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A minority power crisis

Print edition : May 21, 2004

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In Kerala, political parties claiming to represent minority interests face the challenge of retaining their base even as the growth of the BJP is upsetting traditional communal, caste and political equations.

in Thiruvananthapuram

IN Kerala, unlike in other States, the Muslim and Christian communities are a significant `minority'. They constitute 45 per cent of the State's population and have organised themselves into socially and economically powerful political pressure groups. The majority Hindu community has refused to come under a common organisation and has split its loyalty among various political parties and a handful of politically ambitious community organisations.

These are factors that make Kerala an elusive constituency for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies. But it took a painful lesson to remind Chief Minister A.K. Antony of these truths seven months ago, when on the eve of the Lok Sabha byelection in the Ernakulam constituency, he made a controversial statement about the minorities in the State. He said:

"We should see the reality in Kerala. The minorities in Kerala are organised. Other communities in the State have a complaint that these organised (minority) communities are securing more benefits from the government using their organisational clout and that they are bargaining for more benefits. There is such an atmosphere of grievance in Kerala. At the same time, it was the minority communities that benefited more through the large-scale migration to the Gulf, the United States and Europe. This has created an economic imbalance in Kerala's towns and cities. There is no point in shutting your eyes to this reality.

"Simultaneously, one can see the attempts of various political forces to take advantage of this situation. The minority leaders in the State should be willing to see this reality. They should also show some restraint. My personal opinion is that no organisation should believe that it can make the government do anything using its organisational clout. As Chief Minister I have a responsibility to advise them. Call it soft or hard (Hindutva). I am not such a sensitive man... ."

Antony made this statement reportedly in the context of the pressure mounted on the State government by the managements of a few minority (Christian) educational institutions demanding concessions, but it seemed ill-timed, coming as it did soon after the retaliatory murder of eight fishermen at Marad beach (near Kozhikode) and the consequent events that made it impossible for the Muslim families in Marad to return to their homes.

Antony, who had taken up personal responsibility to ensure the victory of the Congress(I) candidate in Ernakulam in the midst of a vicious group war within the party's State unit, was accused of being "an enemy of Muslims and of all minorities" and reviled for his "appeasement policy" and "pro-Hindutva positions" and for "clearing the way for the saffronisation of Kerala". The sharpest reaction was from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition, whose leaders had always stood by Antony in times of need. The statement was used to the hilt by the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), by Antony's detractor in the Congress(I) K. Karunakaran and his supporters (to reinforce their demand for a leadership change in the government), and by various Muslim and Christian minority organisations, including the so-called `Christian parties', the Kerala Congress groups. The usually soft-spoken Muslim League president Panakkad Shihab Thangal even announced the League's withdrawal from the government's efforts to solve the Marad issue. "He is everybody's Chief Minister. Let him solve the problems he himself has created," Thangal said in anger. The ire of the minority voters (especially Muslims) was a major reason for the defeat of the Congress(I) candidate in Ernakulam.

Antony is once again facing the electorate, this time in all the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State. He has refused to apologise or withdraw his statement. All that he would do was to pay a visit to Shihab Thangal and explain the context in which he made the statement. Though Shihab Thangal continues to say that Antony should have withdrawn his statement, IUML leaders accompanying Antony in his State-wide election yatra, which started from Kasargod on April 20, treat it as a "closed chapter", which is "no longer an election issue".

But the Marad issue, especially the fate of the 100-odd Muslim undertrials in jail, and the issue of compensation to the Muslim victims of the first Marad massacre in 2002, is kept alive among the Muslim community in Kerala by the League's rivals to the Muslim mind. They ask community members whether they should continue to vote for the Congress(I), whose leaders have time and again adopted a "soft-Hindutva" line, just because the Muslim League is sharing power with that party in the State.

The Muslim League's claim of being the sole representative of all Muslims (in Kerala, if not in India) took a beating in the decade following the demolition of the Babri Masjid when its leaders chose to continue in the Congress(I)-led State government rather than quit in protest, responding to a pan-Indian Muslim grouse. Soon, a number of rival political formations emerged, among them the Indian National League (INL) led by the former Muslim League president Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) of firebrand cleric Abdul Nasser Mahdani (now in jail for his alleged involvement in the Coimbatore blasts of 1998) and several extremist groups, including the National Democratic Front (NDF) formed recently. At one point the INL and the PDP seemed to gain substantial clout by causing erosion in the Muslim League's traditional vote bank and driving Muslim emotions on their own, independent of the League.

The League always claimed that the positive changes in the lot of Muslims in Kerala came about because of its presence in the political arena. In reality, however, they came about largely as a result of the progressive policies, such as radical land and labour reforms, literacy campaigns and measures against social inequities, initiated mostly by the Left governments in the State. These benefited other communities, too. The increasing affluence in the Muslim-dominated districts of north Kerala could also be attributed to the steady remittances from Muslims employed in the Gulf countries.

By raising the claim of engineering a transformation in the Muslim community, the IUML became an adept player in Kerala's coalition politics, using its support base to decide the fortunes of the two evenly matched coalitions, the UDF and the LDF, even when a large section of its supporters continued to be poor and illiterate. The League's victories were often on the political front and benefited the community, if at all, only in the sense of boosting its self-confidence.

