Using Religious Cards

Muslim Vote, Hindu Vote

Nilofar Suhrawardy

It is indeed ironical that the Muslim vote is accorded so much importance during elections in India. Numerically, do they really carry any importance? Politically, do they really matter? Of course, Muslims do vote, practise their religion, earn their bread and butter and so forth. But these are basic practices which most Indians indulge in. Now, should a Muslim’s vote be accorded “religious” label simply because of his/her religious identity. This would have carried some relevance, if all Indian Muslims were followers of one particular party/leader of their religious community. Such is not the case. Besides, divisions among Muslims of numerous kinds cannot be ignored. So why should their vote be categorically labelled as “Muslim-vote?” Why?

If Muslims chose to cast their votes only in keeping with their religious dictates, it is possible; most of them would have opted to vote for only Muslim candidates. But such has not been the case. Of course, there is no denying that such an impression is created. Attempt is also made to distract their support for key parties by fielding “Muslims” against their candidates. This strategy has been exercised time and again by fielding Muslims as Independent candidates to create dent in votes of candidates viewed as either “secular,” “non-communal” and/or popular among Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It is apparently assumed that this strategy will lessen votes of popular candidates and help the key rival candidate win even if the latter secures less than fifty percent votes. This strategy certainly worked in 2019 elections as indicated by numerous candidates contesting for one seat, with several among them probably having been paid to do so. The same strategy is exercised by smaller parties whose dominance is primarily confined to a few seats in their respective states. But when they try and extend their reach elsewhere, they hardly win in name of religion but do succeed in dividing votes. Specifically, these points- that of numerous candidates, identified as Muslims, contesting for the same seat as Independents or representing different parties further supports the point of there being no Muslim vote. If one did exist, why would so many- viewed as Muslims- fight for same seats?

Of course, the same point can be made for votes labelled as “religious” of other communities also, particularly- the Hindu vote. This would only be briefly referred to as the focus here is on primarily the so-called Muslim vote. Give a thought, India is home to numerous political parties, majority of which are dominated by Hindus with Hindus being their key leaders. If there was a Hindu-vote or if the vote of this community could be labelled exclusively and only along “religious” lines, Indians–specifically Hindus- would not have carved their political identities in keeping with their regional, ideological and various other differences. Interestingly, this point can also be made about the Muslim vote. The Muslims cast their votes just as other Indians– not in keeping with their religious perceptions- but in keeping with whom they prefer supporting in the national interest and in keeping what they accord great importance. In all probability, the same logic is exercised by majority of voters but the hype that is raised about Muslim vote hardly prevails for the majority community.

Of course, it cannot be missed that recent history has been witness to undue importance accorded, along communal lines, by certain right-winged, extremist factions to the “Hindu” vote. But such attempt to use religious card doesn’t really suggest that all Indian Hindus support these leaders. If this was the case, as suggested earlier, numerous political parties dominated by Hindus would not have held their respective dominance across the country. Equally important is the need to understand the importance accorded to “secularism” by majority of Indian Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and of other communities. If secularism was not believed in and actually practised, India would have probably remained home to only right-winged communal extremists. The so-called Muslim vote also needs to be understood in this context. Why cannot their electoral practice be understood in keeping with principles of Indian secularism? If they choose to support “secular,” non-communal parties against right-winged, extremist, communal parties, their decision is not based on the “religious” identity of the former.

Whichever party they- Muslims support, the same is also supported by in most cases by a larger number of non-Muslims. And yet, the general trend is to accord religious label to only Muslims’ electoral practice as the Muslim vote. Why? Indian Muslims–spread across various parts of country–do not cast vote for any one political party or support any one leader. Their votes are as divided as that of other communities. If only Muslims’ vote was cast for only Muslims of any particular party or if their vote favoured only one party, in keeping with their own religious concerns, there may have been some logic in labelling the entire community’s vote as one, even categorising it as the Muslim vote. But such is not the case here. By voting for a secular, leftist or any such party should a Muslim or group of Muslims from the same constituency be viewed as symbolic of the Muslim vote? Well, it is indeed mind-boggling that the religious label is tagged to them but not to others who also choose to cast their vote for the same candidate because of similar ideological, political and/or social perceptions.

Yes, there prevails the trend, that of most Muslims preferring to support other parties against those with right-winged, communal leanings. But the same trend prevails, as suggested earlier, among non-Muslims too. This may be said in context of votes cast for candidates representing Congress, Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal or several other parties against right-winged, extremist, communal candidates. Yet, as evident during recent electoral campaign, some leaders chose to pay special attention to Congress allegedly favouring “Muslims.” Attempt has been made to create the impression that this party’s priority to secure the “Muslim” vote. Pray, how can any party succeed in securing the needed majority in Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) on the basis of only and/or even primarily the Muslim vote? Muslims don’t constitute even 20% of the country’s population. Yes, a few constituencies and parts of Jammu & Kashmir do have majority of Muslims. However, Muslims of these areas do not support only one party. Or in other words, here too votes of residents–Hindus, Muslims and of other groups–are given to different parties; which can from no angle be viewed as representing only or entirely the Muslim vote.

Certainly, the impression about the so-called Muslim vote is created by some to secure their support by propagating their “secularism” and by others to target their rivals along communal lines. The ones engaged in these exercises are certainly not Muslims, but a hype is created about the so-called Muslim Vote. Just as Muslims decide their electoral priorities along secular and anti-communal lines, the same strategy is also exercised by a larger number of non-Muslims. Except in few states, the percentage of Muslim votes is less than 15% of most Indian states’ population. But, however much one may debate and argue about this, till the so-called “religious-cards” hold sway in deciding campaigns, the hype in all probability shall continue to be accorded to the Hindu-vote as well as the Muslim vote even though majority of Hindus and Muslims may not really be moved by same in view of their secular and national priorities. Certainly not in context of communal hype raised about the so-called Muslim vote!

[Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006). Originally published in]

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Vol 56, No. 51, Jun 16 - 22, 2024