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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Muslim Revolt: Congress victory

A Muslim Revolt: The Hidden story of Congress’ stunning victory in UP

By Amaresh Misra

Each and every observer of Indian politics is angling for a simple answer to the vexed question: how and why did the Congress perform so well in Uttar Pradesh?

The answer however is complex: apart from other reasons, the Muslim voting pattern in UP proved decisive. Muslims were known to be disillusioned with Congress beyond repair. Then what made them switch over from the BSP or the SP to the Congress, and that too at the last minute?

Since 2004, Muslims in UP have been nursing a sense of betrayal vis-à-vis the SP and the BSP. This alienation was sharpened after the Batala House encounter, in which boys from Azamgarh were targeted systematically by the UP ATS. Yet, Muslim MPs of the BSP and SP were virtually gagged by their respective party leaders—the MPs were unable to even demand a judicial probe in the affair. After that episode most Muslim MPs were seen more as third grade power brokers
The incident and its fallout, and the wave of Muslim persecution that followed the July 26th 2008 Ahmedabad/Jaipur and subsequent bomb blasts, led Muslims to grope for a way to establish their independent forums. The thinking amongst the new Muslim leadership then was that if 7% Yadavs in UP can capture power, negotiate with the central government, cut deals and make and unmake governments on the basis of 18% Muslim votes, why can’t, Muslims form alliances with other castes and bargain or negotiate directly?

This thinking found an echo in the Ulema Council of Azamgarh in eastern UP, which emerged suddenly in the wake of the Batala House encounter. The Council rejected Muslim power brokers; it was soon taking protest trains to Delhi and Lucknow; opposition to all four major parties—the SP, BSP, Congress and the BJP—was announced. Riding on a wave of popular support, the Council also announced 7 candidates—including one from Lucknow in Avadh—from UP for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

In the wake of the Council’s appeal, several other small Muslim parties of UP also formed a Muslim political front. That this phenomenon was not limited to UP, was borne out by Badruddin Ajmal who also tried taking his AUDF outside Assam and launch it in Maharashtra and UP.
In Kerala and Bengal as well, attempts were made to float independent Muslim political parties. The Jamat-e-Islami too experimented with the idea. Factions of the Jamiat Ulama Hind also were seen looking for Independent options.

None of these Muslim formations envisaged themselves as a communal forum. Right from AUDF to the Ulema Council, the attempt was to attract as many Hindus as possible.

Most, not all, Muslim formations were led by Ulemas, the Deobandis in particular. Jamiat Ulama Hind was always the premier Indian Deobandi organization—it had opposed Jinnah’s two nation theory before partition and had stood by the Congress in the post-Independence phase. Yet on eve of the 2009 elections it was locked in internecine internal strife.

Otherwise also, the Ulemas were facing a crisis of credibility. Most of the Delhi and Lucknow Ulemas, the two major cities with a sizeable concentration of Muslim clerics, had issued political fatwas in the past. Looking upon political fatwas as retrograde, the Muslim electorate had rejected these; however, the Ulemas of the AUDF and Ulema Council were seen in a different light. Both Badruddin Ajmal and Amir Rashadi, the convener of the Ulema Council, were respected for having aroused political aspirations amongst Muslims.

But as the 2009 elections proceeded, it became clear that even the AUDF and the Ulema Council were not sticking to their promise of carving out an independent niche for Muslims. The Ulema Council and Amir Rashadi were seen as hobnobbing with the BSP and the BJP, while the AUDF was looked at as a rich man’s Bania-Muslim party, lacking a sense of real Muslim issues at the grassroots outside Assam. It was not interested say, in uniting the Barelvi and the Shia Ulema and in issues like Muslim harassment by the Indian State.

In UP, the Ulema Council seemed to be on its own trip—parochialism ruled the roost—the attempt was to remind the Muslims repetitively that they have to create their own BSP.
In this, the Ulema Council missed a vital point—namely that Indian Muslims are not Dalits. They do not have a BAMCEF type support organization; secondly, they form part of the ex-ruling class and would like their party to be progressive and forward looking as well.

In Azamgarh and other strong Ulema Council constituencies, the Council failed to link the issue of Muslim persecution with the massive anti-BJP, anti-sectarian, middle-path undercurrent that was perhaps the single most important feature of the 2009 elections.

Seeing their leaders lacking in anti-BJP fervor, Muslims began to doubt the secular credentials of the Ulema Council. The same happened to a lesser degree with the AUDF on seats outside Assam. Then, the Lucknavi Ulema issued directives or semi-fatwas, asking votes blatantly for the Lucknow BSP candidate, known as a big neo-rich, money-bag.

Enraged Muslims of Lucknow revolted—the Ulema Council failed to read, or ignored deliberately, the anti-big Ulema sentiment. Ditching the Ulema Council as well, Muslims voted en masse for the Congress all over Avadh.

