2024 Lok Sabha elections: Mapping Muslim voting behaviour | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

2024 Lok Sabha elections: Mapping Muslim voting behaviour

Feb 12, 2024 12:25 PM IST

Muslim voting behavior in India has become more complex since the BJP's 2019 victory.

By comparison, studies of Muslim voting in state assembly elections since the 2019 general elections, which ushered in a new dominant party system, show some consolidation. Surveys by CSDS-Lokniti reveal that in the 2020 Bihar elections, about 77% Muslims voted for the Mahagathbandhan (an alliance of parties opposed to the BJP); in the 2021 West Bengal elections, 75% of Muslims voted for the incumbent Trinamool Congress; and in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, 79% of Muslims voted for the opposition Samajwadi Party.

Mapping Muslim voter behaviour ahead of Lok Sabha polls (Pics for representation)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Mapping Muslim voter behaviour ahead of Lok Sabha polls (Pics for representation)(HT_PRINT)

By comparison, studies of Muslim voting in state assembly elections since the 2019 general elections, which ushered in a new dominant party system, show some consolidation. Surveys by CSDS-Lokniti reveal that in the 2020 Bihar elections, about 77% Muslims voted for the Mahagathbandhan (an alliance of parties opposed to the BJP); in the 2021 West Bengal elections, 75% of Muslims voted for the incumbent Trinamool Congress; and in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, 79% of Muslims voted for the opposition Samajwadi Party.

A range of factors appear to shape Muslim voting. Some scholars suggest that Muslims vote according to a state’s electoral context (based on how many parties are contesting and what these parties are) or individual candidate prospects (with Muslim votes divided in multipolar contests). My own research, focused on state assembly elections, argues that Muslim voting behaviour is influenced by the presence (or absence) of a coethnic representative. I show that the existence of a Muslim representative can activate internal divisions among Muslims that shape their subsequent voting behaviour. These divisions can manifest along sub-identities within the broader Muslim identity.

Despite scholarly inattention, caste remains a relevant sub-identity in the Muslim community. Muslim caste identity is divided into three categories: Ashraf, Ajlaf, and Arzal. The Ashraf are self-proclaimed descendants of Muslim immigrants who emigrated to the Indian subcontinent from the Middle East and Central Asia; the group includes Sayyids, Shaikhs, Mughals, and Pathans. The Ajlaf and Arzal are primarily Hindus who converted to Islam and correspond with the Hindu equivalents Other Backward Class (OBC) and Dalit subcastes, respectively. Since the 1990s, activists among non-Ashraf Muslims — Ajlaf (OBC) and Arzal (Dalit) Muslims—have sought to mobilise against Ashraf dominance in politics, referring to themselves collectively as Pasmanda (a Persian term meaning “those left behind”). Today, “Pasmanda Muslims” is used as an umbrella term for OBC and Dalit Muslims.

The 2006 Sachar Committee Report is often cited to highlight the educational and economic differences between Muslims and Hindus, but it also examines differences within the Muslim population, specifically along caste lines. Grouping non-upper-caste Muslims into the OBC Muslim category, the report compares OBC Muslims to General Muslims and OBC Hindus. In the domains of education, employment, and economic status, Muslim OBCs fared poorly relative to both General Muslims and Hindu OBCs.

In addition to being relevant to the socioeconomic lives of Muslims, caste is increasingly becoming part of conversations on politics and group relations. In terms of civic life, there is growing evidence of Muslim caste-based mobilisation. For instance, one mobilising force at the centre of the Pasmanda movement is the All-India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (AIPMM), based in Bihar. The AIPMM has been at the forefront of civic efforts to advocate for Dalit Muslims (as well as Dalit Christians) to have Scheduled Caste status, granting them affirmative action in government jobs, education, and politics and legal protection against atrocities.

Since the milestone victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general elections, political observers have closely watched the Muslim minority’s response in the electoral arena. Available data suggests that in subsequent state elections, Muslims have largely voted against the BJP and for the leading challenger party. There are, however, several caveats to this observation. Alongside this consolidation of the Muslim vote, salient social and political differences within the Muslim population have simultaneously surfaced. For example, Muslim caste hierarchies (and other sub-identities such as sect) have become important topics of mainstream political conversations. This raises pressing questions for electoral dynamics as the 2024 general elections approach. Should the idea of a coherent Muslim voting bloc be retired? To what extent is caste relevant to the understanding of Muslim voting behaviour? Do group-based solidarities around religion and caste exist for Muslims?

In popular election analyses, Muslims are often treated as a homogeneous voting bloc. Yet, Muslims hardly make up a monolithic community that acts in a coordinated fashion; just like Hindus, Muslims are divided on class, sect, caste, and regional lines.

Prior to 2019, Muslim voting behaviour was significantly fragmented, with no clear signs of constituency-level coordination behind a single political party. Notably, voting behaviour has become more complex since the BJP’s 2019 victory.

Political scientists typically use a measure known as the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) to examine the level of fractionalisation or consolidation that exists in the distribution of votes. An index score close to zero implies that all Muslims voted for different parties, while a score of 1 indicates their support for the same party. An application of HHI for the 2019 general elections reveals some fractionalisation of Muslim votes, despite rising Hindu majoritarianism. In addition, there is considerable variation across states. This fractionalisation is marked when looking at Muslim votes both for individual parties and for alliances.

Over the past several years, political elites have also expanded efforts to mobilise Muslims along caste lines. While most of this mobilisation is based on the umbrella Pasmanda grouping, there is some evidence of mobilisation of the Ansari subcaste in Bihar. In the lead-up to the 2020 Bihar state elections, the Ansari Mahapanchayat (AMP) was formed and engaged in grassroots organising, arguing specifically for elected representation for Ansaris. However, eventually, the group’s leadership fractured.

