Why Mumbai's Voters went Missing
By M J Akbar
Normally, media chases news. Sometimes, news chases media. Occasionally, there is a deadlock. That is when media is forced to look for rabbits in a hat. After all, news can exist — albeit forlorn and forgotten — without media, but media can’t survive without news.
The media search for the missing Mumbai voter was a bit of a non-story.
In 2004, 47% of Mumbai voted, in 2009, 44%, or perhaps a bit less. The instant shock-horror analysis asked in a wailing monotone: whatever happened to the 100,000 Mumbaikars who stormed television screens after the Pakistani invasion of Mumbai and threatened to start a revolution armed with blazing candles? They went back to their smoke-and-spirits parties after their 15 minutes of fame was over, darling. Those demonstrators had exhausted their discomfort-quota for years. Voting in May requires some serious tactical negotiations with the elements. If the price of democracy is going to be sunburn, why not wait for the vote to reach the net? It can’t be too long. We are the champions of IT, aren’t we?
Facts lay hidden in a different question: not in the absence of the rich, but the boycott of the poor. Most non-voters of Mumbai are either edge-of-nerves middle class or edge-of-hunger poor. They did not vote five years ago, and they did not vote again. The drop of about 4% is easily explicable, as long as you are not transfixed on celebrities framed by candlelight. In 2004, Mumbai Muslims voted aggressively to defeat the BJP-led NDA because of the Gujarat riots and lifted the average turnout to 47%. This year, they are indifferent to the Congress and hostile to the BJP-Shiv Sena. There is no one to vote for. The Congress has once again fudged its way through five years over the Srikrishna Commission report, which named the guilty in the 1992-93 riots. As for their other demand, job reservations: the joke is that other communities get jobs, while Muslims get enquiry commissions.
Anger has fractured Muslim voters in 2009. They are hostile to the Congress in states where it is in power, like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. But many are voting for the Congress where it is not in power, like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But there is no consolidation, of the kind we saw in 2004. In Kerala, a section has responded positively to the Left’s anti-American stance, but only May 16 will tell whether this has reversed the prevalent anti-incumbency. In Bengal, which has the highest percentage of minority voters, they are split.
Disillusionment, however, might lead the way towards yet another illusion. The most popular hope now is for a ‘Muslim BSP’. According to some estimates, Muslim voters can influence the result in 74 Lok Sabha seats. There were only 37 Muslim MPs in the last Lok Sabha. The maximum number of MPs, 46, was in 1980 when Mrs Indira Gandhi wooed Muslims back from Emergency trauma with higher representation. Since then it has been downhill. The Congress wants every Muslim vote in Delhi, but is never ready to name a Muslim candidate on its slate. It rankles.
Success is easier sought than achieved. It took nearly two decades of effort by two generations of leaders, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, to fuse the Dalit vote to the elephant symbol. Muslims seem to possess neither the time nor patience needed for unity. There are perhaps 30 small parties searching for minute conclaves on the electoral map, including exotic outfits like the Muslim Munnethra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu. The only effective effort outside Kerala’s Muslim League has been Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s AUDF in Assam which won nine seats in the Assembly and, more important, scared the daylights out of the Congress in 20 more.
It has spread its wings just a bit, moving into Maharashtra and Bengal. There is much interest, also, in how the Azamgarh-centric Ulama Council will fare in Uttar Pradesh. This group achieved lift-off after the UPA refused to order an enquiry into the encounter at Batla House near Jamia Milia last year, and the consequent demonization by the police of young men from Azamgarh.
Such varied efforts might result in just one MP, probably from Assam, where Maulana Ajmal could produce an upset. What will be significant is the post-poll phase of mobilization. Will collective interest overcome individual ambition and that pervasive bane of Indian politics, distrust?
An invention awaits the next genius: a camera that can photograph the mind. Television politics has become a screaming contest between politicians, perhaps because the camera has lost the art of stimulation. Since there is no hope of getting a different kind of politician, we need a different sort of camera. It will chase the mind for news.
Appeared in Times of India - May 3, 2009