The calculation of the Congress Party led by AICC president Sonia Gandhi was that the main focus of the party had to be on the minority vote bank, estimated at around 20% of the population. With this cache safely in the Congress kitty, the Congress high command figured that all that was needed was a third of the majority community vote to enable victory in any multi-cornered contest. In other words, around a 35% vote share was sufficient to ensure victory in a Lok Sabha poll. This could, the UPA calculated, be secured by programmes designed to put a subsistence income in the hands of the very poorest of the population and by winning over caste and regional elites so as to access the vote banks they were presumed to control. The root of present-day communal problems arose at almost the start of the Jawaharlal Nehru administration (1947-64), when the Prime Minister refused to include some of the practices within the Muslim community when he made changes to corresponding Hindu practices through the Hindu Code Bill (1955-56). Most consequential of all, Nehru refused to follow the tenets of secularism as accepted the world over by getting implemented a Uniform Civil Code to ensure equal justice for women across lines of faith. From Nehru’s time in office onwards, successive governments in India identified the radical fringe within the Muslim community as being representative of the entire population of Muslims in the country, a process continued by Indira Gandhi and by Rajiv Gandhi, not to mention others such as V.P. Singh and even A.B. Vajpayee. Such a monopoly of recognition and respect by officialdom combined with the petrodollar flow into Wahhabi channels since 1979, to create a situation by the close of the 1980s where Wahhabi groups had become dominant in several key institutions catering to the Muslim community, despite representing only a small percentage of the Sunni segment of the Muslim population. The veto exercised by this small segment of an otherwise moderate population of India’s Muslims was seen to great effect in 1986, when the Muslim Women’s Bill forced on the government by them denied to female citizens of the Muslim faith rights in divorce available to those from other communities.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) adopted “Nehruvian secularism” as its guiding principle, even going as far as to make Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declare that his focus was on the minorities and that they should be given first claim on the country’s resources. Several regulations and laws enforced during that period embodied the Two Nation Theory of the pre-partition Muslim League by discriminating between Hindus and Muslims, as usual in the name of “secularism” despite such unequal treatment being in violation of any genuine secular principle. There were reports during that period that note was taken of those officials who had “tika” marks on their forehead and who were known to visit temples, and that the careers of such officials were sought to be blighted on the excuse that they were “pro-BJP”. State-controlled temples of the importance of Guruvayur in Kerala and Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh went into the effective control of Chief Ministers of faiths other than Hindu, although it must be added that neither did the first NDA government do anything to remedy the situation by freeing Hindu houses of worship from government control. New edicts such as the Right to Education Act that continued the Nehru-era practice of discriminating against the Hindu community were passed, and in some states, those from favoured communities were given protection not by the law, but from the law, in that crimes committed by them were ignored by state police departments filled with individuals chosen on the basis of sectarian considerations. Had such practices taken place in a context where economic growth was high and levels of unemployment reduced as a consequence, discontent at the injustices inherent in “Nehruvian secularism” may not have risen to the level it did during the second term of the UPA, when the practices of the past were not only not abandoned, but were added on to. However, incompetence and corruption became responsible for an economic performance far below that needed to accommodate the close to 13 million young people needing jobs each year in this country.
Although the UPA sought to emphasise the centrality of the Muslim community in its calculus, only Wahhabis were handed over the keys to policy so far as Muslims were concerned, the effect being to ensure a policy matrix that benefited a few, but kept the bulk of the Muslim population in a state of economic want and social handicaps. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the overwhelming bulk of the community voted against the BJP, but since 26 May 2014, it has been clear to many within this vibrant community that the policies being followed by the Modi government are neutral as between those of different faiths.
Also, the importance given to the Wahhabi fringe has been replaced with an effort to locate and to interact with leadership that is non-Wabhabbi. Indeed, Prime Minister Modi has made the battle against such exclusivist and supremacist beliefs a central part of his messaging to the people of India. As a consequence, the “moderate majority” within the Muslim community has begun to raise its voice and to demand that its views prevail over those of the Wahhabis in matters of concern to millions of families, such as the cruel practice of triple talaq. The intention of the BJP appears to be to win over moderate (and more especially, modern) Muslims to its side, as also Muslim women, in addition to the Shia community, that has long had a soft corner for such BJP leaders as A.B. Vajpayee and Rajnath Singh. Meanwhile, the way in which political formations in Uttar Pradesh other than the BJP doubled down on their efforts at giving a privileged position to the elites of particular communities reminded the majority community of the discrimination it had undergone during the UPA period.
Effective policy needs to be neutral as between different faiths, a truism that the UPA refused to acknowledge in its repeated efforts at retaining what has been termed the “minority vote bank”.
Both the Samajwadi Party as well as the Bahujan Samaj Party in the just concluded UP Assembly polls sought to expropriate the Sonia Gandhi strategy of seeking minority votes in their entirety. This they sought to achieve by giving a large number of tickets to Muslim candidates, few of whom were part of the “Moderate Majority” of Muslims. This had its own effect on the rest of the population, which responded by moving over to the BJP side. Even among the minorities, sections who understood that sectarian politics would only perpetuate the economic hardship of several sections of the Muslim community voted for the BJP. This was as a consequence of the belief that Modi would ensure that UP (the state in which he was elected to Parliament) get a Chief Minister who would govern the state in as effective a manner as Modi did Gujarat for over a decade.
More and more from the Moderate Muslim Majority are finally coming into the open about the manner in which the Wahhabis are damaging a vibrant community through influencing successive governments into implement regressive policies that favour the fundamentalist few and go against the interests of the moderate (indeed, modern) many. Muslim women in particular are losing their fear of the Wahhabis and appear to have voted for the party led by Prime Minister Modi in large numbers, especially after his team spoke out against the practice of triple talaq.
The victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh represents the second major defeat for those parties in thrall to the practices of Nehruvian secularism, the first being the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Even the Aam Aadmi Party, although in its initial phase giving hope of a liberal ethos, adopted several of the stances of the UPA where the community matrix in India was concerned. Hopefully, all such parties will move away from community-centred and caste-specific politics and embrace measures that are neutral between a citizen of India and any other.
Failing this, they appear destined to repeat the UP loss in subsequent contests in major theatres. More and more voters in India, especially from among the young, understand that the only path to success in the 21st century is through the embrace of the values inherent in the qualities of moderation and modernity, and are voting accordingly.