Why are there fewer Muslim candidates? - Hindustan Times
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Why are there fewer Muslim candidates?

May 29, 2024 10:00 PM IST

Issues of Muslim representation and Muslim exclusion should not be mixed up

The significant decline in the number of Muslim candidates in this Lok Sabha election underlines two interesting trajectories of Indian electoral politics.

Muslims check for their names in voters' list as they arrive to vote in Nahal village, Uttar Pradesh state, India, on April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP) PREMIUM
Muslims check for their names in voters' list as they arrive to vote in Nahal village, Uttar Pradesh state, India, on April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP)

First, political parties, it seems, have become truly professional and the idea of winnability has been accepted as an unwritten norm of electoral engagement. The ticket distribution mechanism is no longer guided by any ideological commitment. Instead, caste/religious configuration at the constituency level is taken as a point of reference to identify suitable candidates. It has become practically difficult for any serious regional and national party to give a ticket to a Muslim candidate only for the sake of political correctness. In fact, Muslim candidates are fielded tactically to divide votes in Muslim-majority constituencies to create a winnable balance.

Second, the emergence of Hindutva-driven nationalism as the dominant narrative of politics has forced the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties to avoid any direct reference to Muslim identity, especially in political terms. The BJP has been successful so far in creating a popular perception that Muslims have been appeased by Opposition parties in the past and that has undermined Hindu interests. Even the question of socio-economic backwardness of Muslims has become a communal issue. Against this backdrop, no party would like to be recognised as “pro-Muslim”.

These practical aspects of electoral politics, however, should not be overemphasised. Muslim political representation is a multifaceted phenomenon, which cannot merely be understood by “counting numbers”. One must pay attention to the sociological diversity of Muslims as well as the legal-constitutional framework to work out a possible explanation for the political marginalisation of Muslims in contemporary India.

The idea of political representation in the Indian context rests on two considerations: The composition of the “community” that claims representation and the institutional architecture where representation is sought. The post-colonial State under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru was clear about this. It was keen to get rid of the communal politics that had led to Partition while recognising and protecting Muslims as a constitutional minority.

An unwritten norm of politics was evolved to deal with this seemingly conflicting issue. A secular conception of representation was established to define an imagined political community of citizens as “voters”. The Representation of People Act 1951 says religion must be separated from electoral processes. This secular imagination of voters created a possibility, at least theoretically, that Muslim voters are not expected to vote only for Muslim candidates. In other words, the Nehruvian State strongly discouraged any kind of separate Muslim representation in elected legislative bodies.

This does not mean, however, that collective Muslim interests were ignored. Two important mechanisms were adopted to recognise the Muslim presence in secular India. First, the Rajya Sabha and state legislative councils were recognised as possible avenues to induct Muslim leaders into legislative bodies. This became an accepted practice for the entire political spectrum in later years. In fact, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and BJP also used the Rajya Sabha route to accommodate their Muslim leaders until recently. Second, Muslim presence was appreciated as an inseparable aspect of secular Indian culture. It went well with the provision of minority rights given in the Constitution. The State evoked Muslim culture and heritage to represent the secular ethos of the country.

The equation between a denial of separate Muslim representation in elected bodies and the portrayal of positive Muslim presence in public life was very delicate. Political parties were guided by electoral calculations and it was inevitable they would evoke collective Muslim interests as an electoral issue. This is exactly what happened after the death of Nehru. Indira Gandhi began a new active politics of religion, which completely disregarded the subtle balance between Muslim representation and Muslim presence.

The debate on Muslim representation found a new lease of life after the publication of the Sachar Commission report in 2006. This was a completely different context. Muslim exclusion and backwardness emerged as acceptable policy issues, while the template of social inclusion was the guiding narrative of electoral politics. The intermixing of Muslim inclusion and Muslim representation created an impression that constitutional secularism is all about protecting a separate Muslim political identity. This unclear position strengthened the Hindutva critique that any discussion on Muslim backwardness and inclusion would eventually lead to separatism. The BJP’s electoral campaign in 2024 is clearly a manifestation of this line of reasoning.

The question arises: How should we talk about Muslim political representation, especially now when Muslim identity has become a political problem even for non-BJP parties?

I propose a different framework to deal with it. First, there is a need to democratise the idea of representation itself. Any discussion on Muslim representation should acknowledge the concerns and issues of Muslim Dalits, Muslim women, and poor Muslims. In other words, Muslim sociological diversity must be accepted as a principled position. The contribution of Pasmanda politics is very significant in this regard.

Second, the democratisation of the wider institutional apparatus. We should not only look at Parliament and state assemblies as possible sites to evaluate Muslim representation. Instead, we must pay attention to the internal making of political parties to assess their inclusive character. Do they have any set mechanism to include marginalised groups, in this case, Muslims? How do they decide on candidates to contest polls? Do they have regular internal party elections? These questions are very crucial because political parties have become highly centralised and there is no discussion on their democratic and secular credentials.

Finally, we must adhere to the constitutional principle of democratic secularisation. India’s Constitution envisages a political culture where the pain, suffering, and marginalisation of a group should become serious concerns for the entire society. This is exactly what Mahatma Gandhi argues on the minority-majority question. Our political history shows how non-Muslim leaders have stood for Muslim concerns and anxieties until recently. This healthy tradition should be further strengthened. Common Muslims, we must remember, do not necessarily want to be represented only by Muslim MPs and MLAs. However, they would like to be heard and recognised as dignified citizens as well as Muslims.

Hilal Ahmed is associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal

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