Muslims Need Empowerment, Not Appeasement
As I write this, the first phase of Bihar’s staggered assembly elections, covering 47 constituencies spread across eight districts, passed off peacefully barring ”minor clashes”. Bihar is known (rather notorious) for highly competitive politics. And if the nature of the electioneering for the first phase was any indication, the competition mainly centered on getting Muslim votes. Muslims constitute about 16 per cent of Bihar’s population and they, like the overwhelming majority of the people in the state, are poor. But politically, they seem to be extremely important. Given the manner their votes have been solicited, it appears that for the leading parties, save the BJP, the other 84 per cent of the Bihari people simply do not exist.
For the alliance between the Rashtriya Janata Dal of the strongman Lalu Prasad Yadav and Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan, nothing matters more than “secularism”. In fact, hardly leaders of this alliance talked about development issues. As regards the Congress, which is trying very hard under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi to revive its fortunes in Bihar, the party’s main criticism against Nitish Kumar (whom Rahul Gandhi had praised as an able and honest administrator during 2009 general elections) is that he is not secular enough since he is aligned with the “communal” BJP.
But the most interesting aspect of the electioneering so far has been the attitude of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (U). He has literally dictated his partner BJP to ensure that neither Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, arguably BJP’s biggest vote-catcher in the country, nor party secretary Varun Gandhi campaigned in Bihar. The reason given is that they alienate Muslims away from the ruling alliance. In fact, by declaring Bihar out bounds for Modi and Varun, Nitish’s “secular credentials” have jumped higher, say his admirers. Apparently, Nitish was also understood to be not keen on LK Advani, still BJP’s tallest leader, campaigning in Bihar in the wake of the recent court verdict on the Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid dispute in Ayodhya, which is perceived to have gone against the Muslim interests. Nitish is said to believe that since Advani was the one who consolidated the “Ayodhya movement”, his coming to Bihar will anger the Muslims in the state.
As was pointed out in this column once, the JD (U)-BJP alliance is one of the most absurd ones in the sense that here is a partnership in which there is no mutual respect for one another. In this highly unusual alliance, the JD (U), particularly Nitish, enjoys humiliating the BJP publicly on every possible occasion. See the fracas he created over Modi’s posters in Bihar. How can JD (U) dictate who will be the candidates and campaigners of the BJP? I do not think that Nitish will ever agree if the BJP demands that all those JD (U) leaders who relentlessly criticise the BJP are kept out of the electioneering. And all this Nitish does with the calculation that it will endear him among the Muslims.
Electoral analysts point out that unlike others, Muslims in India tend to vote en block. And that means a lot in an election system, which is ‘First Past the Post’ (FPP). In this system, the candidate with maximum votes wins, irrespective of the quantum of this “maximum”. Maximum votes may be as less as 10 per cent of the total votes cast, but the candidate will still win, if no one has got more than him or her. Imagine a constituency that has 100 voters, including 16 Muslims. There are, suppose, five evenly-matched candidates. In the event of only 60 people turning out to vote (and this will be considered a high voting percentage in India), if at least 13 Muslims decide to support a candidate, he can easily win the election.
No wonder why the FPP system is the most important factor behind the so-called vote-bank politics in India. It explains why our politicians normally do not talk of “all” in electoral campaigns; they only promise to do things for a particular community or group, depending on that group’s voting strength in a given constituency or the state.
But the real problem with the vote-bank politics is that India’s unscrupulous politicians “exploit” and “appease”, not “empower”, the communities for whose sake they seek votes. At least that has been the history so far. If the politicians concerned really empower these communities in line with their promises, then what will they talk of in the next elections? All told, vote-bank politics is essentially to exploit a group’s vulnerabilities and problems. So, if the problems are solved then a group’s vulnerabilities diminish and that, in turn, takes away opportunities for the politicians to fish in. And this unpalatable truth explains why the conditions of Muslims in India, like their dalit and tribal counterparts, continue to remain deprived.
For instance, take the states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. All these happen to be the states where Muslims are in considerable number and where one comes across the talks of “secularism”, which, in effect, mean Muslim-appeasement, the most. In these three states, fortunes of the parties like CPM, Rashtriya Janata Dal (Lalu Prasad Yadav) and Mulayam Yadav (Samajwadi Party) have depended on the Muslim votes. In fact, such is the voting power of the Muslims in these states that almost all the parties, including even the BJP, talk things soothing to the Muslims. But these also happen to be states where, if one goes by the report of the much-debated Sachar Committee, the conditions of the Muslims are most pathetic.
In contrast, and that is a great irony, the Sachar Committee revealed that the much-abused Narendra Modi’s Gujarat was the best state as far as the Muslims were concerned. In terms of literacy level, Muslims in Gujarat stood at 73.5 per cent as compared to the national average of 59.1. While the figure for the urban males was 76, it was 81 for those living in rural areas as compared to the national average of 70 and 62 respectively in similar category. Even Muslim women in the urban areas of Gujarat have average literacy rate 5 point higher than the national average whereas their counterparts in rural areas of Gujarat fare even better with a literacy rate of 57 per cent as compared to the national average of 43 in similar category. Also in Gujarat, a greater percentage of Muslims have attained primary, secondary and higher secondary level education compared to the national average and compared to other states. Against the national average of 60.9 per cent (and 42.2 per cent in UP), Gujarat had 74.9 per cent Muslims at the primary level while the percentage is 45.3 at Secondary level as compared to national average of 40.5 per cent and 29.2 per cent in Uttar Pradesh.
In terms of per month per capita income, the Sachar Committee said that Muslims in the urban areas of Gujarat earn an average Rs 875 which is more than the national average of Rs 804. In contrast, it is Rs 662 in Uttar Pradesh and Rs 748 in West Bengal. In rural Gujarat the per capita monthly income of the Muslims is 20-25 per cent more than the Muslims living in the rural areas of most other states. It is on an average Rs 668 as compared to the national average of Rs 553. In terms of people living below poverty line, Gujarat had 54 per cent Muslims living below it in 1987-88 while the figure stood at 34 per cent in 2004-2005 showing a healthy pace of improvement. Even in terms of share of Muslims in government jobs, it is 5.4 per cent in Gujarat while it is 2.1 per cent in West Bengal.
The above facts only reconfirm the truth that when you hear our “secular” leaders talking of the woes of Muslims, be sure that they are deliberately delaying the eradication of those woes so as to prolong their vote-bank politics. It is high time to end such politics. A Muslim, like any other Indian, needs “empowerment”, not “appeasement”.
By Prakash Nanda