Who Can Represent Muslims in Electoral Politics? Debates in the Muslim Public Sphere

As the communal polarisation of voters has become a pivotal concern in the 2019 election, the debate within the Muslim public sphere around the dilemmas of representation has gained traction. 

Soon after Yogi Adityanath was anointed the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, a controversy broke out among Muslims around the remarks made by former Rajya Sabha MP, Mohammed Adeeb (Ashraf 2017). At the centre of the controversy was Adeeb’s suggestion that Muslims ought to withdraw from electoral politics for some time. Adeeb called out the political narrative woven around the notions of “Muslim appeasement” and the “Muslim vote bank” which had made Muslims “untouchable” as candidates and as voting citizen-constituents (Ashraf 2017). He made a distinction between secular Hindus and those who supported the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, and asked them to decide “among themselves what kind of India do they want.” Adeeb explained that the “political irrelevance” of Muslims was a consequence of the use of communal polarisation as an electoral strategy by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Other parties were either not able to challenge this, or became complicit. In response to this strategy, Adeeb prescribed withdrawal as a tactic, so that the elections can be fought around issues that he considered to be of greater importance than the Hindu–Muslim polarisation. Several commentators on social media and traditional news media rejected Adeeb’s prescription and saw it as a mark of hopelessness and even cowardice. But the abjectness of his prognosis was striking and undeniable.

In the 2014 general elections, for the first time in the history of independent India, Uttar Pradesh failed to elect even one Muslim candidate to Parliament. In light of this, the debate sparked by Adeeb’s remarks is a defining moment in the Muslim public sphere in India. There are two important strands of this debate (and the debates that followed) which are concerned with Muslim candidates and Muslim voters respectively. One set of questions deals with the issue of representation:  should Muslim candidates be the only ones representing Muslims electorally, or is it possible that Muslim interests can be better-represented by non-Muslim candidates in Parliament?  Another set of questions has emerged around the considerations that should frame voting preferences among Muslims in the 2019 elections. Should Muslims vote with the objective of preventing the BJP from forming the government again? Does meeting this basic electoral concern reduce their ability to bargain for entitlements which come with citizenship from the parties that now constitute the opposition? Furthermore, are Muslim voters to be solely responsible for upholding secularism, or is it time that Hindus also clarified (amongst themselves, as Adeeb suggested) their stand with regard to secularism in India?

Adeeb’s formulation of the problem and his solution exemplify the paradox of the issue that is currently being debated in the Muslim public sphere. While the debate continues and might reach another turning point when the results of the 2019 general elections are declared, my attempt here is to contemplate what the arguments and mannerisms used in the debate might signify. 

After 2014, Muslims in general, have been disheartened not only because a party traditionally hostile to Muslims had come to power, but also because the results of the election signalled the intensification of their “persistent under-representation” (Bhargava 2007) and highlighted the dismal impact that their dwindling representation had over their development outcomes (Bhalotra et al 2014). While this lack of representation was often described in terms of the declining number of Muslims elected to Parliament and to the state assemblies, the solution prescribed by Adeeb also recommended an “exit of Muslims” from electoral politics altogether. This could be taken literally to mean that Muslims should not be voting. Alternatively, the kind of “exit” being demanded could signify a “new politics” that would be free from the “Muslim–Hindu” framing. The argument on the surface is that electoral politics should be completely purged of communalism, but since “religion” and “communalism” are used interchangeably by the proponents of this argument, effectively, any mention of the “M-word” is deemed communal. This “new politics,” is thus dependent on silencing Muslims and on Muslims not making the “communal” demand for representation. While it has been reasoned that good Hindu candidates can in fact, “better represent” Muslims in this “new politics,” it is not difficult to see that it would be an intensification of political marginalisation faced by Muslims—or “politics as usual,” as it were. Further, it is unclear if this “new politics” can be guaranteed by the unilateral exit of Muslims from the electoral space.  

A Distinctive Political Community?

The maligning of political organisation around communitarian identities that have been historically oppressed is the point of interest here. If the backing given to parties by politically powerful commercial consortia or trade unions is legitimate,  then the much-derided “vote-bank politics” or “identity-politics” should also be a legitimate form of politics for those who are organised along the markers of their oppression.

