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Parties beware: The Muslim vote bank is about to go bust

National and secular parties – big or small – had better watch out. Identity-based politics is beginning to see the emergence of new Muslim parties, challenging the assumption that the real political fight is between secular and communal parties in national and regional polls.

In the secular category currently are the Congress, the Left and assorted regional parties ranging from the Samajwadi to the BSP and DMK; in the non-secular category, only the BJP has been pigeon-holed into the slot, even though parties such as the Akalis and the Shiv Sena are no different. Now one can add the slew of Muslim parties to the second bundle.

If religion or communal parties start developing muscle of their own - the same way caste-based parties have done everywhere - what happens to those who depend on these votebanks?

A key electoral pillar underpinning the success of national and regional parties other than the BJP has been the availability of Muslim bloc votes. Muslims are said to vote tactically against the BJP where it is the main contender for power, but they vote on issues when the contenders are non-BJP parties.

However, this paradigm is slowly giving way with the gradual – but inevitable – rise of several Muslim parties. Parties ranging from the old Indian Union Muslim League (IUML, largely restricted to Kerala), to the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF, in Assam) and the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM, largely in Hyderabad), not to speak of the traditional Kashmir Valley parties like National Conference and the PDP, are now being complemented by the rise of smaller region-based Muslim parties in places as far apart as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and even Maharashtra.

No longer an assured vote bank for secular parties? PTI

If the trend consolidates - as it surely will - the Muslim vote bank will be busted for good. The Muslim vote will no longer be available to so-called secular parties just for the asking.

Consider the evidence.

In the recent Jangipur Lok Sabha poll in Bengal Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit barely squeaked through in the recent byelection, thanks to the arrival of two Muslim parties into the fray. Between them, the Welfare Party of India and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) polled 41,620 and 24,691 votes, largely Muslim. As opposed to this, Mukherjee won by barely 2,500 votes. A little more polarisation, and he could have lost miserably.

In the Nanded Municipal Corporation polls, where former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was widely credited with bringing the Congress victory by winning 41 of the 81 seats, what got missed in the air of self-congratulation was the rise of the MIM. From one seat, the party rose to 11 this time. One would not be surprised if the Congress victory was the result of the polarisation of the Muslim vote, a key bulk of which went to the MIM.

In the last Uttar Pradesh polls, the new Muslim-based Peace Party of India made few waves, but one is likely to hear more from it in future. Tamil Nadu already has a Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam to complement the rest of the OBC-based Kazhagams that currently dominate state politics.

In Assam, where the Muslim-based AIUDF is the second largest party after the Congress, politics is heading towards the Kerala model, where votes will be split in future along communal, tribal and caste lines. Congress CM Tarun Gogoi may have won the last time because the rise of the AIUDF may have consolidated the non-Muslim, non-immigrant vote towards the Congress.

And in Kerala itself, the IUML is flexing its muscles by demanding a greater share of power in the ministry. The Muslim party recently triggered a controversy when its Public Works Minister, VK Ebrahim Kunju, told a party meeting in Palakkad that the League controlled the state. "Though we are not openly saying that, it is a reality. Only those things in the interests of our party will be allowed to be done in the state," Business Standard quotes Kunju as saying, based on a speech aired by TV channels.

This new Muslim assertiveness is creating the first stirrings of future realignments. In Kerala, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – usually engaged in a murderous war with the Left – made an overture to the Left this time. According to Deccan Herald report, TG Mohandas, writing in the Sangh’s Malayalam mouthpiece Kesari, called for “friendly” ties between the two organisations.

The CPI(M), sensing a trap, has quickly rejected the idea, but what is important to note is the potential for future realignments, given the expected rise of communal identity-based parties among minorities. Some political observers in Kerala also believe that the Hindu vote is gravitating towards the Left due to the growing clout of the IUML and other radical Muslim parties.

The slow, but steady, rise in Muslim-based parties is likely to radically change the basics of Indian politics.

It is not possible for any national or regional party – and especially those with claims to the secular vote – to treat Muslims as a vote bank.

Even for the BJP, which does not claim a minority vote bank, the implications are not certain. In Jangipur, for example, it scored a surprising surge in votes, from barely 21,000 in 2009 to over 85,000 this time. According to a Times of India report, the BJP garnered block votes from Hindus in this Muslim majority constituency, as well as some Muslim votes, as it had taken a strong position against compulsory land acquisition for setting up a branch of the Aligarh Muslim University in the area.

A Hindustan Times report quotes a Congress leader as saying that but for the division of the Muslim vote among two Muslim parties, the BJP could well have pulled off an upset victory over Pranab Mukherjee’s son. “We are fortunate three Muslim candidates of the CPI(M), Welfare Party and the SDPI contested or else the BJP would have done us in,” the newspaper quotes Adhir Chowdhury, MP and Murshidabad District Congress President, as saying.

In Nanded, too, Muslims have begun to abandon the Congress’ leaky rainbow coalition in droves to seek direct representation.  A report in DNA quotes a MIM district party chief, Syed Moin, as saying this: “The Congress has betrayed the people of Maharashtra, especially the Dalits, Muslims and the OBCs.” He says the MIM will contest on its own in 2014 in the state assembly polls.

The writing on the wall is clear: the new Muslim parties and growing consciousness among minority voters that they can be a force to reckon with in regional and national elections, at least in pockets, has meant that they are not willing to play the old politics of votebanks, where they voted en bloc for whoever could defeat the BJP.

In fact, the idea of “secular” parties itself could be in for a redefinition, since it would no longer be possible to maintain the fiction that only the Hindu-based BJP is communal when parties based on minorities are going to grow in number and clout.

The upshot: the Muslim vote bank is going bust for the parties that hitherto relied on them.

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