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Muslim Vote-Bank Politics

Saturday 11 March 2006, by SANGHVI*Vir

It is now impossible to switch on a TV news channel and not come across a BJP leader complaining about Muslim appeasement. If the BJP is to be believed, the UPA government has pampered the Muslim minority — by linking India’s Iran vote to our Shia population; by demanding a community-by-community head-count of the army; by preserving the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University; by raising the spectre of faith-based reservation and God alone knows what else - to the extent that the terrorism we saw in Varanasi earlier this week was an inevitable consequence.

At one level, this argument is silly and easy to refute. If you take the line that terrorism emerges out of appeasement, then the BJP is a party of Muslim-appeasers. There were many more serious terrorist incidents (involving Muslims, if you want to get specific about it) under the NDA government than there have been since the UPA took office. And as for appeasement, was there ever a more pathetic sight in the history of independent India than watching the country’s BJP Foreign Minister personally escorting three notorious terrorists to Kandahar before linking arms with the leading lights of the murderous Taliban regime?

But at another level, the BJP’s point has to be taken seriously because of a growing disquiet within Hindus about the growth of extremist Muslim sentiment. I wrote last week about the beginnings of a Hindu backlash that I had sensed in my travels around the country. And I have also written (most recently, in Thursday’s HT) about the need for liberal Muslims to fight the lunatic fringe that seeks to hijack the community’s agenda.

My view, however, has always been that the Hindu uneasiness stems not from any specific anger over governmental appeasement but from the manner in which some Muslims now define themselves. In the heyday of the Ayodhya movement, it was credible to talk about how sarkari secularism discriminated against the majority. But now, the Hindu unease emerges out the tendency of some Muslim groups to seize on global Islamic concerns - the Danish cartoons, the Iraq war etc - and to place them at the forefront of the domestic agenda.

To many Hindus, this amounts to a diminution of Indian nationalism and confirms the RSS-Mahasabha view that Indian Muslims are Muslims first and Indians second.

It is in this context that I urged liberals and secularists from all communities - not just liberal Muslims - to speak out against extremism. But all three of my pieces have evoked objections and protests. Here are two of the most common objections - and my responses.

Why should liberal Muslims speak out?

Many people have asked if I am not putting too much pressure on ordinary Muslims who are quite happy to go about their lives without taking too much interest in politics or religious affairs. Why should they be forced to take public stands against people they have nothing in common with only because they happen to share the same religious faith?

I accept that this is a valid criticism. And it is certainly not my intention to suggest that every apolitical Muslim must now be dragged into community affairs. As I have written, all liberals - of whatever persuasion - must stand up against the lunatics who place bounties on the heads of Danish cartoonists or hold society to ransom by threatening to riot to draw attention to their religious agendas.

But I do, nevertheless, believe that objections to communalism and extremism have the greatest credibility when they emerge from within the community itself. Take the example of Gujarat. If you look at the loudest voices of protest and list all those who dared to take on Narendra Modi, you will find that the overwhelming majority were Hindus.

Indian secularism draws its strength from secular sentiments within communities. Of course Muslims were angry with Modi - wouldn’t you be if a mob came and burnt down your house? - but the reason why Modi remains a pariah outside of Gujarat to this day is because India’s Hindus made it clear that he was a hideous aberration in the history of Indian secularism.

So it is with Muslim extremists. Of course Hindus will condemn them. But they will be shamed only when their own community turns against them.

Is the Congress to blame?

For much of the 1980s, I wrote and re-wrote the same secularist piece on voting patterns many times. Basically, my thesis was that there was no such thing as the Muslim vote. Muslims lived and voted like everybody else on the basis of the same issues: local concerns, the economy, electoral promises etc.

I still think that this thesis was valid through the 1980s. But there is no doubt that it broke down in the communally charged climate of the 1990s. By then, Muslims had begun to mistrust the Congress. They became suspicious during the shilanyas phase of the late 1980s, and their suspicions turned into outright hostility when Narasimha Rao not only did nothing to protect the Babri Masjid but also conveyed the impression that he was the first BJP Prime Minister of India - which, in a sense, I suppose he was.

Many of the dramatic changes that have characterised politics in the Hindi belt have been a direct consequence of the refusal of Muslims to vote for the Congress. Without the Muslim vote - crucial in over 120 UP Assembly constituencies - the Congress has been wiped out from the cow-belt. In its place have come new regional parties - the SP and the BSP in UP, the RJD in Bihar etc - that Muslims have preferred. Such parties have built new coalitions consisting of their caste blocs plus Muslims, and have used these vote-banks to dominate the politics of the region.

The Congress knows that its sort-of-victory at the last general election was a flash in the pan. If it is to remain in power and win a full-fledged mandate, then it must recapture its old strongholds in the cow-belt. The reality is that it cannot do so unless the Muslims resume voting for it.

This dynamic has pretty much determined government policy towards Muslims since the last election. It explains why Mulayam Singh Yadav is so hysterical about the Congress: if it wins back the Muslims, then that is the end of the SP. And it explains why the Congress ties itself into knots over Muslim issues.

Some of what the Congress wants to do is commendable. Muslims are among India’s most disadvantaged minorities. They are poor, under-represented in all government jobs (hence all that talk about a head-count in the army), not literate enough, suffer appalling discrimination and are at the mercy of some of India’s most unscrupulous politicians who have a vested interest in ensuring that the community remains backward. So, any reasonable person will support new measures that benefit the Muslim community - perhaps even a dose of affirmative action.

The problem is that because Muslim support is so crucial to the Congress’s prospects in the cow-belt and because it is competing for Muslim support with parties like the SP which have no commitment to civilisational (let alone, liberal) values, the Congress has lost sight of the big picture. It does not realise how irresponsible it is to discuss the Iran vote in terms of Shia

sentiment, for instance. India’s foreign policy cannot be held hostage to vote-bank considerations. And the Congress’s silence over recent extremist statements has been shameful.

If a Hindu minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government had asked his supporters to commit murder and announced that the first successful assassin would get a prize of Rs 51 crore, you can imagine how the Congress would have reacted. There would have been calls for the dismissal of the state government, for the imposition of President’s Rule and the Centre would have found a way of arresting the minister.

But the only reason that Yaqoob Qureshi’s incitement to murder has been greeted with a discreet silence from the Congress is because he is a Muslim. In its quest for Muslim votes, the party is reluctant to do or say anything that may annoy a single Muslim - no matter how grave the provocation.

This is a pathetic situation for a national party to be in. It is also short-sighted. The Congress must know that people already see it as an alliance of convenience, binding together opportunists of all hues, united only by a lust for power. If it condones Muslim extremism (while condemning Hindu extremism) in its search for votes, it becomes no better than the SP.

But that, sadly enough, is the state of Muslim politics today. The community’s agenda is being hijacked by lunatics, such parties as the SP are encouraging extremism, and India’s largest party, the Congress, is so scared of scaring away the Muslims who are crucial to its electoral survival, that it hesitates to oppose even the most blatant and outrageous examples of violent extremism.

Is it any wonder that LK Advani has stopped singing MA Jinnah’s praises and cynically decided to go back to Muslim-bashing?

It worked for him once. And he thinks it might work again.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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