Muslims are either fetishised by political parties as voting herds or misrepresented as irreparably splintered voters by left-liberals. The denial of agency by political commentators to Muslims to fashion themselves as a distinctive political community with shared political interests is quite peculiar when seen from a historical perspective. Muslim activists and research scholars who speak from a Muslim standpoint report that it is routine to be confronted by questions that ask, “who is the Muslim being spoken of?” This challenges the very notion of Muslims as a category of analysis and observation because of their heterogeneity. This muddying of issues of representation happens especially when Muslims try to make a political point that is contrary to “conventional wisdom.” The Muslim students have felt that the same commentators would not dare to deny Dalits such representation in political and civil society formations so vociferously. Similarly, Muslim activists have pointed out the inconsistencies prevalent in the aggressive defence that has been put forward by the purveyors of heterogeneity and intersectionality when the problems of undifferentiated women’s representation in Parliament are pointed out to them.

Young scholars and activists through their social media and academic writing have been grappling with this vexing issue of “heterogeneity among Muslims.” This becomes an especially tricky proposition because the relative success of Dalit identity politics has encouraged Muslims to forge a strategic solidarity with Dalit voices. Spaces of Dalit politics on university campuses and civil society have also been more open to accommodating Muslims. This has led to an enthusiastic emulation or mimicry of the Dalit discourse and approaches, and a folding of Muslims into Dalit mobilisations as Bahujans. The terms of reference of Muslim inclusion in Dalit movements can be understood from their renaming as Pasmanda, Bahujans or Moolnivasi, and the elimination of Muslim identity may also be read as another form of Muslims exiting from electoral politics. While this exit or erasure has many effects that are now being flagged in the public sphere, ironically using the Dalit discourse of humiliation (Guru 2009), suffice to say that seeing Muslim Ashraf/Ajlaf–Arzal as a binary that is mirroring the Brahmin–Dalit one, is over simplistic. Further, this folding of lower-caste Muslims into the Bahujan political space by splintering them away from a minority Muslim political community is not without its problems. Therefore, in this debate within the Muslim public sphere, the claims made via Pasmanda politics have also been challenged as being short-sighted, exaggerated, and verging on being Islamophobic.

Resisting “Politics as Usual” within the Limits of Real Politics

For the 2019 general elections, most Muslims agree that the immediate need is to oppose the BJP and to prevent it from coming to power again. In these discussions, the more long-standing need to correct the deficit in political representation is never forgotten. There are voices within the Muslim public sphere that have simply asserted that opposing Narendra Modi and the BJP to ensure "security" should take precedence over ensuring adequate political representation. Paradoxically, the same strategy is advocated by those who argue about the inefficacy of Muslim parliamentarians and legislators in adequately representing the problems of Muslims thus far. There is a raging but inconclusive debate in the Muslim public sphere that advocates prioritising one need over the other. The pressure to make a “wise” choice within the constraints of real politics is a big challenge. A large section of Muslim voters is receptive to being cautioned about “voting smartly” and not letting their vote get divided by political leaders and their supporters. It should be noted, however, that if Muslims “voting smartly” do actually reject the allegedly “token Muslim” candidates in favour of “more able” non-Muslim candidates, that too will be “politics as usual” as far as the electoral outcome is concerned. The net impact, either way, is inadequate representation.

A small number of extremely articulate young scholars and social media influencers are adding nuance to this discussion by asserting that the presence of Muslim candidates, as such, needs to be ensured. They argue that the shortcomings of Muslim representatives are not due to some inherent lack of leadership or integrity within the community, but due to the nature of Indian “politics as usual.” They raise the questions of past infidelities, such as instances of targeted violence under the watch of the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP), or the history of the SP–BSP combine, and ask that these concerns should be satisfactorily addressed while fresh efforts are made for cobbling together coalitions and solidarities. In the rough and tumble of real politics, they argue that if corruption and criminality are more a norm than the exception among all communities, then Muslims too are ready to accept and promote less-than-perfect Muslim candidates. They insist that these candidates ought to be supported now, but need to be either strengthened or held accountable by the more aware in the community, subsequently. This stubborn demand for increased representation is being branded on social media by some Muslim and non-Muslim advocates of minority rights as self-defeating, short-sighted, and lacking deeper understanding of the complex nature of electoral politics in India. In many of the discussions, young student activists who are often also first-generation university goers and journalists working in small online media initiatives are chided by more established activists and scholars for being dangerously rash,  for not having spoken politically on other issues, and for keeping quiet earlier.

