Friday, July 11, 2014

The Muslim Question

The 16th Indian Lok Sabha has the lowest number of Muslim MPs ever.
What does this signify for the future of Indian Muslims?

By Tahera Sajid

An exercise conducted every five years, the Indian general elections were held in nine phases from April 7 to May 12, 2014, to elect the 16th Lok Sabha from 543 parliamentary constituencies of the 28 Indian states. In a country of 1.237 billion, 814.5 million people were eligible to vote, making this the biggest-ever elections in the world.

The results were historic in many ways. The two major political forces in the contest were the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the United Progressive Alliance led by the Indian National Congress. While the NDA won a total of 336 seats in a house of 543, the BJP won 282 – or 51.9 percent. This clear majority allowed the BJP to form its government without support from other parties. The UPA won 58 seats, of which the Congress won 44 (8.1 percent), facing the worst political defeat ever in a general election.

This clear mandate for the BJP is unprecedented and, on face value, shows the voter’s confidence behind the political force or the dogma represented by a party known for its nationalist agenda. Many critics consider the meager representation of Muslims in the Lok Sabha at 4.2 percent (23 out of 543) to be a blow to inclusiveness, especially when seen in the context of the Muslim population representation in India – 13.4 percent. This stands out even more in states like Uttar Pardesh where the Muslim population is more than 18.5 percent, and which has elected 45 Muslim MPs to the Lok Sabha since independence but has offered no Muslim candidate this time. The 23 Muslim MPs belong to eight states and 11 parties and offer a scattered and diluted presence at best for India’s largest minority community. As Christophe Jafferlot observed in The Indian Express, this situation “will not help them to build a cohesive presence in the House nor to weigh much within their own parties.” Even the induction of Najma A. Heptulla, the lone Muslim in Modi’s cabinet, who holds the portfolio of Minister for Minority Affairs, is seen as more of cosmetic than functional value. What does such a sweeping victory of a Hindu nationalist party say about India’s pluralism and secularism? More importantly, what does this victory predict for the future of Indian Muslims?

There are two strong opinion camps on this issue. The first is of those Muslims who fear and foresee further marginalization, unfair social treatment and hindered social development, threat to life and property, passing of contentious and controversial laws and selective application of justice in cases of communal violence.

The second camp believes that while the polarization of Muslim and non-Muslim voters due to riots affected voting trends in areas like western UP, another major reason is the disappointment of Indian Muslims with the Congress’s fraudulent secularism based on ‘all talk and little action’. Syed Ubaidur Rahman, the author of Understanding the Muslim Leadership in India, supports this idea, “The average Muslim's refrain is the same as that of the 'aam aadmi', that the Congress lost because of rising food prices and corruption.”

For decades, the Congress promised jobs and educational quotas to Muslims but failed to deliver on its promises. Social indicators place Muslims as performing socially and economically below national averages, even when recognized as educationally, economically and socially disadvantaged under Other Backward Class (OBCs) by the Indian Constitution, and deemed eligible for targeted uplifting schemes. They continue to have the lowest literacy rates among all minority communities in the country, at 67.6 percent in 2012, as against the national rate of 74 percent. They also remain under-represented in business and the professions, such as medicine and law, etc.

Muslims of Indian origin living overseas largely support the same narrative. Hamida Hirani, an Indian Muslim living in the U.S., has called the vote "less pro-Modi and more anti-Congress". She emphasizes that “the Congress party has not delivered on promises it made under the banner of secularism and the condition of Muslims has not improved despite decades of Congress rule. Things might get worse before they get better but since Modi is a known hardliner, his policies and actions will be under more scrutiny and that might help Muslims in the long run. People are desperate for change.”

Modi has been widely condemned for the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims and was not allowed to enter the U.S. and the U.K. for years. However, the success of his economic policies in Gujarat is also a well-acknowledged fact. The voting trend in areas where Muslims are a substantial part of the population has shown that many young people are desperate for economic opportunity and seem willing to overlook the BJP’s anti-Muslim history to focus on Modi’s strengths in governance and development. In choosing the BJP, they are simply rejecting economic deprivation to welcome economic prosperity. The analysis by Simon Denyer in the Washington Post also supports this mindset: “The promise of Mr. Modi and the reason for his wide lead in the polls is clear: a tough, practical and corruption-free record of economic management, though he never apologized for the massacre of 2002. As chief minister of the Gujarat state, Mr. Modi has overseen growth averaging 10 percent a year over the past decade, significantly higher than for the country as a whole.”
Modi also appears to be rising to the occasion and adapting to the role of a national leader. Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood, President of the Zakat Foundation of India, has written about Modi’s desire to offer “inclusive growth opportunities” to Muslims, quoting Modi’s remarks at the joint session of the parliament in his write-up. “We will have to undertake focused activity and initiate special purpose schemes. I do not consider such schemes as appeasement; rather I see these as an instrument of ameliorating the life of Muslim community," he wrote.

However, Dr. Mahmood has also cautioned that words must be followed by action. He points out that contrary to the BJP’s manifesto which promises to ensure a peaceful and secure environment where there is no place for either the perpetrators or exploiters of fear, the BJP government has not taken effective action on the recent murder of Pune resident Mohsin Shaikh or the Muzaffarnagar riots. The perpetrators of the riots continue to threaten and harass Muslims while the defeated BJP candidate Naresh Tikait even went so far as to declare that the riots “were a trailer; we can even throw you (presumably Muslims) out of the country.”

In conclusion, although India is a nation composed of many diverse ethnic and religious groups, with their own complex group dynamics, one thing common to all is their aspiration for a better life. Hence, in the elections, Indian Muslims appear to have disregarded religious affiliation of candidates, rejected political opportunism of false secularism and opted for change. It is now up to the BJP to prove itself worthy of their trust. As prime minister, Modi must honor his role as a national leader and deliver on his promise of development for all, discarding the mantle of a nationalist leader with a divisive agenda. The ball is in his court, and the world is watching.

SouthAsia Magazine, July 2014

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