A cynical electoral game at Indian Muslims’ expense


AIJAZ Z. SYED

Why India’s largest minority should treat Congress overtures with reservations

The more things change for India’s Muslims, the more they remain the same. Come elections and political parties invent ever new ways of wooing, using and exploiting them to reap their periodic harvest while the condition of Muslims worsens by the day.

Being the oldest and most experienced of them all, the Congress party has obviously mastered this art of fooling all the people all the time at the expense of some. But it’s not just the Congress; in this public bath, no one has a stitch on. With the crucial battle for five states heating up, the Muslims once again find themselves in the middle of a dirty, cynical game of one-upmanship with every political party using them as a football and a punching bag.

Uttar Pradesh is the big prize. Stakes couldn’t have been higher. Everyone from Mulayam’s Smajwadi to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which first proposed a Muslim quota stealing the Congress’ thunder, is hungering after the pie. The main opposition BJP is in the big game hunt too and is sharpening its knives for the sacrificial lamb.

Adding to the fun is the new breed of party- and channel-hopping “Muslim leaders” parroting their newest party’s latest pitch swearing it to be God’s gift to the community. It gets so gross and nauseating at times you feel like throwing the TV remote at them!

The farce never seems to end. First, the Congress sends up the balloon of 4.5 percent quota for Muslims, rather conveniently, just before the poll dates were unveiled. It’s followed by the joke of a “minority quota” in the still-born Lokpal, the corruption watchdog.

Law and Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid then takes the game to a new level by promising to double the quota to 9 percent. Interestingly, it came at his wife’s poll rally in Farrukhabad, raising a political storm and provoking the poll panel to freeze the quota. The Congress stands to lose nothing though. It could always demand the Muslim vote claiming it was committed to helping the community but its efforts were thwarted by the parties like the BJP and others.

The grand ol’ party has played this cynical game for so long that it knows too well how it’s all going to unfold and how the opposition and media would respond to it. All you have to do is throw those perfect promises and dazzling dreams at Muslims and the rest will follow.

Even if the Congress were serious and sincere about implementing the quota, even the paltry 4.5 percent, it makes little difference to the community in real terms if it is carved out of the existing 27 percent quota marked for the Other Backward Communities. Some Muslim groups like Ansaris (weavers) and Qureshis (butchers) are already covered under the 27 percent quota. It’s the economically struggling sections of the community that badly need hand holding.

And now with the EC staying the quota with courts likely to follow suit as happened in Andhra Pradesh, the Muslims have ended up once again with nothing while earning themselves a lot of ill will and resentment of the rest of the country, especially the OBCs. The cruel joke by a government fighting for its survival hasn’t just further isolated the community; it has ended up pitting it against communities that were once their allies and fellow travelers. But then we have been here before. This is how the Congress has always paid Muslims for their blind, unquestioning support since Independence. Muslims have received nothing but such clever-by-half and often dangerous tokenism from the party. We thought things would be different under Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh because they came from a different background and could transcend the cynical, forever calculating Congress mindset.

Only the blind could have missed the fact that the Muslim vote played a critical role in bringing the party to power in 2004 after long years of wilderness. The feat was repeated in 2009, riding on all the talk of change although the government didn’t lift a finger to implement the bold recommendations of Justice Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra Commission.

Both reports, especially the one by the Mishra Commission, make for disturbing reading as they turn the spotlight on the shocking state of a 200-million strong community. This is no time and place to go over them but in short both panels conclude that Muslims are right now at the lowest rung of the hierarchy in every respect. Lowest of the low, they are today stacked even below the Dalits, the long discriminated castes. Only 4.5 percent Muslims are to be found in government jobs. Their representation in other areas is even more pathetic. The credit for this state of affairs goes to the party that has been in power for the longest period of time since Independence. This is why you thought, if not for the wholehearted support it received in 2004 and 2009, this government would have implemented the recommendations of the two commissions it had formed in its wisdom.

If it had been serious about the minority welfare, it wouldn’t have slept on the recommendations of Justice Sachar and Justice Mishra for five years, only to remember the Muslims days ahead of the assembly elections. Personally, I have nothing but respect for Salman Khurshid. He comes from an illustrious family (grandson of the late President Dr. Zakir Hussain) and obviously means well but is condemned by the company he keeps. The mindset of his party being what it is – others are fast catching up – it just cannot help itself to look beyond its petty electoral calculations and permutations and combinations of caste and religion.

I am not most comfortable with this whole quota business offering special treatment, or affirmative action as the Americans call it, for a particular group or community. Ideally, it should be equal opportunity for all. But we are not in an ideal situation. At times, extraordinary solutions are needed for extraordinary situations. Affirmative action has transformed the lives of millions of the long oppressed Dalits and African Americans, helping them break free of the centuries old cycle of inhumane abuse and exploitation. It could make a difference to Muslims too, if political parties allowed it and stopped looking at the issue from a religious prism. The Muslim empowerment could actually mean lifting of a huge chunk of India’s population out of misery. But even if a quota for the politically and economically dispossessed Muslims becomes a reality, it might end up doing more harm than good thanks to the cut-throat nature of Indian politics, not to mention our Hindutva friends.

Perhaps it’s about time Muslims gave up their fond, innocent hopes of political action to end their political and economic deprivation. Instead of waiting for those crumbs and doles from politicians, they must take charge of their destiny. In the end if anyone is going to help them, it’s themselves.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based journalist and commentator. Write him at aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

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