey conducted in 2011 to identify the ‘below the poverty line’ population found that scheduled castes and scheduled tribes constitute half of the country’s total ‘poor, deprived households’. 

In 2006, the Central-Government-constituted Sachar Committee confirmed what most already knew: Muslims are near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Muslims, it found, had a low share of university admissions, public-sector jobs, and ranks in the army and police. The economic benefits of the past 20 years haven’t percolated down sufficiently to them.

Walk through the Muslim ghettos and slums of Mumbai and Delhi and you sense a strong urge for education, better civic amenities, jobs, housing and lines of credit for their businesses. Residents and shopkeepers tell tales of being turned away by brokers and owners when hunting for residential or commercial real estate. Years ago, the credit card application of my own father – a well-to-do businessman – was returned – rejected– with ‘self-employed Muslim’ scrawled across it.

It’s not surprising, then, that the US-India Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, found that Muslims ‘have not shown any measurable improvement’ while studying the community’s progress after the publication of the Sachar report.

This backwardness is a serious issue. There is simmering resentment within the community at successive governments paying mere lip service to these problems, and at being treated like a vote bank.

Today, this resentment is accompanied by a new sentiment – anxiety. It is probably fair to say that India’s 140 million Muslims have never been more uneasy about an election than this one. The ascent of Narendra Modi, the hardline Hindu nationalist prime ministerial candidate, threatens to polarise the electorate in a manner that didn’t happen even after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. 

Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat province in 2002, has been accused of aiding – or at least doing nothing to stop – the massacre and displacement of hundreds of Muslims after the burning of a train car that killed more than 50 kar sevaks (Hindu religious volunteers) returning from Ayodhya.

However a special Investigation Team headed by retired CBI director RK Raghavan, set up by the Supreme Court of India, found no evidence against the Gujarat chief minister in April 2012.

The special team was appointed by the Supreme Court in 2009; it delivered its report in May 2010. The court then handed over the case to a court in Ahmedabad and asked it to decide if Modi should be tried. In April 2012, the Gujarat court agreed with the findings of the Supreme Court. This led to Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declaring that his innocence in the 2002 Gujarat riots was proven.

However, Muslims’ fear of Modi has heightened since the riots took place in Gujarat. Crammed into filthy ‘relief camps’, those displaced by the riots are still languishing. Many localities in cities such as Ahmedabad are now divided between Hindu and Muslim zones. Ahmedabad’s Juhapura neighbourhood, for instance, is a Muslim ghetto. Noted Indian Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, who visited the locality, wrote in The New York Times: “Mr Modi’s engines of growth seem to have stalled on The Border [of Juhapura and its adjoining Hindu-dominated locality – AE]. Modi’s acclaimed bus network ends a few miles before Juhapura. The route of a planned metro rail line also stops short of the neighbourhood. The same goes for the city’s gas pipelines, which are operated by a company belonging to a billionaire businessman close to Mr Modi.”

Peer goes on to describe the conditions in a tenement settled in by riot-displaced families: “The cluster is called Citizens’ Nagar, or Citizens’ City, and wherever you stand in the self-made neighbourhood you can see, half a mile away, a big brown mountain: the largest garbage dump in Mr Modi’s boom city.

“When I walked around Citizens’ Nagar last week, the brown mountain was burning into thick grey clouds under a harsh afternoon sun. The wind pushed pungent fumes toward the tenements. I struggled to breathe and feared I would vomit.”

When Modi’s efforts to be named the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP gathered steam, he suddenly made a show of reaching out to Muslims and focusing on the economy. While he has paraded some Muslims who support him, his new posturing hasn’t cut much ice with the community as a whole. His sudden donning of the ‘secular’ hat isn’t working either, especially after BJP leader Giriraj Singh  said that those opposing Modi should move to Pakistan.

In addition, some claim that Modi has a dictatorial style of functioning – within his party as much as outside it – which alarms them, although he also has many supporters.

What is interesting is that Muslims are in a position to influence the outcome of polling in many constituencies. According to a C-Voter study, Muslims account for more than 21 per cent of the electorate in 73 constituencies and 11 per cent to 20 per cent in 145 constituencies. In a Parliament that many believe is likely to be hung, each seat counts.

A consolidation of the Muslim vote against Modi (he has run this campaign as in a presidential-style, saying a vote for the coalition he heads is a vote for him) could prove decisive.

In the past, the community has voted against the BJP but the concerns detailed above have left it confused. On the one hand, it is eager to teach a lesson to those parties (such as the Congress and the Samajwadi Party) who’ve exploited it for political gains. On the other, the spectre of a deeply communal regime is terrifying.

In this scenario, many are looking at the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man’s Party, as a viable alternative.

AAP was the product of an anti-corruption campaign launched by revered social crusader Anna Hazare. Arvind Kejriwal, a former government employee, was his close aide. The two parted ways with Kejriwal choosing a political stage for the battle and Hazare resisting it. Kejriwal and his supporters launched AAP and went on to win the Delhi provincial elections, forming a government that lasted a mere 49 days.

In the past, Muslims have chosen secular parties like the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in crucial provinces like Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for the highest number of seats in Parliament. However, the community feels let down by these parties too.

The choice before Muslims is a tough one: vote for the tried-and-failed options or risk a Modi regime that might attempt to do a Gujarat – sometimes labelled the ‘laboratory of Hindutva’ – on India.

Muslims also understand that splitting their votes between AAP and the Congress could help the BJP win in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Meanwhile, AAP is making the BJP nervous because it is attracting people who don’t want a return of the Congress but can’t find it in themselves to support a saffron-led combine (BJP and allies such as the Shiv Sena). If this is the scenario that plays out, the BJP’s gains would be severely limited.

Thus, Indian Muslims find themselves at a major crossroads because how they vote in this election will not just determine their community’s fate at least over the next decade, but it may determine the fate of India over the next 10 years.

Ashraf Engineer was a journalist for 17 years and is currently Vice-President – Content & Insights at MSLGROUP, a global strategic communications consultancy. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @AshrafEngineer

 

Polling is underway in the the sixth and second-largest phase of the Indian general election today, 24 April, which has entered its third week.

More than 180 million voters are eligible to vote today for 117 MPs in 12 states and union territories, including Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, where India’s commercial, finance and entertainment capital, Mumbai is based.

Stakes are high for the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as many regional parties, who will probably hold the power if an alliance has to be created to form a government in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (the House of the People, the lower house of parliament in India which is composed of representatives of the people chosen by direct election). Any party or coalition needs a minimum of 272 MPs to form a majority government.

Voters in Tamil Nadu will be electing 39 MPs today in the 16th Lok Sabha. The BJP is traditionally weak in Tamil Nadu and whichever party wins the most seats in the Lokh Sabha could have to form an alliance with a regional party in Tamil Nadu, such as the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is not part of any electoral alliance, or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK.)

The 16th Lokh Sabha election, being held in nine phases, will end on 12 May and the counting will take place on 16 May. More than 814 million Indians (100 million more than the last election in 2009) are eligible to vote.

Asia House is carrying a wide selection of stories and opinion pieces on the Indian 2014 elections. To read them click here. 

Read Aditya Ghosh’s story on who AAP is appealing to and why and how the regions of India might hold the power in how the elections may play out.