When Abhijit Mukherjee narrowly escaped defeat on the prestigious Jangipur seat in West Bengal - once a stronghold of Pranab Mukherjee - in the Lok Sabha bypoll in October last year, it sent a scare through the ranks of Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist). But, the performance of two lesser known parties - Welfare Party of India (WPI) backed by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) by Popular Front of India respectively - did make a few heads turn. Jangipur constituency has more than 60% Muslim voters and the two smaller parties between them got around 8% of the votes. Congress lost around 16%, while CPM lost a little less than 2% of the vote share, to the other parties. But, beyond claims by the Congress and CPM of Bengal politics taking a communal turn, the two minority parties basked in the glow of their performance.
In the past few years, there has been a rise of small parties that champion minority causes, putting forth leaders like Badruddin Ajmal of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Owaisi brothers of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and even Dr Ayub Mohammad Khan of Peace Party of India (PPI) as the new faces of Muslim politics in the nation. The trend has raised debates on Muslim representation, 'votebank' politics and the changing Muslim political discourse.
Rise of 'Muslim' parties
The last few elections saw smaller parties like Peace Party, WPI and SDPI trying their mettle. In the UP assembly elections last year, parties like Quami Ekta Dal, Ittehad-e-Millat Council, and National Loktantrik Party formed the Ittehad Front along with the PPI to contest all the seats. Some of the prominent players - AIUDF in Assam, Tamil Muslim Munettra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the People's Democratic Council in West Bengal - complement veterans like the Indian Union Muslim League and Indian National League in Kerala, the Democratic Secular Party in Bihar and the AIMIM in Andhra Pradesh.
"Massive proliferation of media and readily available information has enhanced identity consciousness and is one of the reasons for the rise of smaller parties." says psephologist and political analyst, Jai Mrug. Lack of economic advancement and insecurity are the other reasons according to him. "In UP, for example, people have seen a complete cycle of political parties (SP, BJP, BSP) leading the state, but nothing changed." General secretary of SDPI, A Sayeed, says this trend is a result of marginalisation. "Muslims and Dalits have become a synonym for the marginalised class." he says. The rise of these 'Muslim' parties is also attributed to the perennial failure of ruling parties. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, Muslims form 10% of the population and traditionally voted for Congress. Now, they seem inclined towards YSR Congress, according to M Mujtaba Khan, professor at the Centre for Dalit and Minority Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. "Muslims identify Jagan Mohan Reddy with pro-minority politics, as was pursued by his father YSR Reddy."
Last year, Rahul Gandhi reportedly said that after Maulana Azad, the country hasn't seen a (Muslim) leader who has had a pan-India presence. There have been Muslim leaders in the country, but it is tough to put them on the same platform. Shujat Bukhari in an article, 'The question of Muslim leadership' in the Kashmiri daily, Rising Kashmir, mentions a few distinguished names like Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Ziaur Rehman Ansari, GM Banatwala and Salahuddin Owaisi who, nonetheless, had limited influence.
Hilal Ahmed, associate fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies cites the 2006 'State of the Nation survey' by CSDS-Lokniti, where only 4% of the respondents believed that a 'lack of the right kind of Muslim leadership' was a reason for the state of Muslims in the country. "The question of Muslim leadership is not a fundamental issue for Muslims. Development and social concerns have taken preference over issues like Babri Masjid." says Ahmed.
Muslim representation in Parliament in the last Lok Sabha is dismal - only 29 members despite comprising nearly 14% of the total population. Dr Zafarul Islam Khan, vice president of the WPI, says that, "Muslim representatives in the House are like puppets in the hands of the so-called secular parties they belong to. Even after the Sachar and Ranganath Committee reports suggesting drastic measures to uplift the community, the representatives have failed to take up the issue, let alone implementation."
Dr Mohd Ayub Ansari, President, PPI, says, "Discrimination against Muslims by the government has brought them together." However, experts refute the idea of a monolithic Muslim vote. "Attempt to polarise the voter base isn't a new phenomenon," says Mrug. "Pattali Makkal Katchi in Tamil Nadu enjoyed Vanniyar support for over a decade, but the appeal faded once the community progressed economically. Similarly, SP received support in Maharashtra when they forayed there after the Babri Masjid demolition. Slowly, that instant appeal made way for local issues."
Muslim votes are also governed by regional or caste based forces . Badruddin Ajmal's party did well in Assam where Muslims faced migration issues. Citing another survey by CSDS-Lokniti, Hilal Ahmed says, "In the last UP elections, caste configuration played an important role. Around 41% of the Ashraf Muslim (upper caste) votes went to SP while Congress got 26%. SP also received 38% of non-Ashraf votes. BSP's performance was quite noticeable too among non-Ashrafs with around 26% voting for them. These figures demonstrate that the Muslim vote is highly diversified."
Says Mrug, "Since the rise of multiple regional parties, the community has supported many like Mulayam's SP, Nitish's Janta Dal, Lalu's RJD, the Left, Trinamool, DMK and TDP in south and even BSP. The trend we see now is a shift to smaller parties which take up Muslim issues."
The fight has increasingly become regional. Be it Owaisi's raking up the Bhagyalaxmi Temple issue in Darussalam, or the SDPI promising to work for Bidi workers in Murshidabad or the Welfare Party taking up the targeting of Muslim youths in Azamgarh, Muslim politics played at a very micro level is compelling bigger parties to fight for a local presence.
Lateef Mohammad Khan, general secretary of the Hyderabad-based Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, feels these parties can only exist if they are aligned to certain power blocs.
Hilal Ahmed says, "The rise of small parties points to a deepening democracy and we can't ignore pluralised Muslim concerns being taken up by these parties representing local aspirations."