‘The Muslim Vote: A View from Delhi’ by Heewon Kim
On 10th April 2014, on a hot and sultry summer’s morning, Delhi’s Muslims queued up outside polling station at Jamia school of Jamia Millia Islamia, a public central Muslim university located in Jamia Nagar (Muslim-concentrated area of Delhi), to cast their vote. While it has been said that Indian elections are colourful and festive, the road to Jamia Nagar was peaceful and quiet. One after another Muslim men and women began to appear at the site. Some people greeted each other but no one laughed or joked. The mood was sombre. The voters at Jamia Nagar did not seem energised or enthused. Rather they appeared subdued and perplexed. One Muslim man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said ‘Actually we are confused. We don’t know to whom to cast the vote.’
This bewilderment needs to be understood against the background of the UPA’s record in government since 2004. The election of the UPA marked a major turning point in the efforts to improve the equality of opportunity for religious minorities in India. In the 2004 Congress election manifesto, the minorities featured prominently. The party promised positive measures, such as increasing employment opportunities in public sector undertakings and providing better equal opportunities in education. It promised to implement affirmative action for religious minorities, particularly on the model of Kerala and Karnataka, with reservation in government employment and educational institutions. After the formation of government at the centre, the UPA reaffirmed its intention to provide ‘full equality of opportunity’ to Muslim community, appointing two expert groups: the Sachar Committee and National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, also known as Ranganath Misra Commission, to examine the socio-economic and educational condition of Muslims, and to recommend policy measures, including reservation, respectively. The appointment of Sachar Committee to collect religion-based demographic data for development of policies was an unprecedented government policy response to the need of Muslim community and was an official recognition of the development deficit it had long suffered. The promises of the UPA appeared to gain momentum when the Prime Minister officially announced in the parliament that ‘recommendations of Sachar Committee will be implemented’. In brief, the recommendations of Sachar Committee report centred on the positive action, which does not challenge the constitutional norm. In contrast, the recommendations of Ranganath Misra commission made a clear case for reservation, criticising the existing constitutional norm as both ‘discriminatory’ and ‘exclusionary’. Using the recommendations of these expert groups as a reference, the UPA initiated a range of programmes and schemes for the development of Muslim community.
However, ten years after the UPA came to power, there has been no significant improvement in the condition of Muslims, and large sections of the community are still lagging behind in almost every socio-economic indicator. After mid-2007, the political momentum for policy change and implementation waned. It was not until March 2014 that an interim official review of the Sachar Committee report was undertaken, and so far this review has been kept from the public domain, though media reports appear to confirm the generally negative assessment of the UPA’s record so far.
Similarly, the policy process around the recommendation of Ranganath Misra commission was no better: it has never been discussed in parliament, and since the submission of the report no Congress MP or Muslim MP has raised this issue in the parliament for discussion, despite the fact that no new constitutional amendment is required for its implementation. The prospect of implementation is highly unlikely. In February 2014, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, declared that if he comes to power the recommendations of Ranganath Misra commission would never be implemented because they would make backward Hindus more insecure and vulnerable.
India’s Muslims, who have in the past voted en bloc for the Congress until the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, no longer appear to be a monolithic vote-bank. While large sections appear to be confused and indecisive, others, notably some elite leaders, are joining the BJP. Despite his life-long opposition to BJP, M. J. Akbar, a leading Indian journalist and ex-Congress MP in Bihar from 1989 to 1991, joined the saffron bandwagon to the dismay of many Muslims. Such decisions have further added to the confusion of Muslim voters, who appear to be struggling to make the right tactical choice – both nationally and regionally – to defeat the BJP. The Congress, UPA-allies and the other secular parties seem to be the only practicable option. As one Muslim voter at Jamia School declared: ‘We are disappointed with Congress. But it is still true that we don’t want Modi for the next Prime Minister. We feel we do not have any alternative.’