The induction of Najma Heptulla as minister for minority affairs in the Narendra Modi government does not detract from the reality that the 16th Lok Sabha has the lowest number of Muslim MPs ever: 23. This nadir has obviously not come about out of the blue. It is the culmination of an old trend. Since 1980, when there were 49 Muslim MPs in the LS, their number has steadily declined to stand at 25 in 1991 (before the BJP became the first party in the LS). In 1999 and 2004, this number increased somewhat, with 32 and 35 Muslim MPs respectively, but in 2009 it fell again (30).

This decline becomes even more drastic when contrasted with the increasing percentage of Muslims in the Indian population. In 1980, Muslim MPs represented 9 per cent of the LS when the Muslim community represented 11 per cent of the population. In 2014, they represent 4 per cent of the LS whereas their community represents 13.4 per cent of the population according to the Census. While the shrinking numbers of Muslims in Parliament is not new, the current elections point to unprecedented developments in this area, as in others.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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In terms of states, first. While in 2009 Maharashtra had no Muslim MP, this year it is the turn of Uttar Pradesh. This is a remarkable occurrence not only because UP has 80 seats, but also because in 32 constituencies, Muslims represent more than 15 per cent of the voters; yet, barring two seats picked up by the SP, the BJP won them all.

Does this mean that Muslims have not voted for Muslim candidates or that the polarisation strategy of the BJP did indeed have its effect? An examination of the vote-share distribution across the state shows that the BJP received its highest vote share in western UP, with riot-hit Muzaffarnagar at its centre, far more than in any other sub-region of the state.

This is all the more remarkable, as in the 2012 assembly elections, Muslims had, for the first time, achieved proportional representation in the Vidhan Sabha, composing 17 per cent of MLAs. There is clearly a disconnect in the state and general elections’ trends.

The rise of Muslim representation in UP has been contingent on the capacity of Muslim candidates to rally the support of non-Muslim voters. One might hypothesise that in the context of polarisation of the state, it did not take place this time.

If Muslim MPs do not come from UP, where then do they come from? From neighbouring Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir, but only to a limited extent, since these states have elected four and three Muslim MPs, respectively. The largest contingent comes from West Bengal, with eight Muslim MPs distributed across three parties. The Trinamool Congress had distributed a large number of tickets to Muslim candidates (23), but only five in West Bengal, where they actually stood a chance to win. Four, though, have been elected. Beyond that, the usual pockets sent their lonely or couple of MPs: Hyderabad, Lakshadweep, the IUML pocket in Kerala, and Assam, where Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front succeeded in wresting three seats from the BJP.

The rise of this small Muslim party in a state that counts 30 per cent Muslims is interesting as its performance comes in the context of sharp polarisation in the Northeast, as evident from the recurrent Bodo-Muslim violence. The AIUDF fielded six Muslims out of 10 candidates and also contested in West Bengal.

In terms of parties, never in the past had the winner of general elections in India counted zero Muslims among its MPs. In the case of the BJP, this reflects a certain strategy. This involved identifying the minority groups that would not extend their support to the BJP and aiming at attracting all the others while working towards creating rifts and preventing members of the identified minority groups from allying locally with other groups. Indeed, out of 428 candidates, the party fielded a mere seven Muslims, that is, a little less than 2 per cent.

That said, the Congress did not do much better this time, with 5.8 per cent. Not a single Muslim was given a ticket in Maharashtra. So, who is giving tickets to Muslims these days? Naturally, small “Muslim parties” like the AIUDF, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the Kerala Muslim League and the Peace Party (24 out of 51). But they were not in a position to win many seats.

Some regional parties also tend to distribute a larger number of tickets to Muslims, such as the SP (36 out of 195), the CPM (14 out of 95) and the BSP (48 out of 501). But barring the CPM, the majority of these tickets were distributed outside their regional strongholds, in Gujarat for example, where the SP lined up six Muslim candidates. In 2009, a significant number of Muslim MPs had been elected on BSP tickets. But then this time, the BSP has no seat at all. The party that has the largest number of Muslim MPs this time, the TMC, fielded 23 Muslim candidates out of 130, that is, 17 per cent of the total. But despite the TMC’s good performance, only four were elected.

So, if one takes a bird’s eye view on party affiliations, it is striking to observe that the 23 Muslim MPs come from eight different states and 11 different parties, which will not help them to build a cohesive presence in the House nor to weigh much within their own parties. If one excludes Muslim independent candidates, the percentage of Muslim candidates hovers slightly below 10 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But the proportion of the successful candidates among them has dropped to 4 per cent, as mentioned above. Which means that the success rate of Muslim candidates is rather low, and there may be even fewer Muslim candidates next time.

Only those who think that groups need to be represented by some of their members in democratic institutions may consider this development as problematic. Others would assume that any MP can defend the interests of the minorities in Parliament. But this is an assumption that is at odds with India’s overall political philosophy which, decades ago, resulted in reservations in all kinds of assemblies.

Muslims did not have much voice in the previous Lok Sabha either, but they did have a ruling party that was disposed to take measure of their socio-economic condition and acknowledge that they suffered from specific forms of marginalisation. They could also count on some regional parties, for which they constituted an important part of their support base, to speak on their behalf. That, however, did not suffice to ensure effective implementation of the various recommendations that emerged from the Sachar Committee and the Srikrishna Commission.

The post-Sachar evaluation committee report led by Amitabh Kundu, which was only submitted to the government of India recently, highlighted the lack of progress in almost all areas of deprivation of Muslims in India.

It is up to the new government to decide if it will take it up or not, signalling, in the process, if Heptulla’s presence in the cabinet is merely symbolic. But given the new balance of power in the Lok Sabha, it remains to be seen if anyone will lend their voice to a minority that is increasingly absent from public life at the national level.

This article was originally published in Indian Express.