Religious Minorities and India’s Electoral System: Exclusion and Disenfranchisement

    The Pew Research Centre predicts that because Muslims have the highest fertility rates and the youngest median age when compared to other religious groups, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population by 2050, revealing an urgent need to reconcile India’s democratic structure with unfolding demographic realities.

    By Aman Madan

    The Electoral Process

    The Indian elections are what dreams are made of. Power, money, and pomp were unabashedly on display last month in an election cycle that was projected to cost over seven billion US dollars. What most people don’t know is that the system is fundamentally unfair.

    Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is popular at the ballot box, the Indian electoral system disproportionately allocates it power at the expense of minority parties. India follows the first-past-the-post system, an electoral system in which the candidate with the most votes in a given district is deemed the winner.

    A popular misconceptions in Indian electoral politics is that the BJP came to power with an unprecedented mandate in 2014. The BJP claimed 282 legislative seats, giving the party an electoral majority. Despite the BJP’s numerical strength, data shows that only 31% of the electorate voted for a candidate affiliated with the ruling party. When viewed in proportion to the total number of voters, only 20% of eligible voters cast their ballot for a BJP affiliated candidate. In over 500 nationwide elections, the BJP’s low share of votes reveals that the perception of the BJP’s unprecedented power is a falsehood.

    The first-past-the-post system has drastic consequences for India’s minorities, an issue that receives little international coverage. While the BJP has infused ethno-nationalism into mainstream political discourse, India’s long-term concerns of inclusive representative democracy have more to do with the electoral system it follows.

    Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP and President of the All India Majlis Ittehad ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), a regional Muslim party based in Hyderabad, told TRT World Research Centre that India employs the “wrong electoral system of first-past-the-post.” Representing a party disadvantaged by the current electoral system, he went on to complain that “people” in the country can win just “thirty one percent” of the vote and “still form the government.”

    Owaisi’s criticism of the system makes sense; India’s minorities have long viewed the electoral system as detrimental to their interests. In today’s India, the country’s first-past-the-post system systematically disadvantages the country’s Muslim population. Muslim concerns with the country’s electoral system have become pronounced in recent years as communal violence has increased and as Muslim representation in the country’s governing bodies has steadily declined.

    Since the 1980s, Muslim representation in India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, has consistently declined. As a proportion, the country’s Muslim population increased from 11% to 14% between 1980 and 2019, while the proportion of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha declined from 10% to about 4% during that same period. Today, only 23 MPs are Muslim, about 4% of the parliament. This statistic becomes especially concerning when viewed in conjunction with the Modi government’s opposition to a quota based system for Indian Muslims.

    Muslims Members of Parliament in the current Lok Sabha only hail from eight states, which comprise less than half of the country’s total Muslim population. Seats from these eight states comprise approximately180 seats in a parliament of over 540, indicating that parties in the remaining twenty one states and United Territories either do not offer tickets to Muslim politicians or that Muslim parties cannot realistically compete with their Hindu counterparts.

    If representation in the Lok Sabha was based on a proportion of aggregate population numbers, India’s 16th Lok Sabha would have at least 75 Muslim members. The Pew Research Centre predicts that because Muslims have the highest fertility rates and the youngest median age when compared to other religious groups, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population by 2050, revealing an urgent need to reconcile India’s democratic structure with unfolding demographic realities.

    Political Exclusion

    There are two reasons Indian Muslims are being excluded from participation in the country’s elected institutions. The first reason has to do with electability. Since 2014, the Modi-led government has sought to activate religious identities as political ones, and through it homogenize religious groups and their political aspirations. Historically apolitical issues such as education are now portrayed as distinctly ‘Hindu’ issues, placing pressure on an increasingly anxious Hindu population to vote as a single bloc.

    The first-past-the-post system has historically enfranchised a two-party system, and while India boasts a wide array of small regional parties, the Indian National Congress is thus far the only legitimate opposition to the ruling party. Despite its secular origins, the party has decided to follow the BJP’s lead, viewing a shift from secularism to soft ethnic politics as a strategy to defeat the ruling party at the polls. The BJP has historically not allocated ‘tickets’ to Muslim politicians, viewing this exclusion as an effective strategy to decrease Muslim representation in the country.

