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India in Transition

Muslims and the “Secular” Parties

Asim Ali
November 7, 2022

In 2018, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi addressed a media conclave and outlined the reasons behind the party’s drubbing in the 2014 elections. Among other factors, she emphasized the ability of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “to convince people, to persuade people that the Congress party is a Muslim party.” The speech reflected the Congress leadership’s acceptance of the diagnosis of the A.K. Antony report, which had first espoused the view that perceived minority appeasement was behind the Congress’ electoral decline. 

The Congress has certainly not been the only party grappling with this apparent need to correct for a “Muslim bias.” Many other secular parties, particularly in Northern India, have internalized the notion that any visible presence of Muslims or “Muslimness” in their political platforms has become a toxic commodity in the prevailing political culture.

However, secular parties still imagine the Muslims as a homogenous community with clear political interests, and do not forswear their claim on this Muslim “vote-bank.” Nevertheless, the rise of the BJP dominant system has destabilized the pattern of relationships of these parties with their Muslim constituents.

A Discursive Shift: Politics of Muslim Issues
Secular parties have moved away from mobilizing Muslims on the traditional package of Muslim issues. As Hilal Ahmed has argued in his book Siyasi Muslims, the imagination of a Muslim vote-bank has traditionally rested on a particular formulation of Muslim issues. These issues included Babri Masjid, personal laws, Urdu, and the minority character of Jamia and AMU universities. Secular parties and the Muslim elites had constructed these Muslim issues as the primary instrument of gathering the votes of the community.

All these issues shared one common denominator: they were essentially “negative issues” entailing the protection of certain existing “privileges” for Muslims. Even though all these issues (personal laws, Babri, AMU, etc.) still form a key part of the Hindu majoritarian discourse, secular parties stay clear of articulating their views on these issues. This discursive distancing from “Muslim issues” has been driven by a fear of “Hindu consolidation.” The passage of the triple talaq legislation, as well as the Ram Temple judgment, was received with either passivity or muted acceptance. Therefore, instead of claiming to protect certain policy preferences of Muslims (personal laws, Urdu, AMU, etc), secular parties now talk about protecting Muslims per se.

The community is implored to vote en bloc against this undefined threat posed by the BJP. In states where Muslims have multiple non-BJP options, parties compete amongst themselves to show that they are the primary opponent of the BJP. This is reflected in the proliferating “B team” rhetoric, where the “B team of the BJP” is sought by any party accused of cutting into the Muslim votes of the primary opponent of the saffron party. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), as well as other secular parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD[S]) have had to recently contend with the “B team” tag. Therefore, the essential purpose of the “Muslim vote bank” is presented in terms of defeating the BJP.

Secondly, the discursive space of Muslim empowerment has been ceded by the secular parties to Muslim identity-centric parties. In the post Sachar Committee phase, secular parties had taken a renewed interest in minority empowerment, particularly the issue of minority quotas. In the 2012 UP elections, for instance, the Congress and the Samajwadi party had both floated demands for minority reservation in jobs. The trope of Muslim “economic backwardness,” popularized as well as legitimized by the studies conducted under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments, was also deployed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal in its attacks against the Left. A decade on, the only party employing the narrative of Muslim “backwardness” in the Uttar Pradesh elections was the AIMIM. In Bengal, TMC’s Mamata Banerjee was also emphasizing the “politics of security,” cautioning the Muslims that Indian Secular Front’s (ISF) Abbas Siddiqui has “taken money from the BJP to divide Muslim votes…you will face the biggest danger if BJP comes to office.” Meanwhile, it was the ISF, which (apart from its religious rhetoric) was making use of the “economic backwardness” vocabulary to frame the TMC’s relationship with Muslims as one of “betrayal.”

For the secular parties, the spread of Hindu majoritarianism among the electorate has left them little room to articulate the traditional issues of Muslim identity as well as the relatively recent issue of Muslim empowerment. While the politics of security did help the primary opponent of the BJP—the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, the TMC in Bengal, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress combination in Bihar—to corner upwards of three-quarters of the votes of the Muslims in each of their states, the long-term reliability of such a strategy remains unclear. Indeed, the evidence of the AIMIM’s breakthrough in the Seemanchal region of Bihar or the All India United Democratic Front’s (AIUDF) continuing hold over Lower Assam and Barak Valley might point to the conclusion that secular parties struggle in Muslim majority regions where the politics of aspiration outweighs the politics of security.

A Functional Shift: Politics of Representation
Accompanying this discursive shift on Muslim issues, secular parties have also reformulated their idea of Muslim representation. Since “Muslim issues” are no longer the primary axis of electoral Muslim mobilization, there is a corresponding decline in the functional utility of the Muslim religious and political elites in constructing and leveraging these Muslim issues. Secular parties are now less dependent on these Muslim intermediaries, and have sought to fashion a more direct relationship with their Muslim constituents. 

