Byline By M.J. Akbar: How public is Public Opinion?
As Parliament gears up for a vote of confidence on the Congress-driven nuclear deal, evidence of base realities is beginning to seep upwards. The virtual split in the Indian Union Muslim League over the deal tells its own story.All opinion is not public. This is one reason why public opinion polls so often get it wrong. Some sections of the Indian public — generally, the less confident — prefer to keep their views to themselves, partly out of a nagging fear that the establishment might react adversely to a hostile opinion. And partly out of a sense of property rights in a democracy: why should anyone else know what I think? Let them find out when they check the ballot box. Instead of leading the opinion pollster towards the broad truth, the voter might even deliberately mislead.
Many Indian Muslims, a minority that has learnt to maximise its democratic opportunities, have become sophisticated in the art of misleading the establishment. In the absence of any direct communication with the grassroots, or the tea-stall, the establishment prefers to get its information through an intermediary class, the most prominent of which is the clergy.
Whenever political parties want to advertise "Muslim" support, they parade a queue of grey beards. Maulanas do have their place in Muslim society, a prominent one, but they are not the only determinants or mirrors of opinion. Their influence can be overestimated. It is hardly a secret that some of the Indian clergy are sustained by the establishment and can be counted upon to echo whatever any government wants to hear. Very few of the Maulanas- for-hire actually believe in the statements they make for Delhi's consumption. The rhetoric of the same Maulanas at the next Friday khutba [the sermon at Friday prayers] could easily be at great variance from their public posture a few days before.
Muslim voters, in any case, are not mechanical one-source consumers. They hear, they watch, they read but, most important, they remember. They are affected by their individual woes, but equally bear a strong sense of community. Television has made the world a village, and Iraq is as close to Kerala as Gujarat.
As Parliament gears up for a vote of confidence on the Congress-driven nuclear deal, evidence of base realities is beginning to seep upwards. The virtual split in the Indian Union Muslim League over the deal tells its own story. On 25 June, just a day before he died in Mumbai, G.M. Banatwala, then the party's national president, issued a press statement saying that the deal was not acceptable and that the party should oppose George Bush's "imperialism". He advised the Congress to "reconsider its decision". This of course was unpalatable to the establishment lobby within the IUML, led by E. Ahamed, who has done well as Minister of State for External Affairs in the UPA. He has the distinction of being the first Muslim League minister in Delhi since 1947. The pro-government section of the party therefore has a vested interest in supporting what the Congress orders it to do, and will ratchet up the usual list of advantages and alibis in defence of its alliance with the Congress. But there was strong resistance when the deal was discussed at a three-hour meeting of the party in Mallapuram on 10 July. The compromise that emerged was a typical fudge: the party would vote for the government, not the deal, and would convey Muslim anxiety to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. "The Muslim community is worried about the deal," said Panakkad Syed Muhammadali Shihab Thangal, president of the Kerala unit.
The Muslim League has rivals for the space it has acquired in the Malayali Muslim's affections. The most notable competitor is the People's Democratic Party, led by Abdul Nazar Madani. Madani publicly castigated the League and added, "The Muslim community across the world has been facing atrocities sponsored by the United States. The deal with an anti-Muslim country should have been opposed by the IUML." The CPI(M), which would like nothing better than to crack open the hold that the League traditionally has over the Muslim vote in Kerala, has accused the IUML of being loyal to American imperialism, adding for good measure that the Congress was in collusion with America, which had killed Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.
Like all other voters Indian Muslims too are influenced by both regional and national issues: the Muslim League's views in Kerala does not impact on the way Muslims vote in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. But on national and international issues there is a clear majority view across the states. The nuclear deal is both a national and an international issue, and it is only logical that national and international realities will enter the argument.
The only point being consistently hammered by Congress, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and the IUML in order to change Muslim sentiment is the spectre of BJP in all its manifestations. Let us look at the list.
At the top is the statement that if you oppose the deal it will help communal forces, in that it will enable the BJP to come to power. Does this mean that the Congress and UPA have already conceded defeat in a future election? I thought the Congress believed that the nuclear deal would be an election-winner, sweeping up votes with every clause. In fact, instead of searching for a harrowing and narrow victory in Parliament, the Congress should have had the confidence to go the people and been vindicated by their support. The Congress did not have the courage to do so because it does not believe the deal to be a vote-winner. If the BJP-led NDA wins, it will not be because of the deal, but because of the mismanagement of the nation over four years.
Second: the Congress tried desperately to get BJP support for the deal, and is still propping up former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra in order to try and break BJP unity. Would the deal or the Congress have become communal if the BJP had supported it?
The most lurid accusation is charging the CPI[M] with supporting "communal" forces because it opposes the deal. The Congress has a very convenient memory. The last time that a government was defeated on the floor of the House, the Congress and the BJP voted together — to bring down the V.P. Singh government. Did that make Congress, and Rajiv Gandhi, who was leader of the party then, communal? During the term of the V.P. Singh government the Marxists and the BJP were allies, supporting Singh. They had weekly dinners, from which Harkishan Surjeet and L.K. Advani would emerge, smiling and laughing for the cameras. Did that make Surjeet communal? Why should Prakash Karat become communal because he is against the nuclear deal, for reasons, incidentally, different from the BJP? You have to be very arid, mentally, and believe as well that Indian politicians and voters have nothing called a memory chip in their brains in order to market such logic.
It would take a very inept government to lose a test on the floor of the House that it had sought. Dr Manmohan Singh has brought down his majority from over a hundred to perhaps five or less, but surely he could not have dragged it into negative territory. The real test, however, is not a contest for 272 MPs in this Parliament, but for 272 MPs in the next one. Politicians will decide the fate of the Congress in the coming days. Voters will decide its fate in the coming months.