The madness of wooing the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh
Suddenly, Muslims are in the midst of controversies surrounding everything from quotas, Salman Rushdie and yoga.
Maybe it's a good idea to cancel elections in Uttar Pradesh. The fact that the state has a Muslim population of around 18.5 percent makes most parties willing to kill for a share of the same.
This is why we are seeing a season of madness on Muslims, by Muslims, and for Muslims.
The Congress kicked it all off by announcing a 4.5 percent sub-quota for minorities within the overall 27 percent reservation for other backward castes (OBC). In India, "minorities" is always short-hand for Muslims, even though there are Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs around. The purpose of the sub-quota idea was to divide both the Muslim and OBC vote – which the Samajwadi party considers its core base. To show that it is pro-Muslim, the Congress also introduced the idea of a minority quota in the Lokpal Bill – which is about corruption.
To push a good thing along, the Congress' Muslim face in Uttar Pradesh, Law Minister Salman Khurshid, talked of introducing a 9 percent quota for Muslims in the state. This, coming from the same man who urged Muslims to shed the ghetto mentality, is quite something.
When the UP election was not in sight, Khurshid said that he was not in favour of focusing the delivery of economic benefits exclusively to Muslims as opposed to “ensuring an equitable share,” The Indian Expressquoted him as saying last June. Seven months on, with the whiff of better performance in sight in Uttar Pradesh, Khurshid apparently does not mind a bit of religious wooing.
The Samajwadi Party will probably try to out-promise the Congress on quotas, and the BJP has announced a shrill counter-campaign claiming another vivisection of the country is round the corner.
Next, the Darul Uloom seminary at Deoband wants India to block Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to India for a book he wrote 23 years ago (The Satanic Verses). Rushdie is one of the star attractions at the Jaipur Literature Festival starting on 20 January.
On Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi’s effigy was burnt in Azamgarh for an earlier folly committed by the party’s eternal foot-in-mouth hero, Digvijaya Singh. Singh had claimed that the encounter in Delhi’s Batla House in September 2008 may have been staged. This, when a much-decorated officer of the Delhi police, MC Sharma, was killed in the encounter while trying to apprehend suspected operatives of the Indian Mujahideen terror group. Singh's attempts to appease Muslim sentiments came home to roost when it backfired on Rahul Gandhi during his visit to Azamgarh to drum up the Muslim vote.
The madness has enveloped the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh as well, where Muslim clerics have announced that the yogic posture of surya namaskarais "unIslamic" because it worships the Sun. The state government has planned a mass (and voluntary) surya namaskara involving over one crore people on Thursday (12 January) in order to enter the Guinness Book of Records.
Of course, the Madhya Pradesh government is no innocent in the matter, having recently made the anti-cow slaughter ban tighter and more stringent than before. This riles Muslims more than anybody else.
What is it about Islam and Muslims in India that it brings out only the worst kind of politics in us?
The problem, quite clearly, starts with the—possibly flawed—assumption that Muslims vote en bloc. The rise of the BJP, BSP, Samajwadi Party and the Congress party in UP at various points of time gives the lie to this proposition. But facts don’t worry politicians when on a vote hunt.
But in a multi-cornered, four-horse race, where every chunk of vote counts (Mayawati won the last election with 30.5 percent of the vote), Muslims are obviously the prime targets of vote-bank politics. Since the Muslim vote will probably split three ways this time – between the SP, Congress and Mayawati – the competition is sharper. This is why the politicisation of quotas, Rushdie and surya namaskara is rising to a crescendo.
Courting the Muslim vote has become even more rabid this time because of the Congress' glaring failure to deliver on the community's expectations. Soon after it came to power in 2004, the UPA set up the Sachar committee to report on the economic and social status of Muslims – raising expectations that the government will do something for them.
The fact is the UPA merely used Sachar to give Muslims the illusion of working for their welfare. If anything has changed for Muslims on the ground, it has been because of the community’s own efforts, and not anything the government did.
Abusaleh Shariff, an economist and key member of the Sachar Committee, believes that far from trying to mainstream Muslims by helping them get educated and equipped for jobs, the government is trying to patronise them and push them back into their shells.
In an outspoken interview to Governance Now, Shariff said: "The UPA government considers Muslims as fools. The Sachar committee wanted schools for Muslims but the HRD ministry promoted madarasas. Who wanted madarasas for Muslim children? The government is fooling Muslims, promising that it would modernise the madarasas. We told the government that only three percent of the Muslim children go to madarasas, 97 percent of them need (regular) schools. The government has not taken the underlined message of the Sachar committee to make Muslims part of the mainstream."
Having failed Muslims even after promising them the Sachar moon, the UPA is back to wooing Muslims as vote-banks. Little wonder, everyone else has hopped onto the same bandwagon.
Muslim vote-bank politics is sharper in Uttar Pradesh than elsewhere in India because this state has largely failed the community.
According to the 2001 census, the Muslim literacy rate is higher than the Hindu one in seven major states – Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. In Kerala, Muslims and Hindus are level.
In the states where Muslims are faring significantly worse, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir are standout cases. But the explanations vary for each state. In J&K, terrorism has held Muslim progress back. In West Bengal and Assam, infiltration from Bangladesh has skewed the Muslim picture.
Only in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has bad politics delivered bad results on Muslim advancement. The current arguments over quotas and Rushdie will ensure that this state of affairs continues.
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