Until the 1990s, the Muslim League's attempt had been to feed on Muslim fear and discontent against majority communalism (rare in the State at that time) and on the community's feeling that the secular parties were not sufficiently sympathetic to its needs and aspirations. But its act of staying on in power after the demolition of the Babri Masjid helped the INL and the PDP to snatch its raison d'etre, at least for a number of years, until these parties too went the League way, dabbling in the coalition politics and hankering after power, even if it meant ignoring the interests of the community they represent.

In 1999, around the time that it celebrated the golden jubilee of its existence mostly confined to Kerala, the Muslim League, perhaps alarmed at the erosion in its vote bank, unveiled an unsuccessful agenda of expansion by launching party units in the northern States and trying to enlist the support of leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav in its efforts. Mostly because of historical and cultural reasons, and the fact that leaders who now claim the support of the north Indian Muslim voters do not want a rival in their midst, the League's effort to try and replicate its Keral-model minority politics at the national level remains an elusive dream.

The League's detractors accuse it of several failings. Among them are its inability to make Antony retract his "anti-minority" statement, get the government to raise the reservation for Muslims in government jobs from 6 per cent to 12 per cent as recommended by an inquiry commission, and get Mahdani released from jail as the UDF had promised before the Assembly elections. After Ayodhya, more than anything else, it was Marad and the Muslim League's continuation in the Congress(I)-led government of the day that provided the best ammunition to its opponents even though the League played a major role in the negotiations to resolve the crisis.

However, by dissociating from Antony's statement, by pretending to fret and fume, and by helping to defeat the UDF candidate in Ernakulam, the League was perhaps insulating itself from the blame game of the anti-League parties. In their campaign speeches, IUML leaders contest allegations that the party had held on to power and let down the community in its hour of distress. They point out that but for the IUML's "mature stand" on the Ayodhya and Marad issues, the Muslim community would have been drawn into the fundamentalist, extremist position dangled before it by its rivals. While there may be some truth in it, in reality the League's stand on such issues was shaped by its compulsion to stay in power and by the fact that the CPI(M)-led LDF's policy of having no truck with communal parties did not offer it an alternative.

Significantly, today, when Antony hits out at the CPI(M) describing it in his campaign speeches as an "outdated party", prominent League leaders accompanying him, such as (Industries Minister) P.K. Kunhalikkutty, are quick to temper the impact of his statements by saying that Kerala cannot forget the CPI(M)'s role in the social development of the State and that the Muslim League had differences with the CPI(M) only with regard to its economic policies.

Unlike in the past when the IUML held out the rather non-existent threat of majority communalism before Muslim voters, Hindutva politics has become a reality in Kerala over the past decade, even though it is yet to win any seat for the BJP alliance. The proactive "equidistance policy" announced by the major Hindu community organisations such as the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, especially the latter, is proving to be pro-BJP in many constituencies. It was becoming increasingly clear for the IUML leadership that the party's long-term interests would not be served by banking exclusively on the Congress(I), given the altering communal climate in Kerala.

So far the IUML, undeniably the most prominent Muslim political party in Kerala, has denied that it is communal. It displayed its communalism, if at all, only as an aggressive assertion of community sentiments, mainly for its political effect on its own Muslim constituency and not against any particular community. In fact, until the Babri Masjid demolition, it rarely faced a threat from other religious communities or their political organisations, given the progressive strains in Kerala society and the religious tolerance for which the State is well known. But today, when the threat of Hindu fundamentalism is knocking at its doors, the IUML's response is often confused, especially because of its compulsion to stay on in power and yet meet the extremist challenge from within the community against its proclaimed monopoly of the Muslim cause.

The Muslim community, too, is therefore facing a dilemma on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections. Its main concern is to keep the BJP at bay, but should it continue to support the UDF, as it had traditionally done, just because the Muslim League is a coalition partner? Or should it vote for the LDF, whose secular credentials have never been questioned by community leaders?

The community is also viewing with concern what many describe as the "opportunistic stand" of some sections of Christian society in Kerala, which are increasingly taking a position favouring the Sangh Parivar, especially in constituencies where the BJP-led NDA is emphasising its growing clout. In public relations exercises meant to overcome its anti-minority image, the BJP has been able to present prominent Christian community members, including priests, at campaign platforms or exclusive meetings meant to announce their inclusion in the party as full-time members. The latest such meeting was held at Edappally in Kochi, where several prominent Christian families were given BJP membership by party president M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Leaders of several Muslim organisations, including the INL, the PDP and even the extremist Jamat-i-Islami and the NDF have announced that the UDF no longer had their support. Many of them have said openly that the CPI(M) is more committed to secularism than the Congress(I). Small though their support base may be vis-a-vis that of the IUML, the aberrant minority vote could become crucial in several constituencies in Kerala where candidates win with margins of 10,000 to 20,000 votes. With the parties claiming to represent minority interests eager to go to any length to be in power - even to the extent of forming opportunistic alliances with majority communal forces - it may not be long before the minorities realise that they are weighed down only because of their insistence that parties with a communal base alone can effectively look after their interests.

All this points to a possible realignment of electoral forces before the next Assembly elections in Kerala, where the growing prominence of the BJP-led alliance is upsetting traditional communal, caste and political equations.

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