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Misadventures will Backfire

In the aftermath of the Assam Assembly elections where the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), a coalition of Muslim parties in the State that came into existence just months before the polls, captured 10 seats, there is now a focused effort, particularly among the more communal-minded Muslim leaders, to extend this experiment to other parts of India. Most proximately, this attempt to crystallise the 'Muslim vote' has found expression in the creation of the Uttar Pradesh United Democratic Front, a Muslim communal formation that seeks to replicate the Assam experience in UP in the elections of 2007.

There have, however, also been reports of efforts to raise new Muslim communal formations in other States as well, and this has caused some concern among intelligence and security agencies, but provoked a greater panic in 'secular' political formations that have long taken the Muslim vote-bank for granted, and who now fear they may lose their stranglehold on this block of votes.

As is almost invariably the case with contemporary assessments by political parties in India, the conclusions being drawn are short-sighted, hasty and tragically flawed. The error of assessment is the most pronounced within Congress circles, since the direct impact has been the greatest on the party and, had it not been for the chunk of Bodo votes which offset the loss of what the AUDF gained, the regime at Guwahati would have been far more tenuous than it currently is. To the extent, however, that there is a risk that the same experience may be replicated in other States as well, all political parties, including the Hindu right, are troubled. It is significant that the BJP, after over a decade of struggling in Assam, still managed just 10 seats in the election - barely enough to match the upstart AUDF.

There is, of course, need to look into the AUDF phenomenon - and its copycat potential - closely. The first questions that arise relate to the extraordinarily abrupt emergence of this force, and the need to assess whether this is essentially a local manifestation, or one that links up with larger patterns in the wider neighbourhood. It is useful to note that Badruddin Ajmal, the founding leader of the AUDF, does not come from Assam's traditional Muslim leadership, but was a virtually unknown trader before he practically stormed the State elections. How precisely does an obscure businessman acquire a political profile of such prominence? Running a political party requires enormous support. Who is standing behind the scenes to provide this support? The Muslim clergy played a major role in the election campaign in Assam this time around - what has provoked this sudden mobilisation?

It is, nevertheless, important to note that the transient success of communal formations in India has historically not been a consequence of factors integral to their own nature, profile or agenda, but rather, arises essentially from the failures, miscalculations and rank and habitual folly of secular formations. It is, in fact, the secular formations that have historically been most guilty of creating and cultivating communal and caste vote-banks - which are eventually taken over by more radical or divisive parties and agendas. It is the Congress party's desperate efforts to consolidate the Muslim vote-bank in Assam even, on at least some issues, at the clear expense of the national interest, which prepared the 'Muslim vote' for easy picking by the AUDF. Indeed, there has been a wider campaign over the past year to exploit Muslim communal sentiments, as in the case of the orchestrated protests on the Danish cartoon controversy and against the Bush visit, as well as the manipulation of the Shia sentiment on Iran, in which secular formations, including the both the Congress and the CPI-M, flirted shamelessly with outright communal Muslim elements.

Other political miscalculations undermined the Congress campaign in Assam as well, and at least some of these were connected to the factional tussles within the party, as a result of which some of the party's senior leaders, as well as some strong young secular leaders were deliberately undermined.

Despite all this, however, it is significant that the AUDF is not riding any overwhelming wave of Muslim support, but has benefited from high levels of voter fragmentation. Indeed, the AUDF, according to some estimates, won no more that 40 per cent of the Muslim vote - which is, of course, extraordinary for such a young party - but the remaining 60 per cent remains substantially with the secular formations, and principally with the Congress. It is useful to note, moreover, that the Muslim vote is of decisive significance in nearly 50 per cent of Assembly constituencies, and a bulk of these have remained outside the influence of the AUDF, though the nascent party contested as many as 69 seats. The neglected lesson of the Assam elections is that the Congress still represents the largest segment of virtually every community in the State, including the various religious, caste and tribal demographics, and it does so because it is still seen as principally secular and non-discriminatory in its ideology - though possibly not, on frequent occasions, in its practices.

Secular democratic formations are increasing tempted to flirt with the 'soft' communal card and the 'soft' caste card, even as their governments fail to provide the basics of an acceptable standard of administration and the non-discriminatory practices that are the soundest guarantee of justice, and that all communities - including the minorities, who may be briefly seduced by promises of privileged access to some benefits - appreciate unfailingly at the hustings. All-India parties particularly cannot rely on sectarian and divisive patterns of mobilisation if they are to survive, and this is demonstrated, at once, by the continuous shrinking of the authority of the Congress party, which is trying to compete with regional, sectarian and caste based parties on their terms, as well as by the fate of communal parties such as the BJP, which may do well in an occasional election, but have been swept aside because they failed to meet popular expectations of broad-based and effective governance.

Ultimately the only lasting 'card' that can be played is the 'development card', the 'prosperity card', the 'efficiency card'. Political adventurism based on disruptive sectional agendas may secure short-term gains, but these quickly vanish, as does the party's legitimacy and long-term capacities for political mobilisation, if the basics of administration, of non-partisan access to developmental services and public goods, the imperatives of law and order and of justice, are neglected.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 24, 2006)





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