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Indian parties jostle for Muslim vote

With elections less than 100 days away, Muslims are being wooed since their votes would decide at least 100 seats.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2014 12:17
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Muslim support is said to have helped Mamata Banerjee to come to power in West Bengal state [EPA]

A few weeks ago on a windy day in Ahmedabad, Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi was flying kites with Bollywood superstar Salman Khan.

On India's eastern tip in Kolkata, the state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was busy breaking bread with the Muslim community.

In Lucknow in central India, former chief minister Mayawati was talking of unity between her lower-caste Dalit community and Muslims.

Down south, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was sewing up an alliance with the Left parties, aimed at shoring up her support base among religious minorities.

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With Indian parliamentary elections less than 100 days away, it is not surprising to see politicians of every possible hue trying to woo voters.

But clearly, Muslims, who form 13.4 percent of India's population, are getting some extra attention. Muslims are spread all over the country and the outcome in at least 100 of the 543 parliamentary seats are estimated to be decisively influenced by their votes.

How important it is for politicians to be on the right of Muslim sentiments was evident last year, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar broke up his alliance with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after the latter named his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Muslim vote bank

Kumar had shared power with the BJP in his home state since 2005, but decided to part ways since he feared that the appointment of Modi - under a cloud for allegedly doing little to stop anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat - would erode his own Muslim support base.

The support of Muslims is critical for Kumar, as his own Kurmi caste community is too small to alone make a mathematical difference in electoral outcomes.

Kamal Faruqi, who quit as the secretary of the Samajwadi Party only recently, agrees that Muslims play a critical role in deciding electoral outcomes in India.

According to him, the Congress wrested power from the BJP in 2004 elections as Muslims returned to its fold in droves after being scarred by the Gujarat riots.

"The Congress got advantage of 2002 in 2004," says Faruqi.

Beside claiming thousands of lives, the riots left the Muslims fearful and unsettled.

The Samajwadi Party currently rules Uttar Pradesh state - India's largest province, and according to Faruqi, the Muslims played a critical part in bringing the party to power by voting out Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2012.

Among everything else, the Samajwadi Party had promised to set up an Urdu Academy and introduce reservations in education and jobs for Muslims.

Wooing Muslims

It's a different matter that many of the election promises have remained unfulfilled and anti-Muslim riots rocked parts of the state last year.

Somen Mitra, a prominent politician from the eastern state of West Bengal, also acknowledges the electoral importance of Muslims as a very large religious minority voting bloc.

According to him, the Trinamool Congress led by the mercurial Mamata Banerjee came to power in the state in 2011, ending 34 years of Communist rule, because the state's 28 percent Muslim electorate switched loyalties.

... political parties must court all sections. No one should win on the basis of just one community as that kind of ideology is self-serving

- M H Jawaharullah, Tamil Nadu-based political party

Faruqi sees "nothing wrong in politicians wooing Muslims as political parties should address the interests of every section of the society to ensure inclusive growth".

But M H Jawaharullah, leader of the Tamil Nadu-based political party Manitha Neya Makkal Katchi, disagrees.

He says "political parties must court all sections. No one should win on the basis of just one community as that kind of ideology is self-serving".

D Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) shares Jawaharullah’s views, saying winning by securing the votes of a particular community in a pluralistic democracy like India makes for a "hollow victory".

According to him, the issue of minorities "requires a long-term perspective with some immediate steps.

"Elections come and go, but the problem needs to be addressed."

Modi's appointment as a prime ministerial candidate has put Muslim-related issues under the spotlight like never before. Their security is the foremost among them.

But Zafar Sareshwalah,a 50-year-old Ahmedabad-based businessman who bats for Modi, says the emphasis on security alone is misplaced.

Fragmented support

"Look at West Bengal: the state has not witnessed a single riot in 40 years, but Muslims there are living in pathetic conditions. In West Bengal only 2 percent of government jobs and 3 percent of police jobs are held by Muslims, as opposed to 12 and 11 percent respectively in Gujarat," he points out.

According to Sareshwalah, the Muslims want education, health care and infrastructure. "Muslims too have aspirations, they want opportunity and it has been thwarted for the last 67 years in the name of 'minoritism'.

"In fact it 
has been a double whammy for them: On the one hand the government schemes do not reach them, and on the other some Hindus claim that Muslims are pampered."

With a large vote bank with a potential to swing electoral outcomes at stake, every party is out to have a share of the pie.

In the initial years after India's independence, Congress had near monopoly over all sections of voters including Muslims. Gradually, as a single party gave way to coalitions both in the states and Delhi, the nature of polity changed.

Demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 shattered the confidence of Muslims in Congress party, says Jawaharullah. "The Congress redeemed this in 2004 but is now losing out to regional parties," says Faruqui.

As support blocs slipped from Congress to regional parties, even the BJP has been shaping its own definition of secularism. Historically, the Hindu nationalists insisted on the principle of Hindu first. The compulsion of coalition politics has, however, forced a change in the BJP.

Tarun Vijay, a senior BJP leader, insists "minoritism breeds religious polarisation, ghettoes and vote bank politics which results in continuous backwardness of various segments of society."

Yet, his party - favourite to win the next polls - boasts of a "minority cell" to address the issues of minority communities, including the Muslims. And Modi is required to fly kites with Salman Khan for the shutterbugs. "That's the lesson the complexities of Indian elections teach to its politicians. If you have to rule, you have to take along everyone," experts say.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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