India 2024 Polls: Easy To Tap Leaderless, Rudderless Muslims

Despite Muslims making up nearly 15% of India's population, the Muslim community is conspicuously underrepresented in campaigns for the 2024 elections. Both Congress and the BJP's actions towards the Muslim community are driven by a sense of apathy.

India 2024 Polls: Easy To Tap Leaderless, Rudderless Muslims

In the electoral circus of India, the fight for Muslim votes draws special attention. Muslims, called the second majority because they make up 15% of the Indian population, have a decisive presence in 90 districts, 100 Lok Sabha constituencies and 720 Assembly segments of India.

Overall, it is believed that Muslim votes affect results of around 100 Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) seats.

Population wise, Muslims are scattered in various Indian states: UP (19%, most populous), Assam (34%), West Bengal (28%), Kerala (27%), Bihar (17%), Jharkhand (15%), Delhi (13%), Karnataka (13%), Jammu and Kashmir (68%), Uttarakhand (14%) Maharashtra (12%), Andhra Pradesh (10%), Gujarat (10%), Rajasthan (9%), Madhya Pradesh (7%) and Lakshadweep (97%).

This significant number, clubbed with other sorts of support from the community that has a prominent presence in every walk of national life, most notably in cinema and cricket, makes every political party woo Muslims ahead of elections in a myriad of ways. This time, even the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thrown its net through the plank of empowering pasmanda (backward) Muslims and courting the sufi Muslims (read: non-Deobandi, dargah-visiting Barelvi lot).

However, the BJP’s bid is slated to be nipped in the bud under the burden of its own policies of playing the hardline Hindu, or Hindutva, card by sprucing up issues like temples, mosques, Uniform Civil Code and appeasement of Muslims by non-BJP parties like Congress either in the past or in whichever province the Congress is in power.

Professor Hilal Ahmed, an ace political analyst of India, told The Friday Times that the BJP will be the last party on the minds of Muslims when they cast their ballots. He nevertheless conceded that the Muslim support for the BJP has seen a marginal rise in recent years. “In 2014 and 2019 general elections, BJP garnered 6-9% Muslim votes, which is higher than previous years. In addition, Muslims don’t specifically vote to defeat BJP as is widely perceived. They vote as per the situation in a specific constituency, and weigh the candidate and not exactly the party,” said Ahmed.

But Meem Afzal, a veteran journalist and senior Congress leader, disagrees. He says that the BJP has been playing divisive politics by design and that the Muslims have been prime victims of the communal atmosphere in the country. “They will naturally vote for the India National Democratic Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) – the umbrella coalition of opposition parties led by Congress,” said Afzal.

The confidence in victimization of Muslims and absence of any alternative has made the INDIA bloc certain that the Muslim votes will fall in their kitty. That’s why Muslims figure least, even in their advertisement material.

The candidate list announced by the Congress, Samajwadi Party – two major clogs of INDIA and the chief claimants of Muslim votes – only has a countable number of Muslims. Even the Muslim-dominated seats like Badaun and Azamgarh will have Yadav candidates. There are several other seats where Muslims make up for more than 20% electorates, but the candidate fielded by INDIA will be a caste Hindu whose social section might not even have 10% of voters on that seat.

In fact, some weeks back, the Congress party has even dropped a picture of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad from a national-level advertisement that had appeared in almost all national dailies. Even a Congress deserter, VP Singh, who had accused former PM Rajiv Gandhi of corruption and had become PM after defeating Congress, was among the party dignitaries in the said advertisement. The reason apparently was to appear least Muslim in political optics.

“Why should the Congress care two hoots for a community that has nowhere to go except voting for it? The Congress is actually worried not to antagonize the Hindu votes which will bring it to power and they are right now holding on to the BJP firmly,” said Nakshab Khan, a senior journalist from West UP.

Meanwhile, the BJP has fielded a battery of Muslim leaders and freelancers to convince the community that the BJP is a safe bet for Muslims and that they can trust PM Modi who harbors a genuine concern for them.