The relevance of the Muslim religious elite in the electoral arena has been shrinking for a long time, as has been pointed out by numerous studies. The anti-CAA agitation—led by a middle class of students, activists, and intellectuals in a secularized idiom—gave way to the removal of any remnants of political influence that the ulema might have retained amongst Muslims. The recent Uttar Pradesh elections witnessed little of the customary courting of the clergy. In fact, the only party that made a pronounced attempt in this regard—the Uttar Pradesh Congress, with its cultivation of the cleric Tauqeer Raza of the Ittihad-e-Millat Council—was rejected comprehensively by Muslim voters, much in line with the wider population. Similarly, the Congress-Left partnership with the firebrand cleric Abbas Siddiqui in West Bengal fetched it few Muslim votes. It must be noted that the tactic of pursuing religious leaders is now used by parties languishing at third or fourth places in the electoral fray as a last-gasp attempt to influence Muslims, rather than being the default mechanism it had been in an earlier era.

There has also been an analogous decline in the emphasis given to Muslim faces of secular parties. It is true that the Muslim MPs and MLAs have historically taken the party line in secular parties and hadn’t been afforded a distinctive voice of their own. But these parties had tended to develop prominent Muslim faces, which had a state-wide/nation-wide recall value and could forcefully articulate the party’s stand on “Muslim issues” (Azam Khan in SP, Mohammed Ashraf Fatmi in RJD, and Salman Khurshid in Congress). The need for such tokenism has declined. The SP and RJD campaigned without projecting a prominent Muslim face and still managed to get the bulk of the Muslim vote. In fact, the SP had spent the two years before the elections subtly distancing itself from a legally embattled Azam Khan. The Muslim political representatives of secular parties dutifully follow the party line of largely remaining silent on issues deemed to be “polarizing” by their parties. Moreover, Muslims are also seen to set little store by symbolic representation. In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP fielded a large number of Muslim candidates (91 out of its 403 candidates) but none of them managed to win. Secular parties are trying to forge direct linkages with Muslim voters without needing the presence of visible Muslim faces that tend to become the focal points of the BJP’s charges of “Muslim appeasement.”

Redefining Muslims, Politically    
Admittedly, the picture is more complex if one makes a state-by-state analysis. The stand of the secular parties toward Muslims also depends on the structure of political competition in states—whether they are locked in a bipolar contest with the BJP or in a triangular fight. For instance, the Congress chief in Telangana, Revanth Reddy, has asserted that Muslims are more backward than Dalits and has cornered the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government over its failure to implement the promised 12 percent quota for Muslims. The Congress leadership in Karnataka, especially former CM Siddaramaiah, have taken an assertive stand against the restriction on the hijab in school. This discourse of Muslim empowerment and Muslim identity would be hard to imagine coming from a Congress unit in a state like Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, where they face the BJP in a direct contest. Likewise, the shift in positioning of the SP, RJD, and TMC is also driven by the increasing bipolarity in political competition in their states, which, in turn, owes itself to the rise of the BJP.

There is also certain space provided for creative contradictions within the party platforms. For instance, in the Congress, discursive distancing from “Muslim issues” has coincided with a growing willingness to partner with Muslim identity-centric parties such as the ISF in Bengal and the AIUDF in Assam. These ambiguities have also provoked a debate within the party. The former Congress leader Kapil Sibal criticized these tie ups and asserted that “minority and majority communalism are equally dangerous for the country.” In response, Salman Khurshid defended the party’s moves and quoted Nehru’s warning that the “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority.”

The rise of the BJP’s dominant system has exposed the glaring weaknesses in the secular parties’ approach to Muslims, frozen in an anachronistic view of Muslim identity and anchored to an exploitative conception of a Muslim vote bank. The response of the secular parties has been to tamp down on the Muslim visibility or “Muslimness” of their political platforms. They have, however, stuck to the dominant paradigm of a “politics of protection” in their electoral mobilization of Muslims, even as the terms of the protection offered have drastically changed. One can only hope that the present phase represents a transitional period before secular parties undergo a more creative reconceptualization of their Muslim imagination.

Asim Ali is an independent political researcher.

This article is the second in a series of guest-edited IiT short series. The articles in this series attempt to map out various facets of Muslim political presence in contemporary India. More precisely, five thematic issues related to Muslim identity are systematically investigated: (a) Emergence of religion as an official category and its impact on competitive electoral politics. (b) The ever fluctuating legal-constitutional meanings of the term minority. (c) The nature of anti-Muslim violence and official response to it. (d) The changing political attitude of non-BJP parties. And finally, (e) Relevance of Muslim political representation in today’s India. In this sense, this series offers a different intellectual perspective to what is usually defined as Indian Muslim politics. The pieces in this series collectively assert that Muslim politics is not simply about the number of Muslim MPs and MLAs, nor is it entirely reducible to the voting behavior of Muslim electorates. The political engagements of Muslims, we argue, must be explored as an ever-evolving independent political discourse, which is not always primarily shaped by responses to the challenges posed by Hindutva politics. In this sense, the idea of New India, an official doctrine adopted by the BJP-led NDA regime as a policy framework, is recognized as a significant reference point. For this reason, we treat it as a watershed moment of Indian politics.
(Guest Editor: Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi; Associate Editor, South Asian Studies, journal of the British Association of South Asian Studies, UK)

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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