For the first time in the history of Independent India, Muslims launched a passive political revolt against their own Ulema, who filled their own pockets while the community starved; who bought huge donations from Arab countries for madrasas but seldom paid heed to the plight of the Muslim under-trials; who while asking Muslims to unite themselves remained fragmented; who never taught the Muslims their glorious secular past in India or elsewhere; who kept the community backward while acting as dishonorable and parochial middlemen. While reaping the harvest of what Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz—the premier, reformist Muslim clerics and political thinkers of the 18th-19th century—sowed, these Ulemas had forgotten to even mention their legacy.

This anti-Ulema revolt is against Muslim power brokers as well—that is why there are so few Muslim MPs in the new Lok Sabha. Secular forces ought to grab this moment and provide justice and a modern vision to Muslims. This is also the time for the non-Ulema, non-broker Muslim leadership to assert itself.

(The author is a historian and was the Lucknow Lok Sabha candidate of the Ulema Council)

India: the world's biggest vote

India: the world's biggest vote

Compared to what is happening in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, or indeed in a wider region not noted for democratic engagement, the elections in India are both to be saluted and celebrated. Saluted because the election shows a popular commitment to democracy, which goes back long before the arrival of the British, to the village parliament or panchayat. Celebrated because it produced the right result. The pundits, who to a man, predicted a weak and fractious coalition dependent on regional leaders, were stuffed. So was the rightwing Hindu nationalist BJP, which lost a large amount of territory. Congress was returned not just with a strong mandate but a national one.

This is important for the renewal of a 124-year-old party deemed to be in irreversible decline. It is even more important for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who invested substantial amounts of political as well as financial capital in a project during his first term, which defied conventional wisdom. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) provides 100 days of unskilled labour at the minimum wage to at least one member of a rural household. As an unashamed handout, the scheme has many critics. But as a substitute for absent social welfare, NREGA was a vote-winner. If Mr Singh is right to say that India is fissiparous, with vast rural swaths untouched by 9% growth rates in the last three years, then the solution has to be giving the poorest states such as Bihar a slice, however thin, of the national cake. The massive social welfare schemes Mr Singh launched in his first term were instrumental in his return to power. It runs counter to the Anglo-Saxon model with which too much of the world fell in love, but India's economy can not be run exclusively for and by its English-speaking urban elites.

If rural development emerged as the leitmotiv of the campaign, it is all the more surprising that India's new government should have yesterday named security and promoting Hindu-Muslim tolerance as its two priorities. It was, after all, the BJP which played the terror card with campaign ads showing its 81-year-old leader, LK Advani, pumping iron at the gym. And Mr Singh's resistance to calls for an attack on Pakistan after the Mumbai bombings did not emerge as an election issue. The BJP turned off voters with its strident anti-Muslim rhetoric, and with the record of Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister, who stood by during the riots in his state, in which 1,000 Muslims were killed. It is important to promote Hindu-Muslim tolerance, although this is not the central issue.

But the part that a strong Indian ¬government can play in regional security should not be underestimated. India's elites dislike being linked to a dysfunctional Pakistan, preferring to be ranked with China as a booming regional power. Delhi was horrified to think it would be included in Richard Holbrooke's Af-Pak regional remit, which in the end it was not. But none of that precludes the role that India could play in starting to defuse tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir. This could, in turn, work against the logic of Pakistan's military and security elites who persist in viewing India as the existential threat.

Talks started under the now discredited Gen Pervez Musharraf. It would be extraordinarily difficult to continue under the fire of suicide squads trained on, and despatched from, Pakistani soil. It may not be easy to persuade India to make concessions on Kashmir to a weak government in Islamabad. But it is impossible to think of a regional Af-Pak solution without India. And it is all too easy to imagine a US withdrawal under fire if India is ignored.

India is more than a country. It is also an idea, expressed by Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar (the untouchable who wrote so much of India's constitution). As India grows in regional importance, the challenge will be to express that idea clearly and attractively to others.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

India elections 2009

I have not been able to write a whole lot in the last two months - due to my full time schooling, work and other responsibilities - Mike

Shashi Tharoor Creates History

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Shashi Tharoor has created history by winning the Lok Sabha seat from
the Kerala capital, Trivandrum by an unprecedented margin. Never
before has any one not born in Kerala or not educated here or not
proficient in Malayalam registered an electoral victory in the state.
V.K.Krishna Menon and K.R.Narayanan claimed victories on the basis of
their accomplishments abroad, but they had their places of birth and
educational institutions in Kerala to speak of and they spoke
reasonable Malayalam. More significantly, Tharoor has never worked for
India or represented India at any international forum. He came, he
saw, he conquered.

