Why Indian Muslim politics is about to change forever
One by one, small Muslim parties are emerging as players in state after state. This is going to change Indian politics like never before.
Political parties created of, by and for Muslims in India will be the defining trend of the current decade. This will change Indian politics forever.
If the politics of the last 30 years was defined by the creation of caste-based parties comprising various strands of OBCs and Dalits – which branched out from mainstream political parties in many states – the second decade of the 21st century will see Muslim parties seeking to discover their own power of agency.
On Thursday, The Times of India reported from Mumbai that on 1 May Muslims in Maharashtra will announce the formation of a new political party for motives that go no further than “service" to the community.
Quoting Salim Alware, a member of the still-unnamed Muslim party’s core committee, the newspaper reports: “Muslims count 20-30 percent in over 60 districts and in a few districts they are even around 40 percent. Yet, there are just 11 Muslim MLAs in the current assembly. Our interaction with masses in 21 districts so far gives us hope that an alternative political platform in the state is possible."
This development should not be read in isolation, for there has been a deep realisation among Muslims that most political parties have stopped at symbolism in supporting their causes.
The recent Uttar Pradesh election saw the rise of the Peace Party of India (which won four seats). The last two Assam assembly elections saw the rise of the All-India United Democratic Front (AUDF, which won 18 assembly seats), and in Tamil Nadu there is the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, a political front of the activist Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), which won two assembly seats in alliance with the AIADMK in the 2011 assembly elections
This does not add up to great political clout, but to this motley group must be added the traditional Muslim parties with strong, regional pockets of influence - the Indian Union Muslim League (in Kerala), which has always been part of the regional power structure, and the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (in Hyderabad). When Telangana is formed, MIM will be more than a handful in that new state.
The impact of the Muslim parties is clearest in Kerala and Assam – where they command real power by being among the top three parties in terms of seats or vote shares.
The parties in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and the still-to-be-formed one in Maharashtra are nowhere near able to flex their muscles, but one thing can be said with some certainty: they are on their way. It may take all of this decade for them to build their political muscle and assembly strengths and meaningful coalitions, but it is more than likely to happen.
The central logic of this development is this: Muslims are the only social group in India who are still to discover their power of agency. Every other caste or religious group either has its own party, or wields real power inside traditional parties.
What is surprising is that Muslims took so long to realise that none of the political parties really gives them the kind of real representation and share of power despite their huge share of the national population (around 14 percent).
One may question the need for a religious-identity based party for Muslims in secular India, but the obvious truth is that our secularism is a superficial, where all the mainstream parties have given Muslims little more than token representation. Muslims have not prospered in any state run by a “secular” party, whether it is UP, Bihar or even Communist West Bengal. This suggests that even secular parties are at the core “communal”. (Read the Sachar report, which documented the status of Muslims, here).
While it is not surprising that a so-called Hindu party like BJP does not give Muslims their due, the Congress, the Communists and various regional parties do not do that either.
The tragedy of Muslim politics in India has been that after partition, Jawaharlal Nehru’s secular politics drove Muslims towards the Congress, but once Nehru disappeared from the scene, the Congress policy towards Muslims was reduced to running a protection racket for the community without giving them real economic benefits. Congress politics was reduced to courting the most sectarian and reactionary of Muslim leaders, to the irritation of the Hindu elite.
In other words, the Congress practiced its own brand of minority vote-bank politics, and periodic communal rioting all through the sixties and seventies and eighties helped herd frightened Muslims towards the Congress during election time – to the detriment of their economic prospects. The worst Gujarat riots took place not under Narendra Modi, but in the late 1960s, when the BJP did not exist.
The first to break away from the Congress brand of umbrella politics were the other backward castes (OBCs, in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu), followed by the Dalits under Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.
The Congress, an unstated coalition of upper caste, Muslim and Scheduled Caste and Tribe voters, did not deliver the results to the latter three. This is what prompted Kanshi Ram to launch his Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to consolidate the Dalit vote and identity over the long term. In Mayawati, the Dalits finally discovered their true power of agency – their right to represent themselves and look after their interests.
The rise of Congress vote-bank politics in the 1960s and 1970s gave the BJP (formerly Jana Sangh) hopes of creating its own Hindu vote-bank on the rebound. For a while, during the Ayodhya movement and after 2002 in Gujarat, this vote-bank almost came into being. But a Hindu vote-bank that groups all castes under one banner was always an unlikely prospect – as the creation of several caste-based parties in the Hindi heartland and in the south shows.
The fault-lines in caste will ensure that there will be no monolithic Hindu party or vote-bank, and the same could be true for Muslims, too. In the initial phase of the re-discovery of identity politics as a tool of social and economic empowerment, Muslim parties may be more regional than national in character.
While it is difficult to predict how this will reshape Indian politics over the coming decade or two, one thing is clear: Muslims will no longer be willing to play second fiddle to the parties they so far voted for, whether it is the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad, the Communists, or Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Indian politics over the next decade will thus evolve to take one or two forms: coalitions of caste- and religion-based parties both at the centre and states, or much higher representations for communities in the mainstream political parties.
The BJP victory in Goa was largely the result of the latter idea. The party’s decision to give tickets to more than half-a-dozen Catholics party tickets was what brought it to power. It cannot now go back to Hindutva – though it can certainly claim to represent Hindu interests and negotiate with those who represent Catholic ones.
Politics in the country will thus have to follow the Kerala model (where each community – Muslims, Christians, Ezhavas, Nairs - has its own party) or the UMNO model of Malaysia, where the coalition will always be headed by the Muslim United Malays National Organisation, with the Chinese and Indian populations having their own parties as junior – but powerful – partners.
This, in fact, opens up possibilities for parties like the BJP, which can now woo Muslim or caste-based parties on the latter’s own terms. However, tokenism is not going to work. The BJP’s Hindu character – which it cannot deny – is currently a weakness because this places it squarely in the sectarian camp.
An alliance with, say, a Muslim party or a Dalit party (as recently happened between the Shiv Sena-BJP and the Republican Party of India - worked out on the basis of power-sharing and an agreed approach to policies, could convert this weakness into a strength. A Hindu party aligned with Muslim and Dalit parties could be a potential winner since it would not then be seen as communal. (The paradox: When the entire coalition is communal, it is secular)
The liberal ideal may be to have political parties that represent economic or social ideologies, where communal identities do not matter in governance.
But India is not currently headed that way. Till we reach a minimum level of economic and social inclusion, the best we can hope for is a genuine coalition of castes and communities.
An emerging coalition of regional Muslim parties is the missing link that will complete the picture in this decade.
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