Minority votes

Potent antidote

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Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav felicitating Tabassum Hasan of the RLD who won the Kairana Lok Sabha seat, at his party office in Lucknow on June 6. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The RLD’s victory in the Kairana Lok Sabha byelection proves that majoritarian triumphalism, which has taken root since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, can be defeated with grass-root level social engineering and by making minority votes matter.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election was a watershed in more ways than one. It proved many points: that governance can actually become an election plank; that caste and religious barriers can actually be surmounted if you can convince the people that acchhe din (good days) are round the corner; that a ruling coalition can be discredited and discarded without there being any substantive evidence against it for being corrupt, if only you are able to mount a boisterous propaganda against it; and that a whole section of the country’s population, mainly religious minorities, can actually be rendered electorally ineffective if Hindu majoritarianism is invoked. As the election results poured in, several Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders could be heard boasting that “we have made Muslims irrelevant electorally”.

The political reality was that for the first time in Indian democracy, a party with a relatively low vote share, just 31 per cent, became the ruling party. The only other time when a party formed the government at the Centre after registering a low voting percentage was in 1967 when the Congress won 283 of the 520 Lok Sabha seats and got a vote share of 40.8 per cent.

In 2014, the Congress’ vote share plummeted to 19.1 per cent, its lowest ever. This meant that an overwhelming 49 per cent of the vote had been frittered away, simply rendered irrelevant because it got divided. Taken together, the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) vote share was 38.5 per cent and the United Progressive Alliance’s was 23 per cent. An overwhelming 38 per cent of the vote fell into the “rest” category, and this was as big as the ruling NDA’s vote share. The verdict left a vast section of people feeling left out of the political process, of having suddenly become persona non-grata.

The frenzied back-patting by the saffron brigade made many people squirm. That their worst nightmares came true was evident from the events that followed: the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) in 2015 on the suspicion of storing and consuming beef; cow protection forces attacking cattle handlers; “love jehad” and other scaremongering tactics against people of different religions falling in love; and the silencing of rationalist voices through assassinations.

What caused further dismay was the fact that opposition party leaders were totally clueless about how to counter the challenges posed to the pluralistic ethos of the country. Until, of course, the Kairana Lok Sabha byelection in Uttar Pradesh. Besides emphasising the fact that jingoistic bigotry could be beaten if politicians could subsume their bloated egos, it reinforced the point that people belonging to the minority communities could not be left to remain bystanders in the great Indian political tamasha; that no matter how much the advocates of Hindu Rashtra loathed it, minorities could and would remain an integral part of the functional Indian democracy.

The message that Kairana sent out is especially relevant for the 15 per cent Muslim population of the country. The largest religious minority was completely marginalised by the BJP’s propaganda in 2014. Hoping for a change and acchhe din, people cutting across caste lines had voted for the BJP. Dalits, Jats, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and even a large number of Muslims voted for Narendra Modi, believing that the BJP would usher in economic prosperity. But nothing of the sort has happened: slogans have turned into mere jumlaas, employment remains as huge a problem as ever, farmers have been pushed into even bigger crises, and social harmony has been torn apart triggering associated problems on the economic front in rural and semi-urban areas. People have started looking for alternatives. It was this search for alternatives that resulted in a deftly crafted social engineering formula in Kairana in which Muslims had a big role.

Kairana has a huge Muslim population. Almost one-third of Kairana voters are Muslims. Despite this, if the late Hukum Singh won the Lok Sabha election there in 2014, it was because the other dominant electoral group in the region, Jats, supported the BJP then. Even Dalits deserted the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and supported the BJP. It was the result of an experiment that the BJP had launched in 2013 in the form of a campaign that Hindus were migrating from Kairana because of Muslim atrocities. It was Hukum Singh who hammered in the point. What with the Muzaffarnagar riots that same year, the social fabric of Kairana was torn asunder. While Muslims fled, Jats tagged along with the BJP and Hukum Singh won the election in 2014.

