By Kaleem Kawaja,
The polling in the parliamentary election began on Monday in the northeastern part of India. This is one of the noisiest and most turbulent election in memory since India became a free nation in 1947. One of the primary reasons is that the Bharti Janata Party is trying to change the governing fabric of the nation. The nation has followed the tradition of first conducting an election and then the elected parliamentarians of the party with the largest number of seats, elect their leader and prime minister. In the instance of a coalition, the coalition of parties do the same. In 1996 when BJP/NDA won the election they followed the same tradition and BJP MPs elected Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister.
But this year, with strong push from RSS, BJP leadership is trying to change that by nominating and promoting Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, much before even the declaration of names of candidates. Modi himself is barnstorming the nation literally minimizing the candidates of his own party and asking people to vote in his name regardless of who the candidate is. It is almost as if the system has changed to a Presidential system where voters vote directly for the person who is running for President. Indeed Modi is proudly proclaiming himself to be a Karsevak, a RSS Pracharak and a strong Hindu nationalist. He has decried the very national structure of secularism and composite culture as sham.
All this noise and hoopla by Modi and BJP is causing concern in the minds of religious minorities, especially Muslims. Although in past elections also Muslims have faced BJP's rhetoric, but typically they have not been united in making common cause to oppose BJP. Even though over 90 constituencies in India have Muslim population concentration with Muslims forming 25% or more of the population, and thus able to influence the election results, they have not been united in voting. Typically several Muslim candidates from several secular parties run from same constituency thereby dividing the Muslim vote. That often results in the BJP candidate winning from Muslim population constituencies. Also before the election BJP leaders shed crocodile tears for Muslims thereby overcoming their resistance.
However in the state Assembly elections in the last few years in UP and Bihar, two states with large number of voters, Muslims have tried "tactical voting". In this unwritten system senior Muslim leaders and organizations gauge the winning ability of non-BJP candidates in every parliamentary constituency from feedback from ground conditions in the constituencies, and then announce the names of secular party candidates who look like they could defeat the BJP candidate. Even if that secular party candidate is non-Muslim and there is another Muslim candidate running against him, the senior Muslim leaders advise the community to vote for the non-Muslim candidate. Frequently this advice is conveyed to ordinary Muslims in cities through word of mouth, called "puriya" (packet). For instance in Ghaziabad where Shazia Ilmi (AAP) is running but is not expected to defeat BJP's General VK Singh, the leaders have recommended that Muslims vote for Raj Babbar (Congress) who is a much stronger candidate.
2014 parliamentary election is the first time that Muslims are experimenting with "tactical voting" in the election to parliament. Two days before polling on April 9 and 10, in many constituencies in north India, the Joint Committee of Muslim Organizations led by Syed Shahabuddin, renowned leader of the Muslim community, sent out its recommended "tactical voting" list of candidates. Throughout UP and Bihar some Muslim candidates who are not strong and whose candidature in the 2009 election resulted in the division of Muslim votes, are withdrawing from contest this year. It is to prevent the division of Muslim votes. Thus in Varanasi from where Modi is running, and is being opposed by Arvind Kejriwal of AAP, Mukhtar Ansari , strong Muslim candidate of the 2009 election who performed very well against senior BJP leader MM Joshir, has withdrawn. That should enable Kejriwal a strong secular candidate to give tough fight to Modi, as the votes of about 3 lakh Muslims in Varanasi will not be divided.
Recently after several fake "sadbhavna rallies" BJP also circulated the harmful rumour that many Muslims are inclined to vote for Modi this time. In the last few days IANS, a major news agency, conducted an informal survey among Muslim voters throughout the country. The feedback they received is that barring rare instances Muslims are not willing to vote for Modi and BJP. The main reason they gave was the strong opposition of Modi to secularism and the Muslim community, his refusal to apologize for the 2002 Muslim genocide in Gujarat, and his strong advocacy of Hindu supremacist Hinduttava policies. In fact quite a few Muslims reminsced positively about the flexible and sophisticated Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a contrast to the muscle politician that Modi is.
The polling will run for another 6 weeks and polling will take place in many constituencies where Muslims have good voting strength. It is hoped that the indications from the recent IANS survey will hold and Muslims will adhere to the "puriya", the advice of their senior leaders, thus not dividing their community's votes, thereby minimizing the seats that BJP can win.
(Kaleem Khwaja is the Executive Director of Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM) that hasextended full support to AAP .)