As the election dates close in, there is a scramble among parties to get the social formula right in the selection of candidates. The last few days have seen major political players like the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen announcing a significant number of Muslim candidates. The NDA, too, has announced one Muslim candidate. The Muslim-majority districts of Uttar Pradesh are expected to play an important part in the first phase of elections, the results of which may hold the key to power.
This suggests a growing claim for greater political representation from the community and the deepening of secular democracy in a society that is diverse and divided along caste and religious lines. It also seems to suggest that the BJP under CM Yogi Adityanath is under pressure as it tries to consolidate the votes of all caste fragments under the Hindutva banner. But is it possible that competition between Muslim candidates will end up being an advantage for the BJP again? The use of Muslim cultural symbolism by leaders such as AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi has been criticised for attempting to rouse communal sentiments. What is the use of community identification by Muslim candidates meant to achieve — separatism or representation?
Electoral competition may not necessarily be bad for Muslims because, as scholars have pointed out, they, like others, tend to vote based on issues rather than the identity of the candidate. Even in a communally-polarised constituency, what matters is local issues of access to public services and amenities. Electoral competition has, in the past, led to a change in patronage politics of the Congress that would field very few Muslim candidates, despite the rising threat of BJP. Politically underrepresented social groups within Muslims have joined other political parties and forged alliances with other traditionally marginalised groups such as OBCs and Dalits to counter the communal agendas of dominant caste Hindus. This has also helped counter the prioritising of personal gain by elite Muslims over addressing local issues concerning equitable development, justice and dignity.
Muslims, like Hindus, are not a homogenous community. Factions based on class, sect and jaat/biradari are part of the Muslim social world. Electoral competition may only create more opportunities for politically underrepresented groups within the community. It might force Muslim candidates to walk the talk in order to keep one’s electoral constituency.
Using Muslim symbols in this context may not necessarily mean stirring communal sentiments. Since these refer to forging a collective identity not violently opposed to Hindus, such symbols could be seen as a way to mobilise Muslim votes with the acknowledgement that being part of a secular democracy also means inclusive development for all citizens. It is an attempt, often found effective in Indian political culture, to forge an identity by stringing together a common experience of marginalisation and political alienation. Invocations of the Indian Constitution and one’s rights as citizens alongside Muslim symbols suggest a deepening of the cultural aspects of a secular democracy.
The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been actively engaged in appropriating Hindu secular symbols in an attempt to empty democracy of its cultural signifiers. The use of Muslim symbols in this context across parties may be a way to break the cycle of a long-standing political alienation of Muslims, for a more inclusive secular democracy. The new generation of Muslim voters is starting to connect to such an identification in the context of a dominant Hindu right-wing discourse, as opposed to an earlier tendency to downplay their identities when aligning with secular liberal parties.
Even though representation might seem to be at the heart of modern democracies, it will always be a challenge for Muslim politics in a Hindu majoritarian democracy to be acceptable and endorsed. If the thwarting of the anti- CAA protests was a display of how the state uses violence to discipline its subjects, “Muslim” politics requires new ways of making demands for representation. The upcoming elections in UP might just be showing us the way it could be done.
The writer is a faculty associate, IIT-Goa.