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'Average Muslim in UP can't run away'

March 10, 2022 18:31 IST
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'He won't be able to migrate; he must survive in that environment.'
He will go back after the election to becoming invisible.'

IMAGE: A Muslim woman shows her finger marked with indelible ink after casting her vote in the UP assembly elections. Photograph: PTI Photo

Dr Hilal Ahmed is associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

"The Opposition parties have not been able to break free of the dominant language of politics today, which is Hindutva and nationalism," Dr Ahmed tells Senior Contributor Jyoti Punwani in a discussion on the election verdict in Uttar Pradesh.


Did the UP results surprise you?

Not at all, and there are 3 reasons for that.

The first is a structural reason. The co-relation between societal distress and electoral behaviour is gone.

This has been a very unconventional election, held in extraordinary circumstances: Covid and the resultant economic meltdown and unemployment. Despite this, the BJP has registered a major success.

This shows that there is no connection between unhappiness at your condition and the way you vote.

The explanation for this leads me to my second reason for not being surprised at the result.

Since the past 20 years, we are no longer a welfare State. We are now a charitable State. In a welfare State, you have expectations from the State which are your rights as a citizen. Your distress is connected to the State and the State must provide you welfare to mitigate your situation and create a level playing field for all. That is also the mandate of the Constitution.

But 1991 onwards, the State has been rolling back from the economic sector and no longer sees it as its public duty to mitigate your distress. Of course, in India you can't do politics without charitable work, because people continue to have tremendous expectations from the political class.

So the idea of welfare has been replaced by benefits. Different sections of society are identified and given different benefits. The Modi government calls them 'laabhaarthis.'

The UPA started this and now Modi has given it a new shape. He calls it New India where you have a responsible government, but also responsible citizens.

Here, everything happens because of competing interests in society. The government's job is to mediate between these interests; despite that, it is also ready to empower you, but after that you are on your own.

Like Amit Shah said in a recent interview: 'We will empower you by giving you a gas cylinder, but refilling it is your responsibility.' All these posters we see thanking Modi for the vaccine is a reflection of the charitable State. From the voters' point of view if you get that gas cylinder, the State has addressed your distress.

The third reason I'm not surprised at the results is the failure of the Opposition.

The Opposition parties have not been able to break free of the dominant language of politics today, which is Hindutva and nationalism. The BJP has made it so, and even though the BJP has been losing elections in states, no party can challenge it.

Even (Aam Aadmi Party national convenor Arvind) Kejriwal spoke of Hindus in danger in Punjab and the need for national security. There was no reason for him to do so, but he's ambitious and wants to carve a larger space for himself in 2024.

The final point, and this is crucial, is that we are reducing democracy entirely to elections and election campaigns. But society feels differently.

I'll give you one example: All CSDS studies and one by PEW in which I took part found that when Hindus were asked 'Do you think India belongs only to Hindus?', the answer by a majority of respondents was 'No.' So this discourse of 'Hindu khatre mein hain' or 'Muslims don't belong here' is not accepted by the majority.

And it's only the lack of courage of the political parties that they haven't challenged this discourse. There's lots of space available, but they are not interested in expanding themselves.

The Opposition parties need new ideas to challenge the BJP's 'idea of India', but they can't fall back on Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru. These ideas are 70 years old. Now it's Modi's New India. You criticise it, but to present an alternative requires hard work. You have to go to the bottom level, listen to the language people are speaking and construct a new narrative.

But look at the SP and BSP. They started working only 6 months back. They were reluctant to show their support for the farmers' movement because the BJP would say 'Yeh sab rajneeti ho rahi hai.' These parties should have gone ahead; what's wrong if a political party gets involved in a mass movement?

After six months of work, Akhileshm (Yadav, Samajwadi Party president) could get 50 more seats, so his next five years is secure, as is his party's. Modi and Yogi (Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh chief minister) have identified the SP as their main opponent, and an Opposition party's survival depends on it being seen as Enemy No. 1.

IMAGE: Citizens wait to cast their vote during the seventh and final phase of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in Varanasi, March, 7, 2022. Photograph: Arun Sharma/PTI Photo

What would the Muslims of UP be feeling now? Despair at the prospect of another 5 years of Yogi?

For Muslims, it will be back to life as usual. For them, the anti-Muslim attitudes and demonisation have become part of daily life. If you see their voting percentage, it hasn't significantly changed.

The average Muslim in UP cannot run away. He won't be able to migrate; he must survive in that environment. He will go back after the election to becoming invisible.

Muslims have chosen to invisibilise themselves as a strategy to cope with the prevalent anti-Muslim discourse. Muslims are described as strategic voters; they have in fact become strategic citizens. You don't hear them protesting, no matter how abusive the public discourse may be.

The only time they came out on the streets was against the CAA-NRC, and then they chose to make that a purely Constitutional protest.

At the same time, they are still very interested in politics, specially in electoral politics. They want to engage with the system. They know they have to have good relations with the Hindus and now also with the Hindu-dominant power structure.

Compromise is not new to the poor Muslim; it's a way of life for them since years. It's been commonplace for a poor Muslim to face communal abuse from Hindus. Now that 'unki sarkar hi aa gayi hai', they feel it is natural that those in power will behave in a certain way.

At the same time, Muslims also laud Yogi for safeguarding 'bahu beti ki izzat' by his tough law and order approach. In UP, the 'bahu beti ki izzat' theme is very powerful. And I found Muslims in Deoband appreciating the free rations they received.

One factor for the acceptability of the State is that it reaches out even to those it considers as enemies. To stay in power, you have to do a number of different things. The BJP has perfected this skill.

But surely while Muslims suffered under Congress regimes in riots, under Yogi it's a different kind of targeting. The way the CAA NRC protests were handled by Yogi; the demolition of Muslim homes; the fines imposed on them...

When the Supreme Court pulled up the UP government and ordered it to return those fines, the election campaign was in full swing. It was such an important order, the Opposition could have used it to destroy Yogi's model of governance. But they didn't.

The Muslims who had been fined had challenged Yogi's authority. But this need not have been a Muslims versus Yogi issue. There was space for the Opposition parties to intervene. But they didn't. It was the intellectual class -- the media, activists, lawyers, etc -- who were concerned about Yogi's action being violative of the Constitution. The political parties were quite contented with what had been done.

The Opposition parties didn't mention Muslims in their speeches, yet they lost. Do you think they will now rethink their silence?

No, they'll go back and rethink about becoming more Hindu. No party has any ideological fervour except the BJP and the non-Parliamentary Left. That's why since 2009, Left Wing Extremism continues to be described by the home ministry as the greatest threat.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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