Leading such BJP troopers is Professor Tariq Mansoor, former vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University which often remains in the crosshairs of BJP-aligned Hindu hardliners. He is also one of BJP’s national vice-presidents and a member of the upper house of Uttar Pradesh’s Assembly. He never appears in public among Muslims and writes occasional columns praising work of the BJP government to entice Muslims.

He lists a number of steps taken by the Modi government and that should impress Muslims to shun “untouchability” for the BJP. However, whenever he is contacted to check the veracity of his claims, he prefers not to engage in a dialogue.

Another Muslim intellectual who claims to be a “bridge” between Muslims and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the parent outfit of BJP and its other affiliates -- was recently raising the hackneyed issue of the “Ghazwa-e-Hind” because of a 2008 mention on the Darul Uloom website. When The Friday Times asked him about other pressing issues like the Modi government’s predicament in condemning Israeli action in Gaza as genocide, the eviction of Muslim from several colonies, the annulment of the Maulana Azad Educational Foundation scholarships (largely for Muslim girls), he too chose to be silent.

The attitude and policies of the BJP government are enough for the INDIA bloc to look the other way. Even the Muslim politicians from the parties that are part of the bloc are shying away from commenting on policies of their parties.

Last week, two prominent Muslim politicians, Dr Shafiqur Rehman Barq and Aziz Queshi, passed away within a gap of four days. While Qureshi passionately served the cause of Urdu and worked for Muslim empowerment in India (his most notable contribution being the signing of the bill to grant the university status to Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar University in Rampur), Barq fearlessly raised Muslim issues and was famous for his piety. He also died as the oldest sitting MP of India.

After Barq, his grandson, Zia Ur Rehman Barq, a member of provincial assembly, UP, is likely to be made a candidate from Barq’s Sambhal seat. However, despite party chief Akhilesh Yadav visiting his home, it’s not clear yet whether he will be offered the ticket. When contacted to comment on the same, he said that his party, SP, will definitely have a relook at candidate list and accord Muslims sufficient seats as they deserve. “The opposition parties are realizing that Muslims not only deserve to be voters, they deserve to be elected representatives,” he told The Friday Times.

The scene in Bihar where prime recipients of Muslim votes are Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Congress is not very bright either. The proportion of Muslim population (17%) is likely to be acutely underrepresented as compared to Yadavs and other Hindu castes.

In states where regional parties are non-existent or have only marginal existence, the Muslim votes go to the Congress en masse. 

Owaisi’s Articulation

The most notable of all the Muslim characters in present day Indian politics is Asaduddin Owaisi of the India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Despite being the sole MP of his party, he gets the maximum speaking time in Parliament and is the most sought-after face on Indian television. He is London-educated, articulate and knows how to marinate his arguments in constitutional sobriety. His good looks are also admired by TV anchors. 

He is at the same time accused of being modern-day Jinnah because of his penchant for raising largely Muslim issues from all the platforms he adorns. He shrugs off the charge, but he definitely seeks to become the pan-India shepherd of Muslim causes, if not votes.

On Saturday, he announced that his party will not be part of the INDIA bloc and field candidates in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra, setting off the fear of division in Muslim votes. But he shoots back by charging that who divides Hindu votes when chosen members of Congress and other regional parties join BJP in hordes?

He also charges the Congress-led opposition of deliberately ignoring the concerns of Muslims as it thinks that they will in any way vote to defeat the BJP. And thus, Muslims are not being spoken about, he says.

“They (the Opposition) are not fighting the polls based on any ideology. You have compromised on it. You are telling the country that the majoritarian narrative set by [PM Narendra] Modi is what you are also following. You think that Muslims will never desert you because they have no options. They don’t bother about Muslims. Today Muslims have no dignity or respect but no one wants to talk about them. BJP has invisibilised Muslims,” he told The Indian Express.

The rhetoric of Owaisi is pervading through the whole of India, wherever Muslims live and vote. 

The author is an independent journalist in New Delhi