Fettered by fear, Muslims fritter away their vote
By M J Akbar
Indian Muslims will get development the day they vote for development. For sixty years they have voted out of fear, so that is what they have got from those they elected: the politics of fear. Fear is the menu, recipe and diet: and the Muslim voter laps it up with the appetite of the traumatized.
Fact and fiction are employed seamlessly in the advertising of fear. A history of riot, and the threat from organizations like the Bajrang Dal are sewn into wild conspiracy theories by ‘leaders’ of the community to shape minds on the eve of an election. I could not believe some of what I heard after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. One was utterly aghast to hear, during a public gathering of some very worthy persons, the suggestion that we could not be sure that the terrorists had come from Pakistan. It was an appalling exercise in denial by mindsets that had either been unhinged or had turned utterly manipulative.
For secular politicians, the Muslim vote comes at an easy exchange rate. Other communities demand rice and roads. The Muslim needs nothing more than the old ploy used to help children go to sleep: stories of ghosts and monsters at the door.
When the community wakes up after sleepwalking to the polling booth, and demands legitimate needs like jobs for the young and health clinics for women, the politicians offer a large shoulder on which they can weep. No other segment of the Indian electorate can be appeased by a sob story.
Politicians will always maximize the spread of assets at their disposal in the search for an extra vote; why should they waste economic benefits on a voter who will sway to the whine of emotions rather than take a cold count of schools and sanitation? There is now a disconnect between Muslims and the benefits of democracy, a break engineered by community opinion-makers who get rewarded for such services with little dollops that wind up into their personal assets.
Fear used to be a factor with some other communities as well, particularly Dalits and tribals. Humiliation and exploitation were a constant of their experience. But they have moved on, either by asserting themselves through their own political formations or by maximizing the price of their support where parties like the BSP or Jharkhand Mukti Morcha do not exist. The sharpest player of this intelligent game is Mayawati. The results are evident. There is a good study waiting to be done comparing the employment levels, educational services and municipal services in Dalit residential areas and Muslim areas between 1947 and 2007.
Even without empirical data I can assert that there is a sharp improvement in the former and stagnation if not decline in the latter. The Dalit has punished neglect. The tribal has learnt to vote on the sensible planks of development and security: he knows that he cannot eat rice, at whatever price it is offered, unless he is alive. The Muslim has crawled repeatedly back into the sterile womb of fear. That womb will deliver nothing. The midwives of this vote fatten on fees collected by periodic declarations of false pregnancy.
Only one state is an exception: Kerala. Untroubled by the guilt of Partition, the Malayali Muslim can rally around the banner of an All-India Muslim League, which is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an all-Indian organization; it is a local Muslim party. The Kerala Muslim, with sufficient self-assurance to meet political and economic challenges, has always behaved like an equal, which is why he is treated like one. He has prised out the benefits of progress through the pressure points of a democratic polity.
There could have been a similar story in Bengal, because the Marxists are committed to both secularism and progress for the underprivileged. They were the first to empower Bengali Muslims, through land reforms inspired by three authentic Marxist heroes, Promode Dasgupta, Harekrishna Konar and Jyoti Basu. That won them the loyalty of the rural vote. But two fallow decades are forcing a shift in Muslim sentiment; it is not ready to be taken for granted any longer.
The Bengal CPM is in a bit of a bind, perhaps because it is not cynical enough to exploit the politics of fear with the dexterity displayed by other parties anxious for the Muslim vote. One senses the first stir of change in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar has begun to include Muslims within his development-based governance. The pace may not overly perturb a snail, but at least a process has started. But if the voter does not honour this start with support, then it will be back to fulmination and hot air.
Fear locks and freezes the mind. A closed mind can never liberate a community from poverty.
Appeared in Times of India - December 14, 2008