ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

What is Muslim vote bank?

The ‘Muslim vote bank’ is an established political template by which the voting behaviour of Muslim communities in India is understood and analysed. We are told that the ‘Muslim vote’ is very decisive in electoral politics because the ‘winability’ of a candidate at the constituency level and the sustainability of any political coalition at regional/national level are inextricably associated with Muslim support. Rajnath Singh’s so-called apology to Muslims, Ministry of Minority Affairs’ three page advertisement in most of the daily newspapers called Minorities on the March,  Ram Vilas Pasvan’s justification for ‘issue based support’ given to Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and Lalu Yadav’s fight against communal forces are seen as calculated attempt to woo Muslims. Although these oversimplified and straightforward conclusions have been criticised as an imagined phenomenon, the ‘Muslim vote bank’, seems to function as a dominant mode of explanation for interpreting Muslim engagements with electoral politics.

Broadly speaking, the notion of ‘Muslim vote bank’ is based on a strong conviction that Muslims of India as a political community are fully conscious of their political interest and legal rights, and as a result, they are sincerely involved in political action. This portrayal of Muslim political identity simply goes against the actual sociological-cultural composition of Indian Muslim communities. Muslims, like any other social group in India, are divided on caste, language, region, class and even religious lines. This internal diversity actually determines the nature of political engagements of Muslims at various levels. For example, the Muslim response to regional politics in Kerala cannot be compared with the Muslim politics of Uttar Pradesh — partly because of the incomparable caste-class configurations and partly because of state-specific political dynamics.

But, the discourse of competitive electoral politics does not entirely relate to Muslim sociological plurality. Instead, this discourse revolves around three different formulations:

(a) Identity: The Constitution of India recognises the Muslim community as a ‘religious minority’. Therefore, legally as well as politically, it is appropriate to describe Muslims of India as homogeneous entity.

All political parties subscribe to this position. Even the BJP (which argues for a ‘secularism of equality’ and oppose special privileges given to religious minorities) and the Communist parties (which used to believe in the centrality of class thesis!) tend to define Muslims as a closed community.           

(b) Issues: There are a few specific all-Indian Muslim issues, which can either be transformed into electoral promises or denied as ‘Muslim appeasement’. 

This formulation has evolved gradually over the years. Nehru’s reassurance to Muslims that they were the legitimate political stakeholders in India in the mid-1950s; the appeal of non-Congress parties, including the Jan Sangh (the predecessor to the BJP) to create a social alliance of Muslims-Dalit and backwards in the name of anti-Congressism in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the rise of a ‘secular camp’ in the wake of Shah Bano and Babri Masjid controversies in the late 1980 and 1990s; and finally the proposal for Muslim reservation by United Progressive Alliance I and II have contributed to the making of a few ‘Muslim issues’.               

(c) Expectation: Muslims of India are more concerned about those common issues and concern that affect them as a religious minority; therefore, their voting behaviour is contingent upon to the adequate packaging of ‘Muslim issues’.

This expectation is not completely imagined. Political parties approach Muslim individuals as well as institutions as ‘intermediaries’ to create a favourable equilibrium. The presence of a few ‘Muslim faces’ in almost all the parties is a good example to illustrate this point. 

The ‘Muslim vote bank’, thus, turns out to be a logical outcome of these three formulations. Politically parties evoke the constitutional identity given to Muslims to make a few political proposals. The issues such as violence against Muslims, Muslim backwardness and reservation, which are related to administrative discourse, find a clear political overtone; and, Muslim voting eventually becomes merely an object of political ‘bargain’!

The Muslim voting patterns, on the contrary, demonstrate that there is no ‘Muslim vote bank’. The Muslim participation in electoral politics primarily depends on issues such as employment and education. However, the political parties are not keen recognise this fact. BJP want Muslims to vote as Indians as if these are the only two ultimate identities; Bahujan Samaj Party is not interested in Pasmanda Muslim politics as if the question of Muslim caste is politically irrelevant; Left parties have not yet taken up the question of Muslim artisans classes as if Muslims need to vote for them only for the sake of secularism; and the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are misleading the question of Other Backward Classes reservation, as if reservation is given on religious lines!

The notion of Muslim vote bank, it seems, will continue to survive, until and unless Muslim plurality is not recognised as a political reality.                     

About Author

Hilal Ahmed (ahmed.hilal@gmail.com) ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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