The electoral success of the BJP in the recent UP Assembly election seems to have rekindled one of the most unsettled political debates of postcolonial India: the question of Muslim political representation.
The opponents of the BJP question the politics of polarisation by which, we are told, the Muslims of the state eventually become a significant ‘other’ – a threat to the country.
The BJP’s clear refusal to give tickets to Muslim candidates, Prime Minister’s Eid, Kabristan remarks during the campaign, the alleged tempering with EVMs, and finally the fragmentation of Muslim votes, the argument goes, led to the victory of the BJP.
It is also contended that only 24 Muslims have been elected to the UP Assembly this time, which does not go well with the ‘proportional’ demography of the state.
This interpretation of the verdict ignores the fact that the Muslim community of UP is not a politically homogeneous entity. The social stratification among Muslims as well their political inclinations do play a decisive role in forming electoral preferences. Caste, sect, economic background and regional locations constitute a number of different and overlapping political configurations at various levels.
As a result, we do not find any single Muslim voting pattern in elections. This Muslim electoral heterogeneity is, rather misleadingly, described as ‘tactical voting’. In fact, this has been the reason why non-BJP parties evoke the idea of Muslim electoral unity beyond the more apparent constituency level.
But, at the same time, there is another Muslim identity. The Constitution of India recognises Muslims as a religious minority and offers a legal protection to all those communities who describe themselves as Muslims. This legal-constitutional homogeneity, interestingly, is prioritised over Muslim political heterogeneity, at least in this election by non-BJP parties.
The engagement of Muslim communities with the electoral apparatus, in this sense, should be seen in relation to the various claims made by political parties for adequate and/or effective Muslim political representation.
The BSP’s overwhelming claim that Muslims must be given adequate opportunities to contest election rests on the assumption that Muslims must be represented only by Muslims; and, if Muslims are given an option, they would always vote for Muslims.
This kind of ‘proportional representation’ cannot survive in the Indian first-past-the-post electoral system where electoral constituencies are not designed on demographic lines.
BJP’s extremely provocative idea of ‘secular representation’ is equally problematic.
Although the party’s adherence to ‘winnability’ of candidates does point towards the micro-management of voters of different communities at the booth level, the strategy to ignore Muslims (in ticket distribution as well as in acknowledging Muslims as a minority in the party’s manifesto) shows that the BJP is no longer interested in addressing Muslims as Muslims.
Obviously, the Muslims of UP cannot be deprived of their collective identity as a constitutionally recognised religious minority, especially in the present context when Muslims are posed as the enemy of the nation. It is true that the BJP has won seats in Muslim-dominated constituencies; but this does not ensure that the party’s hostile attitude towards Muslims as a minority would change.
It is worth recalling the Sachar Commission Report here. The report categorically states that although Muslims’ issues cannot be separated from the concerns of poor and marginalised communities, there are certain specific problems which only Muslims face. The Report recommends multilayered structural changes by which Muslims as citizens and Muslims as a religious minority could adequately be represented in the political sphere.
Representation by Numbers
The postcolonial story of Muslim political representation also tells us that numbers do not always matter. The assumption that Muslim presence in legislative bodies would ensure protection of minority rights is factually incorrect.
The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 is a good example when the presence of highest-ever number of Muslim MLAs in UP Assembly could not prevent communal violence in the state.
This is the reason why Muslim representation in Rajya Sabha, state Vidhan Parishads, and appointment of Muslims as Governors, Presidents, and Vice-Presidents are also crucial.
These are the spheres of our democracy, where the government has a more direct role to play. Interestingly, the Muslim representation in these key domains is comparatively much higher.
Prime Minister’s post UP-victory speech is relevant in this regard. His assertion that although elections are won through majority, democracy functions entirely on broad-based consensus, seem to underline the distinction between first-past-the-post system-based electoral system and constitutional commitments for minorities and weaker sections.
This statement has a wider political significance. It points towards the much debated question of effectiveness of representation. Although Narendra Modi does not directly address Muslims, his adherence to forming a ‘general will’, a consensus of views, must be taken up seriously. It would be interesting to look at how an effective ‘Muslim presence’ would be figured out in this consensus-building exercise.
(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached @Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)