Minorities in a Democracy: Not Just a Numbers Game

The votes of minorities and the marginalised are crucial in a democracy as forming a government is more about political manoeuvring and a pragmatic approach than just numerical strength.

Communalism essentially means giving priority to one’s own ethnic group over society. Problem arises when a community feels that their interest is clashing with others. The idea is that a country has limited resources and its use by a particular community is at the cost of other’s share.

This is at the core of numerous issues in India. At its extreme, the majority group tries to assert itself at the cost of minorities. The ongoing communal polarisation and the recent rise of the right wing in Indian politics is also a result of these ideas.

Being a minority didn’t quite matter till the last quarter of 19th century when power in society was based on land ownership or commercial avenues. However, the introduction of electoral politics changed the scenario. Democracy is considered a numbers game and a party has to now attain a magic number to hold reins of power.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections saw an unprecedented result for the BJP. It captured 72 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats and 325 out of 404 assembly seats in the state. The meteoric rise of the right wing could be traced in the above mentioned idea of communal polarisation of society – apart from anti- incumbency factor, of course.

In this context, four questions become pertinent. First, is the majority of the population gets polarised and votes for a party, where do the minority votes go? Second, can the minority vote make any difference on its own in the multi-party electoral politics? Third, what constitutes minority communalism? And last, how does minority communalism affects minorities? This article looks into these questions in the context of politics in UP.

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Muslims form a sizeable minority, constituting 19.26% of the state population (Census 2011), but their spatial distribution is uneven. They are numerically more in western and northern parts than the southern and eastern parts of the state. But except Rampur, they are in minority in all the other districts. Thus, it appears that they do not hold any chance in constituency-based electoral politics. This perception would change if we observe the vote share of victor parties in previous elections.

The state elections of 2002, 2007 and 2012 saw the formation of government by parties with a vote share of approximately 23%, 30% and 29% respectively. Thus, a vote share of anything more than 30% has the potential of forming the government – either on its own or in coalition. With this conclusion, the position of minorities doesn’t seem weak as it appeared first. Even at the height of communal polarisation, the saffron party secured approximately 41% votes in 2017 elections.

Thus, the problem lies elsewhere, probably in the approach of minorities towards contesting elections and in their voting pattern.

Caste also plays an important role in UP politics. The state largely consist of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), constituting 40% of state population (more than 60% of Muslim population in the state comes under this category). Dalits account for approximately 20% of the population, while the upper caste Hindus constitute about 23% of population. Political parties in the state try to allure these caste groups, whom they claim to represent. Moreover, these caste groups are known to vote en masse, thus holding importance for political parties who can’t afford to estrange them.

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The BJP is considered as the torch bearer of the elite Brahman-Baniya group, the Samajwadi Party holds sway over major OBC groups and Muslims, the Bahujan Samajwadi Party portrays itself as the saviour of Dalits and captures the imagination of some Muslims as well, while the Congress tries to attract some from each group. There are other small regional parties and independent candidates who target one or combination of above mentioned caste groups and the minorities.

Thus, it is evident that OBCs and minorities are wooed by almost all the parties. As suggested before, the caste groups mentioned above have a tendency to vote en masse but the Muslim vote gets divided among various parties.

This may be one of the reasons why not even a single Muslim candidate made it to the UP legislature in 2017. This is not a healthy sign in a representative form of government. Especially, when cultural nationalism is on a rise and adhering to a particular ideology is being stressed by the ruling party.

A pragmatic approach by political leaders and voters of the minority and marginalised communities could change this situation. Steps should be taken by leaders to come together and chalk out a plan before contesting elections. There could be reasonable ways, where they can balance their personal aspirations with the larger interest of the society. They should field candidates in a way that don’t divide the minority votes. Voters should also vote en masse after careful consideration, keeping in mind the long term consequence of their action. They should not be influenced by election campaigns rhetoric, promising some immediate benefits.

If possible, a coalition should be formed to strengthen the position of the minorities and the marginalised. Dalits, adivasis and minorities constitute approximately 40% of the state population. We have already seen that any party securing more than 30% votes has the potential to form government.

In fact, forming government is more about political manoeuvring and pragmatic approach than just numerical strength. Even at the national level, they together constitute approximately 40% of the population. In almost all the elections after independence, party with more than 20% vote share in Lok Sabha elections held sway over the central government.

Also read: Interview: ‘Post Sachar Report, Condition of Indian Muslims Unchanged’

Minority communalism

Now coming to our last two questions, minority communalism could be understood in the context of majority communalism. It is an effort on the part of the minority community to assert their socio-cultural and religious traditions. In this effort, at times, they over do things and get obsessed about their identity, their religious spaces, their cultural moorings. In the process they alienate themselves from rest of the society. Let us examine this thing in context of politics.

To assert their political rights they form political parties and contest elections. Let us look at the names of some of the political parties claiming to represent Muslims: All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, All India Muslim Majlis etc.

The names itself restricts the vote base of these parties. Here, asserting religious identity seems counter-productive, especially with ongoing fake religious propaganda propagating Islamophobia. As already suggested before, the Muslims don’t vote en masse. It means one party can’t secure all the Muslim votes and by keeping orthodox names the chances of securing ‘other’ votes also reduces.

Thus, minority communalism not only hampers the present lookout of the minorities but dampens their future prospects as well. Their effort should be to take a more secular approach towards these issues and avoid alienation from the mainstream society.

The community should take affirmative actions in the form of social welfare and humanistic programmes, which benefits the society. This would knit the Muslim community more closely into the social fabric. 

Tausif Ahmad is a Research Scholar in the Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.