Indian Muslims Put Their Faith in Congress: A reinvigorated Congress party must repay the debt it owes Muslim voters by listening to their concerns and taking action
By: Rushda Majeed
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 May 2009 13.30 BST
The elections in India have given the convincingly victorious Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) an unfettered mandate. To the surprise of many, the supposedly efficient and often ruthlessly hardline Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been almost marginalised in defeat, and joins of the ranks of smaller political organisations.
For the 150 million Indian Muslims, this outcome is significant. Congress's reputation as their benefactor has been suffering since the 1980s. Now is the chance for the ruling party to address their problems and concerns, and have them participate more fully in India's progress.
Muslims represent 13% of the country's population, and embody the greatest such concentration in the world after Indonesia. They constitute a substantial voting bloc, but, sadly, their aspirations have often been exploited for political gain.
But what does today's recharged Congress-led government hold for Indian Muslims?
Their story is one of almost continuous struggle. They are underrepresented at each level of the government. Their education and employment is at an all-time low. Vindictive groups, often with disproportionate influence, cast them as a national security threat.
Muslims traditionally supported Congress, with the party burnishing its secular image and therefore continuing to secure their votes over the years. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi's Congress party won the general elections with an overwhelming majority, and subsequently sought to appease Muslims by overturning the Shah Bano ruling, a critical supreme court decision that had undermined Muslim matrimony laws.
Then, the same administration did an about-face. The unlocking of the Ayodhya temple in 1986 led to the destruction of the conjoined Babri Masjid and fanned flames of communal strife across the nation, in no small measure enabling the rise of the BJP. Feeling betrayed, Muslims began voting for regional parties instead of Congress.
Another Gandhi has now taken centre-stage. Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv's son, and his mother Sonia, are very influential within the Congress party. And notably, their new government does owe something to Muslim support.
Rahul courted the Muslim vote while campaigning. He repeatedly emphasised Congress as truly secular, contrasting it against a "Hindutva" driven BJP. Muslims have of course received such assurances and promises in the past, only to have their hoped dashed. But they did give Rahul their vote, expecting that his "young brigade" will consider more carefully their interests.
Prominent Muslims have of late spoken out in Congress's favour, albeit in somewhat backhanded fashion. EM Abdul Rahman, chairman of The Popular Front of India, a confederation of minority groups, said that the election results reflected people's hopes as vested in the Congress due to the absence of alternatives. Other national and regional parties failed in gaining the people's confidence, thus paving the way for Congress's victory.
A number of Muslim political parties also emerged during this election season, asking loudly and clearly for greater Muslim representation in the professions and the legislature, and better educational opportunities. They demanded that victimisation of the Muslims in the name of terrorism be stopped.
The Ulema Council, one such Muslim political party, asserts that Muslims played an important role in the victory of Congress. Others have a more tempered message, terming Congress's victory a triumph for secularism. Obviously, Muslims feel safer in a secular India rather than in one governed by Hindu nationalists.
That is not to say that all Muslims have thrown in their lot completely with Congress. Some among them prefer to deal with the BJP, an "open enemy", rather than with Congress, which they allege takes their votes for granted.
A more powerful and confident Congress party has an opportunity to work towards the betterment of the largest concentration of Muslims in the world, without compromising the overall goals it sets for the nation. If anything, a better-off Indian Muslim bloc will only make India stronger as a secular haven, and establish the Congress party as its bona fide champion.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a moderating and calming influence, and Rahul Gandhi, whose political maturity has been a revelation, need to stay committed to good governance and deliver on their promises to help the underprivileged and the downtrodden.
As the Congress party begins its second term under far more favourable circumstances than in the recent past, Indian Muslims should ask for, and expect, greater accountability from their reelected leaders, whom they have helped continue in office.