Speaking for ourselves

The myth of the monolithic Muslim vote has circulated since 1952. But after the Muslim League faded from politics, Muslims have seldom looked to a Muslim leadership to represent them. After staying with the Congress till 1967, the Muslim vote moved away from it, looking for alternatives. Except for some pockets, the majority of the Muslim electorate has supported parties like V.P. Singh's Janata Dal, the Left, the SP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and later even the BSP and the Trinamool Congress. Parties like the MIM in old Hyderabad — and the Indian Union Muslim League, now in alliance with the ruling Congress in Kerala — have been exceptions.

After 2004, the Congress re-emerged as a strong favourite and the UPA has consolidated its image as a "secular" alliance, distinguishing itself from the NDA. So the period since 2004 has been an interesting time for the Muslim vote. It started with the Sachar Committee Report, which spoke of discrimination in secular terms, with secular solutions. It spoke of the need for more common schools, not just madrasas, more general hospitals, not just unani centres, and a more equitable share of common resources, whether in terms of jobs or bank finance. The report prioritised these over a different set of rights and privileges for Muslims — in terms of personal law, waqf land matters etc. But the enthusiasm over the Sachar Committee Report's attempt to frame the debate in terms of fairer access to resources soon flagged. The political gains of discussing sarkari salaries for imams and madrasa modernisation were greater than those of trying to set up common schools in Muslim areas.

Some months ago, a prominent national leader made a startling statement to a group of Muslims. Since Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, he said, there had not been a big Muslim leader. That India's first education minister and a formidable nationalist like Azad could be called a Muslim leader frames the problem itself.

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