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The term ‘Muslim vote bank,’ commonly used to discuss the dynamics of Muslim politics, seems to have lost its currency. Apart from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who invoke ‘vote bank politics’ to criticise the Congress and other opposition parties for their perceived leniency towards Muslims, few discuss it these days. The assumption, however, that Muslims think and vote strategically in favour of a particular party or coalition persists.

This normalisation of the Muslim vote bank as the ultimate political truth of Muslim politics is a result of increasing political polarisation. On the one hand, a section of the media demonises Muslims to assert its Hindutva-driven nationalism. Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion about the evolving political aspirations of Muslims in the Modi era, this section relies heavily on prevalent political stereotypes associated with Muslims.

Opponents of Hindutva reject this negative portrayal of Muslims and decry this overt communalisation. However, their critique of pro-Hindutva media is based on an equally problematic assertion. They want us to believe that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party, and therefore, Muslims always participate in elections to defeat it. In both cases, a closed, one-dimensional, and homogeneous Muslim identity, and consequently, Muslim politics, is perpetuated and sustained.

These rigid concepts about Muslim politics are deeply troubling. It is undeniable that Muslim identity has become a problematic category in recent years. Increasing incidents of violence against Muslims-such as riots, lynching, and attacks on places of worship (and worshippers!)-at the grassroots level have influenced Muslim self-perception as a minority. Simultaneously, the portrayal of Islam as antithetical to Indian/Hindu civilisation has challenged the secular consensus regarding the Indianness of Muslims. Yet, it would be entirely inappropriate to make sweeping generalisations about the relevance of Muslim politics in contemporary times. There is a pressing need to observe and identify the emerging discourses of politics that Muslim leaders employ to engage with the state at various levels.

Types of Muslim LeadersĀ 

For a comprehensive understanding of the term ‘Muslim politics’, we must differentiate between Muslim leaders and the Muslim masses. Initial findings from my ongoing project on Muslim Leadership in India suggest that there are three types of Muslim leaders: professional Muslim politicians, Muslim elites, and Muslim activists/influencers.

Professional Muslim politicians engage in party politics, operating within the organisational structures of political parties as workers, office-bearers, and political aspirants. Many of them secure tickets to contest elections, aspiring to become Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs), and corporators in local civic bodies.

Muslim elites are individuals who assert their leadership status based on factors such as caste, class, and educational dominance.

Muslim activists play a distinct leadership role, mobilising and/or influencing the Muslim community on specific issues. With the proliferation of social media, the number of online Muslim influencers has significantly increased.

The Languages of PoliticsĀ 

Professional Muslim politicians adhere to the party line, utilising the official stance of their party on Muslim issues to make politically relevant statements in public life. Assuming a representative role, these politicians often claim to provide political advice to community members. Relevant arguments are put forth by Muslim leaders associated with the BJP, who use the party’s slogan “sabka sath, sabka vikas” (together with all, development for all) to convince Muslims that the Modi-led BJP is the optimal choice for them. An article by BJP’s National Vice President Tariq Mansoor illustrates this point. Mansoor does not assert himself as a Muslim representative but rather advises Muslims in his capacity as a professional BJP politician who happens to be Muslim. This example underscores how professional Muslim politicians adapt their language of representation according to circumstances.

Muslim elites prioritise community interests as a political resource to develop a language of protection. The inflexible stance of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) on the issue of triple talaq exemplifies this approach. Despite the practice of triple talaq being viewed as a social evil among Hanafi Sunni Muslims, the Muslim religious elite, particularly the AIMPLB, largely disregarded this social concern even after the Shah Bano controversy in 1985.

They portrayed Muslim Personal Law as a divine entity safeguarding the collective religious interests of the Muslim community. This entrenched protection of personal law in the name of Shariat emerged as a defined elite strategy. Their stance remains unchanged even after the criminalisation of triple talaq and serious government considerations regarding the introduction of a uniform civil code. This persistence indicates the AIMPLB’s reluctance to abandon the language of protection, which serves to uphold their status as religious elites.

The category of Muslim activists/influencers is so vast that making definitive statements about their functions is nearly impossible. These activists encompass various types, each with distinct and sometimes contradictory ideological orientations. However, they share a common thread that binds them together: a language of struggle and resistance.

This language befits their roles as activists and influencers, rendering them relevant in the public sphere. It does not derive from any specific ideological framework but emerges as a response to critical political issues. The anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protest serves as a prime example. Activists from diverse backgrounds united to oppose the implementation of the CAA, each bringing their own assessments, arguments, and positions. Despite these differences, the language of struggle and resistance provided them with a context-specific unity.

This categorisation of Muslim leaders lacks rigid boundaries but offers insight into the complexity and multifaceted nature of contemporary Indian Muslim politics. A professional Muslim politician may hail from an elite background, or they may also function as an influencer in certain contexts. Similarly, an activist/influencer might transition into a professional politician over time. The positioning and role of a Muslim leader warrant serious consideration to grasp the political language they employ. Consequently, the notion of a homogeneous Muslim political identity is rendered meaningless.

(Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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