Not so long ago, it was widely presumed that in a modernising and fast-growing India, sickening religious clashes aimed at garnering votes would be a thing of the past. The riots in western Uttar Pradesh, like those preceding them in Bihar, point to the opposite. Communal polarisation has staged a comeback.
Worryingly, more riots could be looming as India heads into a general election in 2014, analysts say. Such clashes tend to claim more Muslim lives, according to Prof Paul R Brass, a leading India expert at the University of Washington.
Muslims form about 18% of UP’s 200-million population, rendering them politically significant for that reason alone. Of the 403 seats in the UP assembly, they are said to be influential in one-third. Statistics show that parties have won elections by cornering sizeable votes from low-caste Hindus and Muslims.
As political parties prepare for the rough and tumble of 2014, the right-wing BJP has emerged as a key challenger. It increasingly began to appear that the polls would be fought on the issues of a weakening economy, stubbornly high prices and a series of high-profile corruption scandals. Not religion. What then has changed?
It’s possible that parties will find it difficult to deliver on development parameters. A series of opinion polls suggest that though the Congress is unlikely to do well, the BJP won’t gain much either.
It’s possible that the politics of development alone, as is being epitomised by BJP mascot Narendra Modi, won’t be enough to bring the party to power in 2014. Therefore, the easier option is to play one community against the other.
Driving a wedge between majority Hindus and Muslims, India’s largest minority of more than 150 million people, tends to help all parties. Hindu nationalists have typically made use of this. In June, riots erupted in parts of Bihar soon after the ruling JD(U) snapped its ties with the BJP.
“Secular parties too tend to play a double game. First you create a sense of insecurity for the minorities and then seek to address them,” said Mohd Sanjeer Alam of the think-tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
In UP, this strategy failed miserably when a scuffle over eve-teasing, involving Hindu and Muslim youths, was allowed to spin out of control.
Research has also pointed to a correlation between stable economic development and social harmony. When India’s economy tends to flag, a restless Indian middle class gets prone to easy mobilisation. In a recent study, political scientists Anjali Thomas Bohlken of the University of British Columbia and Ernest John Sergenti of the World Bank, using a statistical model, found that just a 1% rise in India’s GDP decreased the expected number of riots by more than 5%.
In UP, Muslim anger is now piling up at the SP’s doorstep. “Never have I seen a government become so unpopular among Muslims in so little time,” said Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind leader Mahmood Madani. For Muslims, the more political choices, the merrier. But now in UP, there could be one party less to choose from, he said.
That is less of a problem in a remarkably diverse democracy. The worry is that political parties have reverted to the devious old ways of communal polarisation. “It’s back to basics,” said Alam.