New Delhi, India – As India conducts the biggest democratic exercise in the world, its Muslim minority has little to cheer amid their increasing electoral marginalisation.
In the lower house of the outgoing parliament known as Lok Sabha, there were only 22 Muslims of 543 politicians.
The South Asian nation’s largest minority forms some 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population, but only four percent are represented in the Lok Sabha. It is the lowest Muslim representation in five decades, compared with more than six percent a decade ago and a peak of 9.6 percent in 1980.
Many young Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to expressed pessimism about the future of Muslim politics in the country currently ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Over the last five years, the BJP has polarised votes to such an extent that political parties are now reluctant to give tickets to Muslim candidates. Parties fear it will cost them the Hindu vote bank,” Mohammad Adnan, who runs a travel agency in New Delhi’s Jamia Nagar area, told Al Jazeera.
In 2014, BJP won a record 282 seats in the Lok Sabha with none of its MPs from the Muslim community.
In the past five years under Modi, the representation of Muslims in state assemblies has also fallen, with critics blaming anti-Muslim rhetoric pushed by the BJP.
“BJP very consciously and explicitly aims to exclude Muslims from the public sphere,” Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University based in Haryana state, told Al Jazeera.
‘Hindu majoritarian party’
Verniers said the BJP’s policy of marginalising Muslims electorally is a signal to its voter base that it is a “Hindu majoritarian party”.
In 2017, the BJP didn’t field a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with a population of 40 million Muslims. In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which also went to the polls in 2017, BJP again failed to give a single ticket to Muslim candidates. The right-wing party came to power in both states.
A BJP spokesperson denied the party discriminated against any citizen on the basis of religion.
“BJP doesn’t discriminate or distinguish between Indian citizens on the basis of caste, religion, colour, region or any other agenda. It (BJP) follows Article 14 of the constitution, right to equality, in totality,” Nalin Kohli told Al Jazeera.
“Representation or giving seats in an election is primarily winnability-driven. We have had Muslim candidates also and [if] more such winnable candidates are part of our party fold, they certainly will find their opportunities,” he said.
The secular parties, including Indian National Congress – a party that prides itself for having fought for India’s independence with purported ideals of plurality and secularism – have also begun to shun Muslims in recent decades.
Last year, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said the BJP had managed to “convince” people that the Congress was a “Muslim party” and indicated that her son and current party president Rahul Gandhi’s much talked-about visits to Hindu temples were an attempt to shed that perception.
“With the formidable rise of the BJP, other political parties have also become somewhat reticent in fielding a lot of Muslim candidates. The Congress, in particular, the BJP’s main rival, has reduced the number of tickets to Muslims due to fear that it would backfire electorally,” said Verniers.
Mohammad Sajjad, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh,said Hindu majoritarianism is aimed at making India’s Muslims “electorally irrelevant”.
BJP very consciously and explicitly aims to exclude Muslims from the public sphere
“The Hindu consolidation is being done by vilifying Muslims, by spreading hatred against Muslims,” he said.
Modi came to power on a promise to deliver economic growth, more jobs and to end corruption, but as he seeks a second term, the country is facing its worst job crisis in 45 years.
The past five years have seen a rise in hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities, and people, mostly Muslims, have been lynched by “cow vigilantes”, radical cow protection groups.
According to FactChecker.in, which tracks hate crimes in India, of 79 fatal incidents recorded by the website since 2009, 76 happened in the past five years.
Meanwhile, the people involved in hate crimes have been honoured by senior ruling party leaders.
Jayant Sinha, a Modi cabinet minister, last year stoked controversy after he garlanded eight men – convicted for killing a Muslim cattle trader while they were released on bail.
“Since the BJP government came to power, Muslims are living in an environment of fear,” said Ehtisham Uddin, a resident of Old Delhi.
“Every now and then, we see reports of a Muslim attacked on suspicion of eating beef or in other cow-related cases.
‘Silence on Muslim exclusion’
Kohli, the BJP spokesperson, however, said that the “prime minister himself has condemned such acts of hooliganism”.
“[The] law is acting against each one of such perpetrators, we are not interfering in it.”
Political analyst Shiv Visvanathan said that as the BJP’s influence spreads, it is becoming more and more exclusive.
“BJP wants a uniform world,” he said. “It doesn’t know how to be pluralistic.”
Visvanathan said the BJP’s electoral majority has made it “indifferent to minority politics”, adding that in such a climate, “nobody is raising issues concerning Muslims”.
“This election will be known for its silences rather than issues,” he said.
Verniers said even other political parties, with their claims of secularism, have failed to take on the BJP on its anti-Muslim stance.
“No one is really willing to confront the BJP on its practice of exclusion of Muslims. They are not doing it out of fear of being branded pro-Muslim, and therefore anti-Hindu,” Verniers told Al Jazeera.
History of underrepresentation
While India’s Muslims have held high-profile constitutional posts, including the president and chief justice, analysts say the community has been historically underrepresented in democratic and government institutions.
In 1947, a majority of Muslims did not migrate to Pakistan when British India was partitioned into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. In India’s first national elections in 1952, only 11 Muslims could make their way into parliament.
“In the first elections after independence, parties wouldn’t give too many seats to Muslims as there was a clear lack of legitimacy of Muslim candidates and a climate of suspicion against Muslim politicians,” Verniers told Al Jazeera.
“The Congress would provide them protection against their votes, but that would not translate into political representation. That practice lies at the root of skewed Muslim representation.”
Author and political commentator Siddiq Wahid said the Congress looked at Muslims only as a “vote bank” and did little to promote leadership within the community.
However, senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz called the grand-old party a “unifier” and a “great hope, not only for Muslims but for all the downtrodden people across India”.
“The weaker sections of society look up to the Congress,” Soz told Al Jazeera.
Professor Sajjad, however, added that mere emphasis on identity may not help Muslims and they should also focus on quality leadership.
Between 2012 and 2017, Sajjad said there were more than 60 MLAs from the Muslim community in the Uttar Pradesh assembly – but they didn’t speak out against the violence that happened in several parts of the state against Muslims.
“So mere numbers won’t work. Muslims require quality leaders who can make intervention both inside and outside the legislative arena,” he added.