Sure enough, the Modi government’s communal agenda has allowed many Muslims to see and articulate more clearly how the political contingencies have weakened and hollowed secularism, both in everyday interactions and in institutions (Jamil 2018). The blatant anti-Muslim posturing of various actors during this regime does not allow for clouding of experiences and has given rise to impatience with proxy political articulation by non-Muslims, however benign. The fact that discussions on most social media platforms are not bound by the limits of civility that face-to-face encounters are, also creates an opportunity for these resentful, bitter viewpoints to be argued cogently.

As a result, teachers and students, public figures and social media nobodies are arguing with each other with much passion. Whatever be the difference in perception regarding strategies that will work, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the splintering of minorities  cannot be a viable way of asserting and accessing rights in an electoral democracy such as India where—given the first-past-the-post system of elections—representation may easily be manipulated with unethical political coalitions and spurious solidarities.

Being a participant and an observer in these debates prompts me to hazard a proposition that the formation of a reasonably sized “committed minority” among Muslims who are ready to take the risk of disrupting “politics as usual” by their refusal to defer to the earlier consensus, may eventually transform minority politics in India.

The language that the young disrupters of the older discourse are using is not one of powerlessness, or one that merely pleads for tolerance. It involves an active assertion of equality. The force in their articulation comes from their highly risky, potentially dangerous work with victims of violence on the ground. This new generation of Muslim activists has not stopped at just expressing sympathy and solidarity. They have worked at the frontlines alongside other civil liberty and human rights activists, and have pressurised the police to file cases. They have organised legal help and financial support for families of the victims of lynchings, they often find themselves in a face-off with violent local henchmen of political adversaries. And through this, they have also continued to do regular follow-ups with cases. Arguably, they have done more for a secular polity by insisting upon procedural justice than their predecessors have ever done. These youngsters have come out as more invested in comparison to those speaking for Muslims until now—the exceptionally assimilated minorities, who were careful not to demonstrate any outward signs of religious affiliation and whose political legitimacy owed little to grass-roots support or community activism.

Cultures of Constitutionalism

If these are the terms of debates that occupy those speaking in the public sphere, it will be clear to even a vaguely interested observer that the issues being debated in the Muslim public sphere in India have moved beyond the usual tropes of triple talaq and the burqa. Muslim commentators have been writing numerous books and articles, or making shorter interventions on social media, to emphasise the need for this shift. The older, hackneyed issues are being slowly but determinedly replaced by demands for justice and for upholding the constitutional values. The themes of discrimination, prejudice and violence are now couched as criticisms of the manner in which civil society functions, of state provisions for welfare, and of procedural and institutional integrity—in short, Muslims are learning to use juridical–political discourse and nurturing a culture of constitutionalism.

The importance of this phenomenon cannot be overstated, partially because it indicates learning and adoption of a mannerism in the public sphere that is relatively less dependent on outrage, and therefore, more coherent and politically sharper. This, in turn, indicates that the generation of younger Muslims has met with some initial success in re-framing their issues in a language different from the earlier generation of leaders and self-appointed representatives who continue to clutch on to the dwindling returns of the appeals for preservation of the Ganga–Jamuni tehzeeb. The privileging of Muslims as a source of diversity and Islamic culture (Urdu sher-o-shayari and biryani etc), over Muslims as equally worthy claimants of welfare and justice from the state, by the cultural and political elite who have prevailed among Muslims thus far, is being increasingly challenged.

These younger scholars, social media influencers, and civil society activists are wholly unencumbered by the guilt of having caused the partition of India which the older generations suffered from. Also, because most of them have emerged from social backgrounds that had little share in the social and cultural capital of the older elites, their aspirations led them to accumulate other forms of social capital through education, training in law, journalism, etc, combined organically with civil society activism.

The long-experienced invisibilisation of political concerns of Muslims and their fixity in discourse as “backward due to their own fundamentalism” no longer seems natural, largely because of the increased ferocity of violent attacks on Muslims under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, but also because of these new Muslim voices. In lieu of summarising the polyphony of the Muslim public sphere, it may be noted that while reconciliation and coexistence were never off the table, the justice question has now been taken off the backburner and made the focus of the debate. It remains to be seen whether the overbearing influence of communal politics will succeed, as always, in undermining the questions of justice and citizenship rights. If Muslims do manage to play a role in bringing to power a secular non-BJP regime, it has to be asked, whether this duty or obligation, should cost Muslims  the ability to raise their concerns in their own voice, repeatedly.

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