In 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP gave Pasmandas attention, urging BJP workers to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims; Modi held several events with notable Pasmanda Muslims later in the year. While these meetings were the party’s first large-scale public outreach effort, it has engaged with Pasmanda Muslims in the past. For instance, sociologist Khalid Anis Ansari noted that in 2013 in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP formed a weavers’ cell to engage some Pasmanda Muslims, and in 2017 in Odisha, the party highlighted the need for Pasmanda Muslims to receive the same benefits as OBCs and even called out Sayyids and Pathans for “usurping welfare measures.”

Nevertheless, the BJP’s outreach was not entirely well received. Several Muslim groups warned members of the Pasmanda community to be wary of the party’s outreach. For instance, the AIPMM emphasised that no political party should take the support of Pasmanda Muslims for granted, while the organisation’s leader criticised the party’s Pasmanda outreach by underscoring that Pasmanda Muslims have been disproportionately affected during communal attacks. Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party — which regularly evokes Muslim solidarity — also lambasted the BJP’s outreach, arguing that Pasmanda Muslims have been victims of vigilante violence under the current BJP government.

While Pasmanda politics has figured more prominently in mainstream political mobilisation in recent years, the community’s voting behaviour is less clear. Understanding the heterogeneity in political behaviour within the Muslim population remains difficult because most surveys seek to capture a representative sample of India or a particular state, which limits the sample of Muslim respondents; additionally, they do not capture details on Muslim castes. To help address these limitations, I conducted a survey of nearly 2,000 Muslims in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, with a particular focus on the contours of political behaviour within the Muslim community. The survey was also conducted with almost 2,000 Hindus in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 to allow for comparisons across religious groups.

When asked about state elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, a small percentage of Muslim voters reported that they voted for the BJP candidate. By 2017,12.6% of general Muslims and 8% of Pasmanda Muslims reported supporting the BJP. Interestingly, by the 2022 state elections, BJP support among general Muslims fell to 9.8%, while support among Pasmanda Muslims increased to 9.1%. While vote choice in state elections does not automatically translate to behaviour in national elections, the BJP’s recent inroads with the Pasmanda community — along with targeted 2024 election outreach — suggests that increased Pasmanda support for the BJP is possible. But when this outreach occurs alongside efforts to mobilise Hindus on their collective religious identity, voting for the BJP can become a hard sell for Muslims, regardless of caste.

While the wider conversation about caste hierarchies among Muslims suggests that individuals may think of their caste in terms of the broader categories of Pasmanda and general, the 2022 survey in Uttar Pradesh — and the Ansari-specific mobilisation in Bihar — suggest that Muslims may think more in terms of their subcaste.

When asked in the survey whether a respondent agreed with the statement, “In an election, it is important for members of the same jati [subcaste] to vote for the same party,” 43% of General Muslims agreed with the statement, compared to 53% of Pasmanda Muslims. This latter percentage is also higher than the share of Hindu respondents who agreed with the statement; 34% of general Hindus, 37% of Scheduled Caste Hindus, and 41% of OBC Hindus reported that it was important for members of the same subcaste to vote as a bloc. If the BJP can gain ground with the Pasmanda community, there could be far-reaching consequences given heightened perceptions that caste-based coordination is important.

The increased relevance of caste to Indian politics raises questions about how much solidarity Muslims exhibit within their superordinate identity (religious group) compared to their subordinate identity (subcaste group). Scholars of race and ethnic politics often use measures of “linked fate” to understand how much an individual’s well-being is linked to their group’s well-being. Adapting survey questions to the Indian context, the 2022 survey in Uttar Pradesh asked Muslim respondents what better or worse conditions for their subcaste group and religious group would mean for themselves.

Muslims generally indicated high levels of “linked progress” and “linked hurt” based on caste identity. Around 90% of Muslim respondents perceived that if things got better for their subcaste, things would also get better for them individually. And about 72% believed that if things got worse for their subcaste, they would get worse for them, too. By comparison, Muslims generally indicated high levels of linked progress but low levels of linked hurt based on their religious identity. Among all Muslims, caste-based solidarity appeared stronger relative to religion-based solidarity.

Across statements probing both progress and hurt, Pasmanda Muslims indicated higher levels of overall linked fate than general Muslims did, suggesting greater group solidarity. While this is limited to one state, it underscores the need to incorporate various Muslim sub-identities into researchers’ mapping of political dynamics.

Since the 2019 general elections, Muslims have become more likely to vote in a unified way, but the political salience of caste in the Muslim community appears to have increased at the same time. Thus, in the coming 2024 elections, while it is unlikely that Muslims will vote entirely on their caste or any other sub-identity, it is clear that sub-identities will shape both campaigning and voting to some degree. With the BJP’s mobilisation of Pasmanda Muslims gathering steam and with opposition parties plotting countermeasures, it would be unwise for political analysts to limit investigations of caste to the Hindu community alone. If the BJP is even moderately successful in consummating its outreach to Pasmanda Muslims, researchers may need to retire the idea of a Muslim voting bloc and pursue a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of how and when sub-identities shape Muslim voting behaviour.

Feyaad Allie is a postdoctoral fellow in the Government Department at Harvard University. Starting in fall 2024, he will be an assistant professor of government at Harvard. In the months ahead, the Carnegie-HT “India Elects 2024” series will analyze various dimensions of India’s upcoming election battle — including the role of foreign policy, the strength of partisan ties, and how technology has reshaped campaigning.

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