A classic article by MJ Akbar, my favourite Indian Journalist
The Congress formula for Indian Muslims is rooted in colonial legacy: divide and rule. The BJP approach has been shaped by rage at partition: avoid and rule. All Muslims want from both claimants to national power is provide and rule; not because they are Muslims but because they are largely poor.
Poverty was the prevailing story when India became independent. It cut across other fault lines: there was a morbid equality of poverty. More than six decades of uneven growth later, we have the inequality of partial success.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP prescription is sustainable , but in the short run Congress gains from cynicism have been so spectacular that it has stopped thinking outside its established clichés . The BJP thinks in spasms, if it thinks at all.
Congress squeezed into space created by the psychological bounce of a traumatic history. After dramatic initial resistance to British colonialism, Muslim elites bought into separatism with a vengeance, particularly when they realized that the tactics of division could perpetuate their privileges within a slice of geography. Battered by defeat in the battle for Pakistan, Congress capitulated intellectually and tweaked the slogan, after 1947, from division to isolation. It concluded that the quickest route to the Muslim vote was through accommodation with the extreme rather than dialogue with the broad Muslim centre. In the 1940s partition became the fashionable ideology of the landed gentry and middle class in north India. When they left for Pakistan the vacancy was filled by suddenly empowered clerics who, unsurprisingly, stressed faith over economics.
This kept both clerics and community poor, but the atmospherics were rich in tokenism. A normal relationship with Muslim voters would have kept the balance of debate along jobs and revival. This bargain with the extreme suited Congress perfectly. There were not too many jobs on offer in the first phase of our development. The upper castes got the chunk of the initial bite; the second surge went to ‘Backward Castes’ who had mobilized under different banners but displayed common economic purpose. The Muslims got false promises and high drama, hyped with high-voltage simulation of a “Hindu backlash” . Such a backlash never came because it never existed. But fear was the electoral key: if Muslims could be driven into a polling booth on the basis of fear, why waste jobs on them?
In the absence of economic security, Muslims were fobbed off with security of faith. This was essentially meaningless, as it is the Constitution which guarantees religious freedom, not any political party. The narrative of violence was edited as required: Gujarat’s riots continue their refrain, but Assam , where the violence drove hundreds of thousands of Muslims into near-permanent refugee camps, is excised from attention; and the horrors of Mumbai in 1993 erased from memory despite the fact that no action has been taken on the subsequent enquiry committee report.
BJP and Muslims lived on the same street, but walked on opposite pavements without a zebra crossing. They did not speak the same language. Attempts at conciliation, let alone reconciliation, were rare. The BJP had little to say, and Muslims did not want to hear that little. Even when the BJP’s liberal icon Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to reach out when he contested from Lucknow, he was spurned. There is little point discussing whether Muslims will vote for the BJP if Narendra Modi is named its candidate for prime minister. Will they vote for BJP if he is not?
Every election registers some flicker of change on the barometer. In the Congress case, the chicken came before the egg and produced a farmful of votes. With the BJP, the egg must come before the chicken. This egg has to be fertilized in the mind. In this important therefore that the most significant statement of the campaign so far was Narendra Modi’s remark that the only religion of a politician must be the Constitution of India. This may be only the opening line of a chapter yet to be written, but it is already a huge variant on conventional perception. The themes of that chapter must be employment, education and political equity, for they are the true antidote to any community’s impoverisation.
Onions, like the Constitution of India, have no religion either . It is bizarre to believe that an impoverished people will continue to support, en masse, a catastrophic government that has taken food off their plate and looted the nation with a creativity that should win the highest awards. Over the last decade, particularly at the state level, Muslim voters have displayed sophisticated tactical finesse: note the Assembly results in UP, Bihar and Bengal. They want jobs, and a better life.
The most efficient form of economic growth comes when a country can maximise development across all its demographic segments. Everyone will not pull equally, but everyone must pull. Half of India is still underperforming. Raise its wealth and walk into high double digit growth. Economics is not complicated once the human being gets more attention than statistics.