Two recent pieces argued forcefully against the idea of a Muslim vote bank. The first one takes off from the edict issued by the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid asking Muslims to cast their lot – and ballots – with the Samajwadi Party. The other one begins with the assertion that despite scholars consistently questioning the existence of the Muslim vote bank, this is a myth that refuses to die because of recycling by the popular media.
Instead of going into the merits and demerits of the arguments, it makes better sense to understand how the idea of the Muslim vote bank came into being. Probably the seeds were sown immediately after Independence when politically articulate Muslims who decided against migrating to Pakistan viewed the Congress as the only party capable of providing a just order and justify their decision not to go along with the two-nation theory.
As the first three general elections demonstrated, the Congress dominated Indian politics and won more than 360 seats in a House with less than 500 members. Those were the years when the Congress virtually ran a ‘national’ government with Opposition subsumed within its rainbow coalition.
The first jolt for the Congress came in 1967 when it barely scrapped through with a majority in Parliament. In the maze of fragmented verdicts in several state assemblies, for the first time election results began to be looked at through the prism of caste and community identities. The politics of social identity in many ways began in 1967. That was when Muslims came to be dubbed as Congress loyalists.
The Muslim vote back theory was further buttressed in 1977 when the then Imam of Delhi Masjid issued a call to defeat Indira Gandhi for pursuing the sterilization programme during Emergency. Following the installation of the Janata Party a kind of robustness emerged in the media, civil society and in the academia. Tools were nascent and the emphasis was at times on populist theories.
In the 1980s in Uttar Pradesh, the concept of AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput) was coined to describe the perceived vote bank of anti-Congress parties led by Chaudhary Charan Singh. On the other hand, the belief gained ground that the Congress drew its strength from the alliance of Brahmins, Dalits (at that time called Harijans) and Muslims. When VP Singh came out of the Congress stable after the Bofors scam, AJGAR became MAJGAR indicating that theorists believed Muslims had done a 1977 once again.
Till well into the 1990s all caste groups and religious minorities were considered monolithic blocks voting en masse in elections. The first signs that it was wrong to paint entire communities in one stroke probably first surfaced in Bihar when it was accepted from the mid-1990s that non-Yadav OBCs were feeling left out of the power equation. The existence of MBCs as a politically significant group also emerged from Bihar.
Greater information of India’s caste and social mosaic has brought out previously unknown facets. These can be used to draw a fresh understanding of India’s complex social reality as existing vote banks have all become bankrupt. The moolah is elsewhere now.