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Minorities enter political mainstream

March 03, 2004

I groaned when I heard the schedule of the 14th General Election. Since polling doesn't end until May 10 it means we shall all be subjected to roughly ten weeks of electioneering -- allegations and counter-allegations. Interestingly, both the ruling National Democratic Alliance and the Opposition seem united on one point: namely that this will be a 'historic' election. Neither side, however, has bothered to explain why this should be so.

As I have stated before in this column, I get very suspicious when I hear parties across the spectrum agreeing on any given point! Nevertheless, this once they may have a point -- this, I believe, will be a watershed election. Because this could be the first time in the history of independent India that the minorities shall enter the mainstream of politics.

Some foreign friends find it hilarious when Indians speak of 'minorities.' In the coming Lok Sabha polls the Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities together account for roughly 10.5 crore (105 million) voters. That is about the size of the total population (adult voters and children alike ) of France and Britain put together! However, in the context of India that massive figure is just about one-sixth of the total electorate, which means that 'minorities' is the only term that serves.

Of these, Sikh voting patterns corresponded most closely with those of their Hindu cousins. Up until Operation Bluestar and the Assassination Riots of 1984, Sikh votes were split fairly evenly between the Congress (I) and non-Congress parties (chiefly the Akali Dal). Those two events polarised the Sikh vote against the Congress, but that has begun to change.

The Muslim and the Christian votes were another story. Up until the Rajiv Gandhi era I think the Congress could count on both communities where it counted. The Christians in Kerala, Goa, and the North-East plumped faithfully for the Congress. The Muslim League has been an ally for about 30 years in Kerala, and the Congress could also count on the community in the Gangetic belt -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal.

The Muslim vote -- a legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru -- began to unravel with the messy Shah Bano affair and the polarisation of the Hindu vote around Ayodhya. The chief beneficiaries were Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar. For slightly less than 15 years, the 'MY coalition' (the alliance between Muslims and Hindu Yadavs) has been a fundamental element in India's two most populous states. Has this begun to unravel just as the old Congress votebanks did?

One opinion poll came up with the interesting statistic that roughly 14% of Muslims were prepared to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party! If you ask me, this errs on the high side but I am no statistician. Whatever the true figure, the fact remains that a reasonable number of Muslims are prepared to do something that was once considered unthinkable. If this correct, isn't it possible that an equally large number, if not more, could have second thoughts about the Congress?

I think at least one man took the survey seriously -- the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Why else would he even consider ordering schools in Uttar Pradesh to shut on Friday afternoons so that Muslim students could join their fathers and brothers for the Jumma prayer? Mulayam Singh had certainly never tried this particular stunt earlier, back when he was assured of Muslim support.

Was it the Muslim reaction to this ukase which persuaded the BJP to consider a bid for minority votes? Muslims unanimously responded that the community needs more schools, not more time off. This tied in neatly with the focus on 'development' which the BJP had already promised would be a primary motif of these polls.

I speak of the BJP campaigning for 'minority' votes, not just the 'Muslim'vote. The party is making an effort to woo Christians in the North-East and Kerala. The National Democratic Alliance even has a Union Minister of State, P C Thomas, in the fray in Kerala. (I say nothing of his chances!)

These are healthy developments. The Muslim and Christian votes should not be taken for granted by anyone. And by the same token there is no reason for the Akali Dal-BJP alliance to treat Sikhs as a pocket borough. Is 'India shining'? Well, if the herd mentality breaks up and every individual chooses which candidate is best suited to carry forward the process of development, we have made a start.

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