Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2004
Issue No. 687
International
EGYPT 2010 MONDIAL BID
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

India's Muslim myth

Religion is the last thing on the minds of an increasing number of India's Muslims as they head to the polls, reports Jaideep Mukerji from New Delhi

Click to view caption
India's women, of all sects, cast their votes in Tuesday's general elections
(photo: Reuters, AP and AFP)

With a population of 140 million people, India's Muslims make for an impressive political force. Asides from the sheer number of votes they provide, securing the Muslim vote was long considered indispensable for any political party claiming to be a secular, pan-national movement in India.

The only problem is -- as many political parties are only now discovering -- is that the Muslim vote doesn't actually exist.

While media and politicians alike often characterise India's Muslim community as a kind of monolithic entity that can be rallied behind a single party, this year's elections reveal a diverse community that increasingly votes for parties based on issues of education, economic opportunity and political stability. Whereas in the past political parties could get away with making lavish promises to the community at large, Muslims today are far more discerning.

M J Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Indian Muslims were tired of being taken for granted by political parties.

"The Muslim vote has matured," Akbar explained from his office in South Delhi. "The community moved away from the lurid temptations offered by fundamentalists in the 1980s with their backward arguments against social reform. For the first time ever, Muslims are voting for the future and not the past."

Akbar felt it should come as little surprise that Muslims do not vote as a bloc given the huge diversity between Muslim communities across India.

"A Muslim in Delhi has more in common with a fellow Delhite who happens to be Hindu than he does with a Muslim in Tamil Nadu," he said. "Muslims, like the vast majority of Indians everywhere, are more concerned with regional issues than they are about religious ones, I mean the Hindu of Bengal does not call up the Hindu of Tamil Nadu to ask him how he will vote, does he?"

While regional diversity within the Muslim community is nothing new, India's fragmented political landscape is providing new opportunities for Muslims to assert their political diversity.

For the better part of 50 years, the Muslim community generally voted for the India's National Congress Party, owing to a widespread belief that Congress was the only secular party capable of looking after their interests. According to Akbar, however, over time Congress became increasingly complacent vis--vis Muslim concerns.

"For years Congress took us [Muslims] for granted because they figured that there was no other alternative to their party," explained Akbar.

Today, however, India's political environment is far different: there are some 170 parties to choose from and secularism is increasingly prevalent across the political spectrum. The greater variety of political choice available, coupled with the Muslim community's increasing pragmatism, now opens the door to a host of new voting permutations, some of which were unimaginable just five years ago.

A case in point is the effort by the ruling Bahratiya Janta Party (BJP) to woo Muslims voters.

The BJP and the Muslim community share a difficult past. The BJP is widely believed to have helped unleash the mob of Hindu fundamentalists that destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya back in 1993 and many BJP allies still justify its destruction on the grounds that the mosque was built over an ancient temple to the Hindu god Ram.

While the BJP expressed deep regret over the communal violence that swept across India in the wake of the mosque's destruction killing thousands of Muslims, the party has yet to publicly condemn those who destroyed the mosque.

Now, as part of their effort to shed their nationalist image and broaden their overall appeal, the BJP, is taking great pains to reach out to the Muslim community. Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee, considered by many to be the secular face of the BJP, last month unveiled an election manifesto that specifically outlines a plan to help the Muslim community through education, economic development and empowerment.

Coupled with a markedly softer approach towards resolving the Ayohdya dispute through a negotiated settlement, BJP spokesperson Maqtar Abbas Naqvi, also a former BJP cabinet minister, told the Weekly that the BJP was confident of making substantial gains within the Muslim community.

"Rather than treating Muslims like a vote machine, the BJP focuses on issues that matter to minorities. Many Muslims, you could even say a majority, now see the BJP as being honest and Muslim-friendly political party," he said, adding "I myself am a Muslim, I am proud to be a Muslim and I have been with the BJP for 20 years."

Despite Naqvi's optimism the BJP faces a tough time in selling its new softer, gentler image. A recent Times of India poll found that a majority of Indians felt the BJP's secular approach was a political gimmick and only a third of respondents felt the BJP was being sincere when it said it was committed to a negotiated settlement over the Ayodhya dispute.

Sadia Devli, a media consultant in Delhi, told the Weekly that she thought the BJP's secular image was "total eyewash".

"After what happened at Ayodhya and the communal riots in Gujurat, there is a lot of insecurity within our Muslim community, and the BJP is responsible for it," she said. "They say that they are a secular party but the fact of the matter is that they are not. They are responsible for Ayodhya and what happened in Gujurat and Muslims should vote to get rid of them."

Some Muslims, however, appear willing to give the BJP the benefit of the doubt. Sajit Khan, 33, a senior executive with the Taj hotel group, says he has no qualms voting for the BJP.

"I think that the BJP is a secular party," Khan says. "They are extremely focussed on the real meaning of development. Look at the progress they have made with the economy not to mention Pakistani relations. I appreciate the fact that they can make a difference."

Saeed Naqvi, a noted political commentator, explained to the Weekly that such views were indicative of the growing diversity within the community. According to him, the absence of a unified Muslim vote was good not only for the Muslim community, but the country as a whole.

"The search for a purely Muslim leadership would be divisive," he said. "It would play right into the hands of Hindu fundamentalists who would use it as an excuse to stir up Hindu nationalist feelings. What Muslims need is secular leadership and there are an increasing amount of options open to them."

Saeed Naqvi acknowledges that by voting for specific regional issues, Muslims run the risk of being let down over the few remaining truly pan-Muslim concerns in the country such as under-representation in the civil service and fears of a rise in right-wing Hindu fundamentalism. In his opinion, though, the benefits of a secular Muslim vote far outweigh its political consequences.

"Muslims have no choice but to vote along secular lines. There is a chance that political parties will ignore them, but this is a genuine democracy and through the ballot box a kind of harmony will be created," he said. "There is no more secular vote in this country than the Muslim vote and I think it has the potential to be a unifying force within the country."

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