I was not surprised when Shashi told me more than a year ago that he
intended to seek the Congress ticket for Trivandrum. I knew from his
various moves since his leaving the United Nations that he would seek
political fortunes in India in one way or another. He visited Kerala
many times, held meetings with political leaders, set up an academy of
communications and was generally seen and heard. He had said long ago
that India always mattered to him and that he hoped that one day he
would matter to India. But I had many doubts as to whether his quest
for a political role would be successful. I told him that he had to
overcome several hurdles, which had been built by vested interests in
the political system to prevent new entrants. Dynasty, party hierarchy
and money power were powerful deterrents, I said. I told him that it
would be an uphill task even to get nominated by the Congress Party
and the fact remained also that no Congress candidate had won in
Trivandrum for several years. Shashi had no ready answers, but he
seemed well aware of those challenges and determined to meet them as
they came. He had a sense of mission and nothing would stop him.
In the days that followed, I saw closely how he tackled each issue and
overcame his many opponents. Several Congress leaders were sceptical
about his chances of success on account of his lack of experience and
past record of disapproval of Congress icons. Efforts were made to get
him to contest in a Communist stronghold, Palakkad, which eventually
went to the Left Front. At one stage, Shashi himself seemed to be
reconciled to contesting from his ancestral constituency. In the end,
it was the strong position taken by the Congress high command that
clinched the Congress seat for him.

Once he won the Congress seat, his transformation was complete and he
became a professional politician with gusto. He dressed himself in the
Congress uniform of white khadi, merged into the Congress mainstream
and conducted himself as a traditional Congress candidate, including
hugging babies and throwing garlands to the crowds. He followed the
directives of the local Congress leadership, even though he was aware
of the murmurs of protest among them and went about charming the
electorate. Not many knew who he was or what his achievements were,
but even in the poorest localities, he was welcomed like a new
messiah, untainted by corruption or nepotism. He turned his lack of
proficiency in Malayalam into an advantage by using a few words with
electrifying effect. “If you elect me, I shall work for you
wholeheartedly. I shall try and turn Trivandrum into a city of
international standards”, was his refrain. He did not have to say more
and his transparency and sincerity of purpose won him an army of
admirers, among them many young people, who were attracted by his
pleasing personality.

The Left Front strategy was to discredit Shashi in every possible way
rather than counter his message of change in Indian politics and his
vision for his constituency and his country. A former diplomat,
currently a leftist commentator on international affairs, was brought
in to hatch one theory after another to paint him as pro-US,
pro-Israel and anti-Muslim. Shashi’s writings over the years were
dissected to demolish his image. A 700-word article about Israel, in
which Shashi had argued that India could not emulate Israel in dealing
with Pakistan, was shown as evidence of his love for Israel. Of
course, the article was not publicised, but its many interpretations
were given by Ministers and “intellectuals”. At the same time,
Shashi’s admiration for M.F.Hussein was projected as anti-Hindu. A
frivolous charge about showing disrespect to the national anthem
dragged him to a District Court in Kochi. Shashi was not shaken by any
of these; he simply brought out the facts of his position without
disowning what he wrote in the past. He had his record at the United
Nations and his many articles on contemporary events to show his
objectivity and convictions. His campaign team merely had to invite
attention to those to prove the Left Front wrong. Perhaps, Trivandrum
was the only constituency in India where the nuclear deal and policy
towards the US were made into election issues. I was amused that I had
to debate foreign policy with a former colleague on a Trivandrum beach
with bewildered fishermen watching us!

Shashi, having declared his wealth, did not seek campaign
contributions from the public and found the money for the campaign
himself. This made a remarkable impression on the public mind and
assured them that he will not serve the rich campaign contributors. He
had his supporters around the globe, some of whom camped in Kerala to
work quietly for him. They kept away from the Party campaign, but
worked away on their laptops through night and day to spread the word
around in favour of Shashi Tharoor. The NRI excitement over Shashi’s
candidature resulted in their relatives back home extending support to
him. The cyber space was agog with campaign slogans. Facebook, Orkut,
Twitter and other modern means of communications among young people
must have helped him in various ways.

Shashi Tharoor and Congress party coming together was a recipe for
success. If Shashi had chosen to contest on his own on the basis of
his personal accomplishments, he could have presented an agenda for
change and made a splash, but like some of the other independent
stars, he would have made a point, but not gone any further. But once
he made the necessary changes in his perspectives to come to terms
with the Congress ideology, the way was clear for him to claim
victory. In the ultimate analysis, he can take the credit for taking
the right decisions at the right moments in the last few months. No
one has played a more decisive role in his victory than himself.
In giving a massive mandate to Shashi, Trivandrum has not only elected
a Member of Parliament, but also a Minister in the central cabinet.
There is a clear expectation that his talents in foreign affairs and
his contacts around the globe will be put to productive use by the
Prime Minister. The fact that the Congress will not have too many
pressures on cabinet formation in the present scenario has raised
these hopes further. But whether this happens or not, Shashi is sure
to make an impact in New Delhi.

Shashi did not overplay the “change” card as Barrack Obama did,
because he was seeking to get elected on the ticket of the grand old
party of India. But he does represent the urge for change---change
from an old generation to the new, from corruption to cleanliness in
politics and from inefficiency to effective action. He has already
created history; he should now proceed to prove that change is