Making sense of the mandate

Making sense of the mandate

Some years ago, a top leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind explained to a Pakistani friend, who I had accompanied to the JuH headquarters in New Delhi, that after partition the elders of the party had taken a conscious decision to stay away from competitive politics in India. The reason was simple: as a Muslim party, the JuH would naturally seek votes from its co-religionists. Any consolidation of the Muslim vote behind a Muslim party would lead to communal polarisation and counter-consolidation.

In a country where Hindus were over 80 per cent of the population, such polarisation would not benefit the Muslims of India. Ironically, what was crystal clear to a denominational party six decades ago, seems to have gone over the head of the ‘secular’ parties in India, a large section of the Indian Muslims and, not surprisingly, the army of Pakistani analysts who have been lamenting both the victory of Narendra Modi and marginalisation of the Indian Muslims in the 16th Lok Sabha.

Among other things, the recently-concluded general election in India stands as testimony to the wisdom and far-sightedness of the JuH leadership of yesteryears. The election result also shatters the long-held belief that the 15-18 per cent of Muslim vote decides who will sit on the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha. The myth of the monolithic Muslim vote bank and its corollary that Muslims vote tactically to defeat the BJP has also been busted.

Unless it is someone’s case that the Indian Muslims have some kind of microchip planted in their heads (is the Punjab University Vice Chancellor reading this?) that makes all of them vote by automaton for different candidates from different parties in different constituencies with the sole purpose of defeating the BJP, tactical voting is clearly a theoretical construct, even more so in light of some credible estimates that 8-10 per cent of the Muslim vote went to BJP. Other minorities also voted for the BJP and its allies -- for instance, Sikhs in Punjab, Christians in Goa and North East, Buddhists in Ladhakh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

It wasn’t so much the Muslim consolidation against the BJP as it was the Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP that explains the verdict of 2014. Of course, given that the BJP and its allies got just under 40 per cent of the total votes -- in some states this tally crossed the 50 per cent mark -- the term consolidation is not used in the absolute sense but in a relative sense. In other words, consolidation takes place around the margins or, if you will, of the floating voter.

One is doubtful if the Modi government will agree to the last trade deal negotiated by the Manmohan Singh government and which was scuttled by the powers that be in Pakistan in a perfect case of cutting your nose to spite India’s face.

If the numbers are anything to go by, the additional vote polled by the BJP was partly of those who were voting for a development agenda, decisive and strong government, and an incorruptible and committed leader with an established record of good governance, and partly of those who were voting in reaction to what they saw as unabashed appeasement policies of the ‘secular’ parties.

From the Prime Minister saying that the minorities (not the poor, not the deprived, and not the disadvantaged sections of society, but only the minorities) have the first right over the nations resources, to the highly discriminatory Communal Violence bill, and from state governments refusing to arrest a notorious terrorist (fearing that the Muslim voters would react unfavourably) to the central government providing legal assistance to alleged terrorists (only from the Muslim community and not from any other community) that it had itself arrested, to fight cases it had itself instituted, it’s a very long list of actions and statements that led to a reaction.

What is most interesting, however, is that the 2014 campaign was communalised not by Modi but by his opponents. The ‘secular’ parties had only secularism and fear to sell, which not many were willing to buy, even less so because their own track record was nothing to write home about. Modi, on the other hand, played the development and governance card to which the Congress, and other parties with a dismal development and governance record (for instance, Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party in UP) had no answer. By playing the communal card in the hope of consolidating the Muslim vote, they ended up consolidating the Hindu vote. To put it differently, in hankering for the 15 per cent Muslim vote they neglected the 80 per cent Hindu vote, a substantial chunk of which went Modi’s way.

The apprehension among Indian Muslims of what the Modi Sarkar holds for them is palpable, but also misplaced. Although unlike the last BJP government, there is no coalition constraint on Modi, he is also not the Muslim massacring monster that he is often projected to be. While there is no denying that the Gujarat riots of 2002 happened under his watch, the fact is that Gujarat was neither the first, nor the worst, riot in India. Worse things have happened, not just against Muslims but also other communities, including Hindus.

What makes Gujarat different is that it was the first televised riot, much like Kargil was the first televised war. And just as Kargil was by no means the worst conflict and yet remains embedded in the minds, similar is the case with the Gujarat riots. It is also important to understand that in Gujarat, the Muslims who moved on, benefited from the Modi model because the roads, electricity, water and other public goods were not community specific. Of course, there are the usual carping sounds about how one or the other area has been neglected on communal grounds. But while this may make for a good propaganda point, it isn’t necessarily a picture of the reality.

Ghettos of the kind that exist in cities of Gujarat are not unique to that state; nor for that matter are they unique to any particular community or even South Asian country. And just as an aside, it is not only Shabana Azmi who finds it difficult to rent or buy a house in some society in Mumbai, even this writer, a Punjabi Hindu and a hard-core non-vegetarian will also find it difficult to get an apartment in that same society!

Modi’s government will focus primarily on the economy and its foreign policy will be driven by economics and security. It is for Pakistan to decide whether it wants to convert Modi’s priority into an opportunity or fritter it away by remaining stuck in the past. Pakistan needs to get over its self-created myth that its hostility will block India’s march forward. It might block Pakistan’s progress -- since the 1990s when the entire Kashmir thing blew up, India has become the toast of town while Pakistan has faced a steep decline. Second, while trade between India and Pakistan will be a good thing, Pakistan needs to understand that it isn’t some el dorado which is critical for India. Even if trade opens up and achieves its potential, Pakistan will only account for 1 per cent of India’s total foreign trade -- currently at around $2.5 billion it is less than .5 per cent.

Of course, one is doubtful if the Modi government will agree to the last trade deal negotiated by the Manmohan Singh government and which was scuttled by the powers that be in Pakistan in a perfect case of cutting your nose to spite India’s face. These very same powers are also going to prevent Modi from taking Nawaz Sharif very seriously, unless, of course, the latter can prove he is the guy who calls the shots.

Terrorism will remain a red line for Modi. It isn’t clear how exactly he will respond, but it will probably be very different from the response of the Manmohan Singh government. Modi’s credibility depends on this. Sir Creek and Siachen are no longer the ‘low-hanging fruit’ that they were being made out to be and the four point formula on Jammu and Kashmir is probably going to remain comatose, that is if the Modi government doesn’t pull the plug and let it pass away peacefully.

Unlike his predecessors, Modi has no romantic notions about being the one to break the logjam with Pakistan. And yet, he will be ready to engage with Pakistan on any issue and in any manner that he feels serves India’s interest. But for either country to hark back to the Composite Dialogue process is akin to beating a dead horse. The CD process was not going anywhere anyways. It provided a good start to the process of engagement but has run its course and persisting with it means remaining stuck in a cul-de-sac.

What is needed is for the two countries to press the reset button and figure out a new structure for engaging each other. Modi has given enough indication that he is a guy who looks towards a bright future and doesn’t believe in remaining bogged down in the bleak past. The question is whether Pakistan is ready to move on or will it keep parroting the same tired, worn out slogans of the past?

Making sense of the mandate