Opinion: BJP and the Muslim Vote

This article is exceptional. Spontaneous force of reality comes through this article.

Patrick French is an award-winning historian and political commentator. His books include ‘Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division’, ‘The World Is What It Is’ and ‘India: A Portrait’.

It’s lucky Indians invented the use of zero in a decimal system – along with fractions, division and the minus sign – because otherwise how would you do electoral calculations? Let’s say there’s a five-cornered contest in a constituency with three dominant communities, of whom two sometimes vote in combination: will candidate A, B or C be more likely to take the seat, and will their party finally back the NDA or the UPA after the election? It’s no wonder pollsters can sometimes sound more like soothsayers making predictions than statisticians analyzing plausible data.

Electoral calculation or ‘winnability’ was probably what the BJP leadership was thinking of when it decided not to field a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a long and distinguished tradition of Muslim cultural and intellectual life.

“We have given tickets in other states,” was the lacklustre answer of party president Rajnath Singh when he was asked about this. “I want to make an appeal to all Muslim brothers and sisters that they should join us.” His thinking was, I guess, that although the BJP was doing its cautious best to avoid touching on the Hindutva issue in the election campaign, it stood so little chance of picking up Muslim votes that there was little point in trying to demonstrate inclusivity. The BJP may feel it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t: put up a Muslim candidate and risk alienating your hardcore supporters; don’t bother, and your party will be accused of intolerance.

But there’s a more practical lesson from history about the dangers of ignoring such a significant part of the population. In 1937, the eleven provincial assemblies of British India (as opposed to the princely states, which did not practice democracy) held what at that time was India’s biggest ever election. It was a key test of popular opinion across the nation. More than 1,500 ‘unreserved’ seats were contested, and Congress took the lion’s share – but they only managed to return 26 Muslim representatives.

In the seats reserved for Muslims, the results were less impressive for Congress, except in the North-West Frontier Province where it was allied with the Khudai Khidmatgar movement. The Congress leadership concluded after the 1937 elections that it could pursue its larger ambitions without depending on Muslim votes.

We all know what happened next: Congress failed to engage with minor political groupings like Jinnah’s Muslim League, which responded by making an appeal to the religious roots of its own community. The price of membership of the Muslim League was cut to two annas (half the fee for joining Congress) and within a matter of years a marginal outfit had become a mass movement. Today, the prospect of this kind of Muslim separatism in India is unimaginable. But the complexity of India’s electoral arithmetic means that – leaving aside moral arguments in favour of social cohesion and unity in diversity – a successful ruling BJP has no choice but to be inclusive.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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