With the mahagathbandhan politics taking shape ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the term ‘Muslim vote bank’ is back in currency.
The Samajwadi Party (SP)-BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal and the Telangana RashtraSamithi (TRS) in Telangana will be wooing the ‘Muslim vote’ to build a winnable configuration to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from returning to power.
For the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah, on the other hand, addressing Muslims as voters in any form is automatically an act of ‘vote bank politics’ – especially with the party mantra of ‘development of all and appeasement of none’.
But even amid this seemingly emerging consensus that Muslims must not be used as a vote bank, there is really no effort by any political party to stop looking at them as a politically homogenous entity. It is an irony that while Muslims are not addressed as a diversified group (with clear class-caste-gender divides), they are expected to defeat vote bank politics by voting in a collective manner.
This apparent contradiction helps sustain the idea of Muslim vote bank. The obsession of the Indian political elite with it will continue, although there is ample empirical evidence in the form of electoral statistics that suggest that the ‘Muslim vote bank’ is indeed a myth.
But neither the Congress nor the SanghParivar invented the term Muslim vote bank.
The term Muslim vote bank originated from the frequently used expression ‘vote bank’ in the 1950s. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas, who conducted fieldwork in a village in Mysore region (now Karnataka) in 1953, was probably the first political observer, who used the expression ‘vote bank’ to describe the relationship between politicians and the rural elite.
Srinivas noted that locally powerful individuals emerged as ‘vote banks’ for politicians, as they were approached by the leaders to mobilise voters of their caste/community. In return, Srinivas argued, ‘these patrons expect favours – licenses for buses and rice mills, and seats in medical and technological colleges for their kinsfolk.’
Even socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s famous pamphlet A Plea for Reconstruction of Indian Polity (1959) said politicians used existing prejudices and social stereotypes for electoral mobilisation. The Indian electoral process had become an ‘experience of demagoguery’, he said.
‘Vote bank’ emerged as a universally applicable descriptive term to critique India’s electoral process and political parties. The term began to find concrete expression in the politics of later years.
In 1967, Muslim voting became an important point of reference. As the non-Congress parties began to mobilise Muslims for making a winnable social coalition of minorities, SCs and backwards (and the consequent appeal by Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat), the Congress approached pro-Congress Muslim clergy.
The ensuing years of election fatwa politics of Abdullah Bukhari of Jama Masjid in the 1980s, and finally the secular/communal divide of Indian politics in the 1990s established the perception that the Muslims of India constitute a homogeneous political community governed by the logic of the ‘Muslim vote bank’.
The reasons why the idea of Muslim vote bank has survived as an acceptable political metaphor are:
First, the Muslim ‘communities of voters’ are not viewed in their immediate local/regional context of caste/biradari coalitions. Instead, their electoral behaviour is envisaged as a clear reflection of a singular, national-level Muslim attitude.
Second, the Muslim vote bank is also used to justify the convenient political package termed ‘Muslim Issues’, viz, the protection of personal laws, Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu and Babri Masjid.
All political parties respond to these issues, directly or indirectly, to create the impression that the participation of Muslims in electoral politics can be reduced to their Islamic identity and this clutch of issues.
Even as the BJP ostensibly opposes these ‘Muslim issues’, it does not refute them completely – the recent triple talaq debate is a revealing example.
The Muslim vote bank as a metaphor is certainly going to survive in 2019 but in a completely different form.
As expected, the BJP would use the idea of ‘Muslim vote bank’ to underline the closed, ghettoised and homogenised Muslim political identity. This will help the party sustain and consolidate its core Hindutva vote, especially in the Hindi-speaking states.
BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said in a recent statement: “The favourite prime ministerial candidate for Muslims in the 2019 polls is Narendra Modi, because he sees all 132 crore people of the country just as Indians. Other parties have seen them as a vote bank.”
The Congress is not going to address Muslims directly as a community of voters either and would prefer to place the Muslims in the category of ‘excluded groups and minorities’. Such strategic placing of Muslims will not disrupt the Congress’s ideological rediscovery of Hinduism. In the recent assembly elections, Muslim voters were deliberately not reminded of the Sachar Committee Report as ‘a gift of the Congress’.
Regional coalitions like SP-BSP in UP would also bank on the imagined Muslim political homogeneity. Such political configurations are expected to call upon Muslims to support them collectively in order to defeat the BJP.
Post-2014, it is unlikely that any political party would evoke the old ‘Muslim issues’ (like Babri and AMU) to approach Muslim voters directly. But that doesn’t mean they would raise the real issues of poverty, caste-based divisions and unemployment either.
The author is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.