It remains to be seen whether it will reduce the â€œsecularâ€ parties to a zero or force them to recognise their limitations as secular parties and band together.
Two equations will decide the politics of the Indo-Gangetic plain in the next three years and beyond, when elections are due in Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, in that order.
The first equation is M-M=0. The second is M-M=M. The first one is obviously correct mathematically, but the second is not - unless M equals zero. The first M in both equations stands for Mulayam (Singh), Mayawati or Mamata (Banerjee) - or any so-called secular party. The second M in both equations stands for the Muslim vote, which is the becoming the overwhelming swing factor in all three states. The third M in the second equation stands for Modi – he could be a gainer if the Muslim votes tilt away significantly from the “secular” cabal. But this equation will not work if fear of a Modi gain forces parties to realign.
That Muslims will play a decisive role in future elections is dictated by staggeringly favourable demographics in all the big-vote states. According to a leaked report of the 2011 religious census, the Muslim population has risen dramatically in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Karnataka. PR Ramesh of Open magazine wrote earlier this year: “The rise in Muslim numbers is most noticeable in Assam, where they were found to make up 34.2 percent of the population in 2011, up by more than 3 percent since 2001. In West Bengal, this religious group’s share rose by almost 2 percent to 27 percent. In Kerala, by 2 percent to 26.6 percent. Uttarakhand has seen a similar rise to 13.9 percent. In UP and Bihar, the increase is about 1 percent, with the Muslim headcount at 19.3 percent and 16.9 per cent respectively. Jharkhand, Delhi and Maharashtra report similar increases, with the 2011 figures rising to 14.5, 12.9 and 11.5 percent respectively, while Karnataka has seen a rise of just below 1 percent to 12.9 percent.”
This should ordinarily be good news for the “secular” parties, since the Muslim vote has traditionally been harvested by them. But the next time it could be different.
To get back to our equations, the first one (M-M=0) states a simple point: if Muslims defect from Maya, Mamata and Mulayam, their parties will shrink in the next elections. The second equation is perceptional: if the "secular" parties believe that the Muslim defection will give Modi victory, huge realignments are likely on the Gangetic battleground states. Modi will cause realignments that were unthinkable earlier.
This is what we saw in the Bihar by-polls, where arch rivals Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad fought together to cut the BJP to size. This is what we saw in UP, whenMayawati stayed away from the by-polls and allowed the Samajwadi Party to win. This is what we may be seeing in Jammu & Kashmir right now, as the BJP's rise is forcing higher voter registrations in the Valley to keep Modi out. Since the National Conference’s fortunes are on the ebb, votes in the Valley could polarise towards Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP. Both NC and PDP are asking the separatists to avoid pressing for a poll boycott to prevent a BJP entry into the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley,reports The Economic Times. Surprise: to thwart Modi, even the separatists may be willing to wink at the mainstream Valley parties. A low voter turnout made the BJP the biggest party in the Lok Sabha polls, but this may not happen in the assembly polls.
But Kashmir is a special case, and the future of the “secular” parties will be decided not in J&K but the Gangetic plain. This is where the first equation could play out if Muslims opt out of backing their usual “M” favourites.
There are some straws in the wind indicating that the next few elections will force Muslims to rethink their normal voting patterns. The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), a hardline, but relatively modern Muslim party, has broken out of its Hyderabad base and opened its account in Maharashtra with two seats.MIM boss Asaduddin Owaisi has already announced that his party will contest in UP and West Bengal.
One swallow does not a summer make, but Maharashtra is unlikely to have been a fluke for MIM. And Asaduddin Owaisi is not one of those fuddy-duddy Muslim parties like the Indian Union Muslim League, which has remained content in its Kerala pond. He is both aggressive and modern – and dismissive of traditional Muslim leaders and “secular” parties.
Hear him on Mulayam Singh: “In Uttar Pradesh, we have been working for a long time. The elections are not going to be easy for Mulayam Singh this time. They have not done anything and have allowed riots to happen. They have deliberately allowed Muslims and Dalits to face off against each other. In terms of schemes too, nothing has been implemented. Muslims have voted for Mulayam Singh, but surprisingly no Muslim put up by his party has managed to get elected.”
About Mamata, he told The Indian Express: “She is good at saying salaam-u-alay-kum and ameen in her speeches, but Muslims have gone beyond such symbolism.”
As for Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Owaisi has nothing but contempt for him. Calling him a “lumpen” element, Owaisi asks whether Bukhari has done “anything constructive for the community. Has he even sponsored a single girl’s education in college…. It is only the Delhi-based political parties which feel that he is relevant.”
Now, there is no guarantee that MIM will make a big-bang entry in UP or West Bengal in its very first foray, but if it fields a lot of candidates and garners even 20 percent of the Muslim vote, the "secular" parties will be in deep trouble. The split in the Muslim vote between Maya and Mulayam in May 2014 gave Modi 71 seats in UP. If MIM breaks off with another chunk in 2017 – when the UP assembly elections are due -Akhilesh Yadav may have to pack his bags.
The two Muslim parties to watch are MIM and AIUDF – the All India United Democratic Front, which has a solid Muslim voter base in Assam. Headed by businessman Badruddin Ajmal, AIUDF knows that Muslim demographics in Assam have now shifted in favour of his party. Assam’s Muslims now number 34 percent and no power on earth can stop him. In the past, AIUDF wanted to foray into Bengal, and if both MIM and AIUDF do so to avoid dividing the Muslim parties’ votes, Mamata is history. Unless she plays the Hindu card and edges the BJP out – as Tarun Gogoi did cleverly when the AIUDF reared its head in the last assembly elections.
Unlike the Keralite Muslim League, neither MIM nor AIUDF is making the mistake of wooing only the Muslim vote. They are focusing on Dalits and other marginalised Hindu voters in order to widen their appeal.
The rise of Muslim parties has implications for all parties.
#1: The Congress and regional “secular parties” (SP, BSP, Trinamool, etc) will have to reckon with the beginning of the end of the minority vote bank. This will force them to take one of these two options: align among themselves, or with a Muslim party. In UP, the Congress and Samajwadi party may need to align, or the Samajwadi Party or the BSP will have to align with the likes of MIM if they want to make an impact. In Assam, the Congress may have to align with the AIUDF to beat back the BJP challenge.
#2: For the BJP, it will have to figure out whether this will lead to a reverse consolidation of the non-minority vote, or a further split in its own 2014 consolidation.
#3: If the Muslim parties make a mark, it will force all secular parties to reckon with one simple truth: that they are essentially Hindu parties offering a protection racket for the minorities. Their bluff will be called by the Muslim parties.
#4: The chances are the new Muslim parties will build a mass base exactly the way the BSP did with Dalits and a lower caste coalition. This implies that even if they don't win too many seats in the next three years, they will impact the fortunes of the rest of the "secular" parties.
The coming few years will tell us how the M–M equation solves itself. It remains to be seen whether it will reduce the “secular” parties to a zero or force them to recognise their limitations as secular parties and band together.
No party – not the Congress, not the regionals, not the BJP – should presume it has an answer to these equations. Only actual alignments and the ballot box will tell us which equation is correct.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group