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As Saffron Surges in India, One Question Begs an Answer: Where are the Muslim Lawmakers?

By Fazil Khan

Jun. 17, 2019

Representative Image. Source: News18

New Delhi: The number of Muslim lawmakers in the 17th Lok Sabha has gone up by four compared to the previous House, with 27 candidates from the community emerging victorious in the recent national election. But it’s not enough.

According to Census 2011 estimates, there are more than 17 crore (170 million) Muslims in India, accounting for over 14 percent of the country’s total population. A proportionate representation of the community in the Lok Sabha, at present, would amount to at least 77 parliamentarians.

On an average, only 30 Muslims have made it to the Lok Sabha after each general election between 1952 and 2014, which adds up to 5-6 percent of the total strength of the Lower House and about half their share of population.

1980 and 1984 were the only exceptions when Muslims achieved a near-proportionate representation in Parliament, with 9 percent and 8 percent respectively, against an 11 percent share in the population. The outcome was due to the Congress’ landslide victories in the two general elections and the party nominating a fair number of Muslim candidates.

However, Muslim under-representation in the Parliament more or less originates from an inadequate number of candidates being given tickets by major political parties.

This phenomenon of fewer Muslim nominations is common across party-lines. Incidentally, the two major national parties — the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have nominated the least number of Muslim candidates at 7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, over the course of 16 Lok Sabha elections between 1952 and 2014.

Among other parties in this period, 17 percent of Rashtriya Janata Dal’s candidates, 16 percent of Samajwadi Party’s candidates, and 15 percent of Trinamool Congress’ candidates were Muslims.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections too, the Congress and BJP nominated just 32 and six Muslim candidates, respectively, which accounted for roughly 7.5 percent and 1.3 percent of their total candidates.

According to Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS), a major reason for political parties not betting big on Muslim candidates is their winnability.

Ahmed, who has written extensively about Muslims in India, believes the community is not an identity category and though Islam is a unifying factor, sect-based distinctiveness within the community suggests it doesn’t vote en bloc. Therefore, in his view, merely having a Muslim candidate isn’t a guarantee of getting all Muslim votes and doesn’t assure a victory.

Data verifies Ahmed's claims. While the overall number of Muslim candidates has increased over the years, their winning strike rate has fallen significantly from 53 percent in the Congress dominated era of 1952-1977 to just 17 percent during the 2002-2014 period.

This is low when compared to their non-Muslims counterparts who have seen a flatter decline, from 46 percent to 29 percent. Having a larger number of Muslim candidates on a single seat could possibly be a reason for this decline as eventually only one will win.

The Saffron Effect

The Muslim representation in Lok Sabha, after peaking in 1980 and 1984, saw a significant decline till 2014 even as the overall population of the community grew during the period. For instance, while Muslim population more than doubled from 6.8 crore in 1981 to 17.2 crore in 2011, their representation in the Lok Sabha fell from 49 or 9 percent in 1980 to 22 or 4 percent in 2014, which has now gone up to 5 percent.

This, in turn, increased the gap between the proportion of the population against the elected representatives.

Simultaneously, this was also the same period when the BJP expanded its footprint — both in terms of geographical presence and electoral performance.

Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot in ‘Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India’ writes that "the formation of a Hindu vote bank by the BJP, which in particular aimed to sideline minorities in the political arena, prompted other parties as well no longer to nominate Muslim candidates, except in areas with a high Muslim majority”.

According to Jaffrelot, this tactic was especially clear in the Congress’ case, which the BJP accused of cultivating a Muslim vote bank by showing concern for their social and economic condition — a false claim if one goes by the impoverishment of Muslims under the UPA regime.

The impact of this marginalization culminated with the BJP gathering a massive 282-seat majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, without a single Muslim MP. The party, in any case, had fielded just seven Muslim candidates out of its total of 428 candidates and all of them lost.

The wave was such that for the first-time in the history of independent India, Uttar Pradesh, which sends the highest 80 lawmakers to Parliament, elected no Muslim MP, largely because the BJP won 73 of the total seats and none of its candidates was a Muslim.

For context, Uttar Pradesh is home to more than 4 crore Muslims, that is almost twice the population of neighboring Sri Lanka. The community makes up for nearly 20 percent of the state’s total population.

As a consequence of this, Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha came down to just 22 in a country of over 17 crore Muslims. The figure was the lowest since 1952.

In the years that followed, the saffron surge continued in Assembly elections one after the other, leading to a fall in the number of Muslim MLAs across the country.

Hence, while 335 of the total 4,120 MLAs in the country before the BJP came to power in 2014, this number stood at just 293 after the recent round of state elections in 2018, including Jammu and Kashmir where President’s Rule is in place. The proportional representation of Muslim MLAs should be 557.

Of the 1,301 BJP MLAs (J&K not included), only three are Muslims (0.23 percent), while the Congress has 68 Muslim legislators among its 857 MLAs (8 percent).

A Scattered Electorate

Another reason behind fewer Muslims getting elected to Parliament as compared to their population is the scattered geographical presence of Muslim voters in the country. Coupled with the existing framework of first-past-the-post electoral system, Muslim candidates have a hard time emerging victorious.

In a first-past-the-post system, a candidate who gets the most number of votes in a particular constituency, wins the seat. It doesn’t matter how much a share of votes a candidate has collected, as long as he/she collects even a single vote more than his/her nearest competitor, he or she wins.

In effect, this system allows communities which are concentrated in smaller geographical areas a larger say in the electoral process and more power in electing their representatives and vice versa.

Of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, there are only 29 seats where the Muslim population is over 40 percent of the electorate. It is from these 29 seats that more than half of the Muslim MPs have been elected since Independence.

The community makes up for 20-40 percent of the electorate in another 67 constituencies, but remains below 20 percent in 447 or 82 percent of the total Lok Sabha constituencies which makes them relatively less significant in these seats.

In contrast, Sikhs who are more concentrated mainly in Punjab tend to send an adequate number of lawmakers to Parliament in proportion to their overall population.

In case of Muslims, the community is largely concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Kerala and it is these states that send the majority of Muslim MPs to Parliament.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, each of these states contributed to the tally of 27 Muslim elected candidates, who represent 12 political parties.

Ahmed is of the opinion that “there has hardly been a Muslim leader who has established himself as a national secular hero. They often get reduced to merely Muslim issues and fail to represent non-Muslim issues.” Hence, their failure to succeed in constituencies where Muslims form a smaller part of the electorate, and thus not being in a position to influence the outcome.