Around a month ago, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by “perfume baron” Badruddin Ajmal, announced the names of eight candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal. This development was mostly ignored by the media, an understandable omission given the spate of election-related news. After all, a small party launching itself in a state is hardly the most earth-shattering of events. The incident, though, might carry more significance than what is apparent at first glance.
The AIUDF is, at present, the second largest party in Assam’s Vidhan Sabha, and the only Muslim party in India which has been able to become a major player in a state. Its expansion into West Bengal, where Muslims make up a significant 26% of the population, might not yield any immediate benefits in 2014, but could point to an important trend in which Muslim parties, along the lines of post-Mandal caste parties, gain strength, challenging a great many set political equations.
The AIUDF was founded in October, 2005 and created an impact almost immediately, winning 10 seats in the 2006 Assam Assembly elections. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, while it won only one seat, it managed to attract an impressive 16% of the vote share in the state. This support paid off in the 2011 Assembly elections as it won 18 seats, making it the principal opposition to the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government.
There are, of course, a number of pre-existing Muslim parties (defined as having a large support base amongst Muslims as well as a party leadership which is mostly Muslim, analogous to how the Samajwadi Party (SP) is a Yadav party). Recently, we saw the emergence of the Peace Party in UP as well as the Welfare Party (the political wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind) which exist alongside older Muslim parties such as the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen in Hyderabad and the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala.
Till the emergence of the AIUDF, Muslim parties had a minuscule presence in the states they operated in. The largest of them, the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala, had only 5% of the vote, meaning a very large majority of Kerala’s 25% Muslims chose non-Muslim parties, a pattern repeated all across India. This, interestingly, is a rather large anomaly in India’s political system, which is largely confessional in character. The way our electoral politics plays out in practice, parties act as representatives of social groups (mostly castes) rather than individuals per se. So the PMK in Tamil Nadu represents Vanniyars and the JD(U) in Bihar is largely a Kurmi-Koeri party. This is why the BJP, which has almost no Dalit support, is depending on alliances with Athavale in Maharashtra and Paswan in Bihar. In India’s confessional democracy, Dalit parties offer a much surer way of gaining Dalit support as opposed to attracting individual Dalits using issues such as the ‘Modi wave’ or the ‘Gujarat model’.
Of course, as pointed out earlier, the only large social group which does not have a party are the Muslims, who depend on several other caste parties across various states. In UP for example, according to a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey in 2013, the Muslim vote is divided amongst the SP, the Congress and the BSP, none of which have a largely Muslim leadership (much to Sonia Gandhi and Bukhari’s chagrin, the data shows that the “secular” vote, at least in UP, has always been “split”).
This pattern of Muslim voting, though, has not yielded great rewards when it comes to political representation. The current Lok Sabha has only 5.5% Muslim MPs as compared to 13.4% Muslims in India. There are 19 states and six Union territories with no Muslim MPs, one rather egregious example of that being Maharashtra, which has a significant 14% Muslim population. The SP, a party which ostensibly represents Muslim interests, does not have a single Muslim Member of Parliament. Apart from this, parties Muslims choose are also, more often than not, unable to respond to their primary needs: security of life and property, and economic development. As the BJP itself has pointed out, riots have taken place with clockwork regularity in Congress-ruled states and with Muzaffarnagar, ‘Mullah’ Mulayam’s SP is now also in the same boat.
That said, Bengal is an exception when it comes to communal violence. The loss of life and property, so commonplace across North and West India, has not happened in Bengal ever since the Left took power. Counter-intuitively, however, as the Sachar committee’s report has pointed out, Muslims in Bengal are worse off on every count than their counterparts in most other states, as a result of which, the report puts the state in the “worst-performer category”.
Muslims occupy only 4% of government jobs and only 5% of ‘key positions’ in the judiciary. The government expenditure on the community is less than that on SC/STs, although Muslims are worse off. Mamata’s “poriborton” also hasn’t changed things much, continuing this superficial tokenism while ignoring real issues. For example, one of the TMC’s major “pro-Muslim” moves, since coming to power, is the instituting of a “bhata” or stipend to imams and muezzins. Muslim resentment, while still low, is growing against this sort of pretence. In 2012, IPS officer Nazrul Islam wrote a popular book called What Muslims Should Do, criticising Mamata for her double standards, in particular calling out some of her more egregious charades, which include the stipend to imams as well as ads which show her dressed in a hijab and reading the namaz.
In spite of being ignored economically, Muslims as a vote bank are crucial to both the Left and the TMC. With 26% of the population, Muslim voters decide a large number of seats and, as is now part of political folklore, one of the main reasons for the fall of the CPI (M) was Muslims deserting it after Nandigram.
The Left, it seems, is still haemorrhaging Muslim support. In February of this year, it expelled rebel MLA Abdur Rezzak Mollah for his “anti-party activities”. Mollah was widely held to be the ‘Muslim face’ of the CPI (M) and had forewarned the party of the negative consequences of Nandgiram. Interestingly, Mollah has, after his expulsion, called for a Muslim-Dalit “Maha Jot” (grand alliance) against the “CPI (M)’s upper-caste leadership”. He has decided to campaign for the AIUDF, as well as two other Muslim parties, all of which are in a pre-poll alliance for the 2014 elections.
Given this call to caste, the situation resembles, in many ways, the beginning of the “Mandalisation” of politics in Bengal. Much like how the UP OBCs and Dalits broke away from the upper caste-led Congress coalition in the early 1990s, a similar process might be at work in Paschim Bangal. Or, at least, this seems to be the model that parties like the AIUDF are working on, trying to build a Muslim-Dalit alliance against the “upper caste” CPI (M) and TMC.
Of course, these are early days. Muslim parties do not have a presence in Bengal as of now, and politics in the state is largely free of the rhetoric of caste, so commonly seen in the heartland. However, given the speed with which the AIUDF captured a large chunk of the Muslim vote in Assam, which was with the Congress for decades, it is not inconceivable for something similar to happen in Bengal. Additionally, for the AIUDF, being a party of Bengali-speaking Muslims, getting a foot in the door in Bengal might be just that bit easier.
Add to that the fact that the Muslim vote has been unanchored, a large chunk moving from the CPI (M) to Mamata recently, where it sits rather uneasily. Given these ground conditions, a Muslim “Mandalisation” of the politics of Bengal, driven by parties like the AIUDF, over the next decade or two, could be a distinct possibility.
Shoaib Daniyal tweets at @TimesofBullshit.