For the first time since the Muslim League migrated to Pakistan, a political party with undiluted Muslim credentials is making a credible bid for support on an all India basis. After 1947, the residual Muslim League confined itself to Kerala and, contra-factually, succeeded precisely because it was a parish force. Other efforts, mainly in UP , became puffs of smoke from the ash of uncertainty.
The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) is clearly defined. Its ambitions are pan-Indian. It is a gathering (majlis) of Muslims on the platform of unity (ittehad). Its leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP, refuses to be embarrassed by his focus, or faith, or his route map in the competitive jungle of democratic aspiration.
If you want to witness the possibility of significant change, forget Delhi’s theatrics and examine Aurangabad’s just-concluded municipal elections. The MIM won 26 of 54 seats it contested in the 113-member body to become the third largest party after BJP and Shiv Sena. Congress slipped from 19 seats to 11; NCP from 11 to two. In the recent assembly bypoll in Mumbai, which Congress heavyweight Narayan Rane lost, MIM got most of the Muslim votes. Something is happening. The satraps of UP, Bihar and Bengal who are chief ministers because of Muslim support are, or should be, worried.
Since 1952, Indian Muslims have handed over their vote as proxy in the hope of security and some degree of welfare. The first beneficiary was Congress. That illusion evaporated in stages to be replaced, in phases, by trust in regional formations. What was common is that in neither case did the transfer occur through Muslim intermediaries. There has been no Muslim leader of Indian Muslims since Maulana Azad, and he was a spent force by 1947. Muslims preferred direct transaction with a Jawaharlal Nehru or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Yadav rather than through any thin-cap, thickhead associate.
The second wave of illusion is getting over. Why?
One fact, sobering if not startling, says more than a page of statistics. There were only 11, 19 and 20 Muslim MPs in the first three Lok Sabhas, or in the decade when Congress under Nehru had a virtual monopoly and could get, as was often said, a lamppost elected. This was between 2 to 4% representation for 14% of India. This is, to say the least, ironical given Nehru’s reputation with minorities. Representation from Congress-dominated UP, Bihar, Bengal and Assam was pathetic. In Bengal, Muslims have around 30% of the vote. Do they get 30% of MPs even under the Left and Trinamool Congress? Try another joke.
In 1967, when non-Congress parties won more space in Lok Sabha, the figure rose to 25, but this was still only 5% of the House. Even though Muslims played a huge part in the Indira Gandhi wave of 1971, their number was only 28, with many coming from non-Congress parties. The unusual presence of 49 MPs in 1980 was thanks only to Chaudhury Charan Singh, who gave tickets to Muslims from west UP. This dropped to 42 in the Rajiv Gandhi tsunami of 1984. By the time Congress got a second term in 2009, this had collapsed to 30. The present Lok Sabha has only 22 Muslim members.
It is perfectly valid to point out that we do not have proportional representation. Muslims understand this, which is why it has taken over six decades of experience for a murmur to crystallize into a cause. They might have remained content with the status quo if they felt that they were getting economic benefits on par with others. They now realize that instead of an economy, those who usurped their vote left them only with a harvest of fear. The young are tired of clichés. They want education. Their habitat and skills are largely urban rather than rural. They want jobs. They are starved for employment.
The MIM understands the curve in electoral equations, and has learnt from what might be called the Mayawati template for Uttar Pradesh. Five MIM councillors in Aurangabad are Dalit. The MIM has shown the capacity not only to pull voters in its direction but also to transfer votes to its non-Muslim candidates.
Alarm bells should have begun to peal in Lucknow, Patna and Kolkata, although the sound has been switched off. But political discretion is not going to disguise a perception shift on the ground. These are early days yet, and politics is too volatile for predictions. The MIM seems to have acquired some critical mass in Maharashtra but we will have to see whether its leader, Owaisi, has that willpower to carry his momentum into the Hindi heartland, and Bengal, which is where his future will be shaped. Another tide has come in the affairs of men, but, as the poet pointed out, someone has to take it at its flood in order to lead on to fortune.
[Formerly with Congress, MJ Akbar now is national spokesperson of the BJP. The above article first appeared on The Times of India blog.]