Over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community.
Trust a Calcuttan to come up with the perfect political metaphor. We were chatting about the political mood of Muslims over tea and savouries on Id, and the conversation turned inevitably to the fate of Rizwan ur Rehman, the young man whose death in suspicious circumstances has set off a firestorm in Bengal. The Muslim vote, my Calcuttan friend said bitterly, had become like an item number in Hindi films. It was used to pump up the box office, and then dumped completely from the script.
For the very, very few of you out there who still do not know what an item number is in a Hindi movie: this is the generally raunchy song that is planted into the sequence without any pretence of reason, and with absolutely no consequence on the narrative. The Muslim voter feels similarly used by the political parties he supports. As my friend pointed out, at least those in the item number get paid for their contribution.
The best way to prevent disillusionment, of course, is to avoid the trap of illusion. And yet, the Left, spearheaded by the CPI(M), has given Indian Muslims cause for some comfort. Three decades of communal peace in Bengal during the reign of the Left Front have erased memories of what Bengal once was. Bengal is a border state that has been partitioned, and embers from 1947 raged till the mid-Seventies. In a sense the Marxist generation of Biman Bose, the present head of the party in Bengal, won its spurs during the frequent riots in Calcutta during the 1960s when it mobilised its cadre and stood on street corners, preventing hired goons from entering the city’s Muslim mohallas. Ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977, and Jyoti Basu became chief minister, a deft combination of political and administrative management has kept this particular beast out of people’s lives.
But over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community. There is an element of patronage in this attitude, as if providing protection to the lives of Muslims is a special favour rather than a government’s duty. One statistic, available in the seminal report on minorities prepared by Justice Rajendra Sachar, should be enough to make the point. Muslims constitute 25.2% of the population of West Bengal, but have only 2.1% of state government jobs. Kerala, which has almost the same percentage of Muslims (24.7%), has given 10.4% of state government jobs to the community. Assam’s ratio is similar: 30.9% and 11.2%. Bihar does better: it gives 7.6% of state jobs to Muslims, who add up to 16.5% of the population. Andhra Pradesh has the best record: 9.2% ofthe population and 8.8% of jobs. Uttar Pradesh, despite leaders who claim to be more-secular-than-thou has given only 5.1% of state government jobs to an 18.5% population. The situation is no better when it comes to health and education indices.The anger in Bengal therefore is much greater than the appalling mismanagement of one incident would warrant.
Muslim disenchantment with the Congress, the other party that received its enthusiastic vote in 2004, is more widespread and deeper. The cause is the same, a perception of injustice. Maharashtra’s Muslims are still waiting for the Congress to take action against those named in the Srikrishna report for fomenting riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque. The Congress and its ally, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, have been in power in the state for eight years. They have no alibis left.
A second reason is the treatment of Muslim suspects after the recent blasts by the Andhra Pradesh police. Torture was pervasive. This was the finding of the Andhra Pradesh State Minorities Commission, which sent its report to the government — which, till date, has opted for familiar silence. The street has its own means of forming an opinion, through what it sees. It notes police indifference in the investigation of the bomb blasts at Mecca Masjid, where only Muslims died and the zeal displayed elsewhere. A voter does not make up his (and more important, her) mind in one eureka moment. It is a slow accretion of evidence that takes the voter in one direction or the other when his moment comes, on polling day.
And then of course there is George Bush, the omnipresent ghost hovering over Dr Manmohan "Hamlet" Singh. The Muslim voter may not understand the finer points of the 123 Agreement, or the hammer blows of the Hyde Act, but he can see the headlong rush of Dr Singh into the embrace of the man who has wrought unprecedented havoc on Iraq, whose record is stained with the blood of perhaps half a million Iraqis, who has turned four million Iraqis into refugees and talks of permanent bases in a nation that wants his troops out yesterday.
Hamlet’s fatal flaw was not sleaze but indecision. The iron law of public life is clear: people will accept a wrong decision, but they have no respect for indecision. Dr Hamlet Singh’s sudden waffle on the nuclear deal has done the worst possible damage. It has made him look silly, and Bush look clueless. The latter may not cause too much damage to the American President’s reputation, since this is not the first time he has looked clueless. But for the Indian Prime Minister to slip from Super Saviour to Hiccup Hamlet is not good electoral news for the Congress. Dr Hamlet Singh is also probably beginning to appreciate the unpleasant fact that the admirers who basked in his kindness and favour for three years, were supporters of the deal, not supporters of the Prime Minister. The moment he suggested that life could go on beyond the deal, they began to demand his resignation. Hero-worship is a merciless profession.
Nor has the foreign policy story played out. Russia’s snub to external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was not permitted the customary call on President Vladimir Putin, and defence minister A.K. Antony, who could not even get an appointment with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, is a reminder that those who have stood by India with both military hardware and nuclear fuel have their own views on Dr Singh’s lurch towards George Bush.
It is already evident that while Muslims will still prefer Congress to the BJP in a straight contest in next year’s general election, Congress governments in the states and the Centre have done enough in three years to halve their support from this crucial minority.
How badly will the Left Front be affected in Bengal? There is one important difference between the Left and the Congress: while Muslims still expect some redress from the Left, they are cynical about the Congress. The Congress has habitually been long on rhetoric and short on delivery when it comes to affirmative action. The Left has a chance to cut its losses in Bengal but it needs to get its act in place fast.
What is beyond dispute is that Muslims are tired of being the item number of a general election, flashed out for five minutes and sent back to political purgatory when the elections are over. The elections of 2008 will probably be the last time that they will stick to their traditional anchors. If the only reward for their support is indifference, the item girl will write her own script for a movie in which she will be the star.