    Similarly, the Indian National Congress has increasingly been more cautious in fielding Muslim candidates out of a fear of being accused of “Muslim appeasement.” The state of Rajasthan, for instance, boasts a minority population of 9%, most of whom are Muslims. The congress has historically only fielded one Muslim candidate from the state, a strategic decision aimed at appeasing Muslim demands for representation in the secular party. In the southern state of Karnataka, Muslims constitute nearly 13% of the population and Congress has historically fielded Muslim candidates from that state. Recently however, Congress has received harsh criticism from the state’s Muslim population who are angered that the party refused to nominate a second Muslim on the party’s ticket, an “unwritten” tradition dating back over sixty years. The first-past-the-post system, in addition to a general atmosphere of Hindu supremacy, has systematically dis-incentivized both parties from fielding minority candidates.

    The second reason India’s Muslims do not command a strong political voice has to do with migratory patterns in post-Partition India. As a consequence of social insecurities, Muslims concentrated themselves in cities with existing Muslim populations. As decentralization has restored power to the state level, Muslims are replicating a historical migratory pattern on a local level. In Hyderabad, a city Owaisi represents, Muslims are disproportionately concentrated in specific parts of the city. Negative stereotypes about Muslims assert they ‘self-segregate’ because they do not want to associate with their Hindu compatriots. The data, however, does not support this. A commission put together by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh produced the Sachar Committee Report, which found that Muslims were disproportionately disadvantaged in areas of formal economic opportunity, literacy, and access to general education. Viewing state resources as inaccessible, Muslims traditionally rely on networks of support which originate from within their communities. Muslim political power is diluted in national institutions as a result of this self-segregation. Thus, in a city with a substantial Muslim population such as Owaisi’s Hyderabad, Muslim parties such as the AIMIM can only send one Muslim MP to the national legislature.

    Bridging the Divide

    The question of how to resolve the electoral disenfranchisement of Muslims in Indian politics is a complex one. It is constitutionally infeasible to excise the first-past-the-post system, despite recurring debate regarding the merits of a proportionally representative system. While India’s Law Commission advocated for an increase in total Lok Sabha seats and a 25% reservation based on proportional representation (PR) in 2015, India’s large Hindu majority which benefits from the system does not want to entertain that possibility.

    What is possible, however, is to re-center the conversation to the state level. Decentralization has allocated significant power to state Chief Ministers enabling regional parties, such as the AIMIM, to assert themselves on the state level. While they acknowledge that they cannot be decisive players in state-wide politics, they aim to command enough support to matter. The AIMIM controls seven seats in the Telangana assembly, loosely controls areas in the city of Hyderabad, and at one point controlled nearly 30% of the local Municipal Corporation. For regional parties, the goal is not electoral domination, but instead an expression of political clout. The AIMIM has also recently launched a local initiative called LEARN, in which local youth debate issues of democracy, often in front of a large poster of Owaisi himself, a clear attempt at mobilizing the next generation of Muslims in the city.

    The other dimension of India’s minority question is sociological. A new Muslim middle class is emerging in cities with large Muslim populations. In the case of Hyderabad, many Muslim youths migrated to the Arab Gulf in search of economic opportunity. When they returned, they came back with market-driven aspirations and translated their overseas experience into newfound status. Although it is too early to tell, it is likely that this emerging Muslim middle class will increasingly disassociate itself from traditional networks, often involving migration to other Indian cities with more economic opportunity. Even within the city of Hyderabad, educated young Muslims are leaving historically Muslim quarters of the city and migrating westward to a new technology corridor called Hitec City, an area full of IT and professional economic opportunities. As younger Muslims begin to settle in other parts of India, get married, and reproduce, the historical absence of a cogent Muslim political voice should begin to reverse course.

    Aman Madan is an independent researcher on Middle East/South Asian politics and security. He previously worked as a researcher with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and as a journalist for the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting. His writing has appeared on numerous platforms including Bellingcat and the Washington Post. Twitter: @madan_aman_

    Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the TRT World Research Centre.

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