Farmers after casting their vote in the byelection to the Kairana seat on May 28. The RLD’s campaign strategy, which focussed on sugar cane farmers’ plight, paid off.   -  MAYANK BHARDWAJ/REUTERS

But the hype about economic prosperity soon started wearing off and Jats, who are predominantly sugar cane farmers, began to feel the heat. Not only was farming becoming difficult for them since Muslims, who worked in their fields, were not available any more, but they were not even getting good prices for their sugar cane crop.

This feeling of betrayal and a deft campaigning strategy by the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RJD), which focussed only on sugar cane farmers’ plight, paid off. The support of other parties, such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the BSP and the Congress, ensured a consolidation of votes, and this resulted in Tabassum Hassan winning the byelection to the seat with a margin of over 45,000 votes. The defeated BJP candidate was Hukum Singh’s daughter Mriganka Singh.

“Kairana shows that if non-BJP parties join hands they can defeat the BJP. It also shows that the Muslim vote, which had become irrelevant because of its division in 2014, can be consolidated and become a major winning factor if political parties give them a united front,” Shaibal Gupta, a political analyst, said.

This has been amply substantiated by facts. In 2014, for example, the Congress’ vote share, at 19.5, was at its lowest ever, and its seats tally, too, was the lowest at 44. But the share of Muslim votes for the party, surprisingly, remained almost unchanged.

Muslim votes

According to a study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) from 1996, the Congress managed to get 30-40 per cent of Muslim votes. In 2014, it got 38 per cent of the Muslim votes, the same as in 2009 when it formed the government again with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. The study also pointed out that in States where the party was in a direct contest with the BJP, it got three-fourths of the Muslim votes, but in States where there were non-Congress alternatives available, as in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it could only get one-fourth of the Muslim votes. This means that when there are more anti-BJP players in the arena, Muslim votes get divided and this resulted in victory for the BJP. This happened in Rampur constituency, where almost half the electorate is Muslim. The S.P., the BSP and the Congress fielded Muslim candidates and this resulted in the victory of the BJP’s Hindu candidate. The case was similar in Moradabad where almost 50 per cent of the electorate is Muslim but the BJP’s Hindu candidate won there. “It is not so much the popularity of the BJP but the division of the anti-BJP vote that made the BJP’s victory so easy in 2014,” says Shaibal Gupta.

It was this division of the Muslim vote that resulted in the BJP winning 42 of the 87 seats where Muslims constitute 20 per cent or more of the population, says a national election study. And it was this division again that ensured 73 seats for the BJP and its allies out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. It is shocking that none of the 55 Muslim candidates who contested from the 80 in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims constitute approximately 20 per cent of the population, won. This was the first time in India’s electoral history that not a single Muslim candidate was elected to the Lok Sabha from India’s most populous State. It is in this context that Tabassum Hassan’s victory is historic. Her election also underlines the fact that a Muslim can be the face of a united opposition.

“It only proves what we have been saying all along, that the BJP can be defeated if the opposition parties join hands,” said Shakeel Ahmad, Congress spokesman. According to him, the Kairana victory underlines the Congress’ formula of having State-specific alliances for the 2019 general election. “We have been talking about it for some time now. We would like to join hands with like-minded parties in States where they are strong,” he said.

Political observers are unanimous that if Muslims join hands with other dominant caste groups, such as Dalits or Other Backward Classes, it will make for a potent combination, and if the Congress joins them, the combined vote share would be more than 50 per cent. This experiment was successful in 1993 when the S.P. and the BSP joined hands for the first time in Utar Pradesh, preventing the BJP from coming to power, and more recently in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, besides in Kairana.

In 2007, Mayawati worked out a social engineering formula in which she included Brahmins. She managed to win a huge majority then because Muslims supported this combination. At the party level, however, there was no alliance at that time. Now political parties, having seen the fiasco of majoritarianism, are realising the importance of bringing disparate caste groups together apart from joining hands with Muslim supporters. This may well become the mantra for 2019.

Bihar has already shown the way. The Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United)-Congress mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) halted the Narendra Modi juggernaut in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. Although the Janata Dal(U) has shifted loyalties to the BJP since, the success of the formula cannot be dismissed. It can be tested in 2019 again.

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