Muslims Play Kingmaker in India

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

It seems nothing succeeds like success. With Congress party registering a spectacular victory in the world’s biggest election, every pundit who cribbed about the Congress-led alliance and predicted its imminent defeat is now patting himself on the back for having seen the future. They are now paying copious tributes to the vision and wisdom of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. But then that’s the way of the world. They praise you to the skies when you are on a roll and dump you the moment the tide turns against you.

Honestly speaking though if anyone indeed deserves kudos, it is the ever-underrated Indian voter. As Sonia Gandhi put it, the people of India know what is right for the country and “always make the right choice.”

The Indian voter has demonstrated an amazing political maturity by handing a comprehensive victory to the grand old party whose history is so interwoven with India’s past. From the sun-kissed Valley of Kashmir to the southernmost tip of Kanyakumari, India’s faceless multitudes have voted in a pattern that all smug psephologists and wonks failed to see.

And remember nearly half of those 714 million voters — as much as the US population — are poor and a whole lot of them cannot read or write. They are not familiar with the intricacies of the Westminster form of democracy.  All they know and care about is that their vote matters and they know how to use it to change their own lot.  It is this incorrigible belief of an incredibly diverse and smart electorate that keeps this great democracy going.

Remarkably, this was also the most secular election in the country’s history with no religious or communal violence being recorded anywhere. No emotive issues were resurrected to play on the voter’s basic instincts. Even the last General Election in 2004 that the BJP-led NDA hoped to win with its ridiculous, India Shining hype was fought under the shadow of Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom.

Even though Varun Gandhi, the estranged nephew of Sonia Gandhi fielded by the BJP, did his best to oblige by attacking the Muslims, it was nothing compared to the hate-laced offensives of Hindutva brigade in the 1980s and 1990s. It didn’t seem to have any effect on the electorate, although Varun did win from the constituency his mother has been winning.

The thing is, India is changing and changing at a breathless pace. With its economic prosperity, its exposure to globalization and growing aspirations of its expanding middle classes, the country has moved on. The new India has little patience for incendiary ideologies or extremist positions, be it to the right or left of the centre.

The kind of politics the Hindutva brigade has been peddling for decades has become irrelevant in the 21st century India. This is why even the BJP veterans found themselves squirming when Varun in an election rally exhorted ‘Hindu brothers’ to join hands to drive all ‘traitors’ to Pakistan. 

Indeed, the emerging India has rejected both the right and the left. The country of a billion people, determined to get its place in the sun, is seeking to tread a middle path of moderation, reason and pluralism.

It wants to be seen as a forward-looking nation that belongs to all — Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. A new land of the free; another newfound land, if you please. Just like that other great, vibrant democracy at the other end of the world.

This is why the voter has chosen Congress and its inclusive worldview over the exclusivist and rejectionist view of the opposition. This election saw two young, second generation Gandhis — Rahul and Varun — in their element. The two offered two different, competing visions of India, even as they fought their own personal battles for recognition. If Varun projected a view of India that seeks to divide its people poisoning their relations with each other, Rahul offered the vision of a country that is at peace with itself and promises peace, justice and equality to all its people.

In doing so, Rahul — or, should we say, his mother — wittingly or unwittingly resurrected and rediscovered the party that was once led by stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and  Maulana Azad.

So the real big story of the Election 2009 is not the re-election of Manmohan Singh or the rout of the Left or Right but the resurrection of Congress as the natural party of governance.

The party has been reinvented as a national movement that reflects and represents the aspirations of all communities and faiths and both the rich and poor.

This movement once captured a nation’s imagination and played a critical role in shaping the idea of India. The party appears to be doing that again, bringing disparate communities and identities together to form a national mainstream.

So it is no surprise that this election witnessed the return of Muslims to Congress, a story largely underreported in the media. The community that dutifully backed the Congress after the Independence began boycotting the party after the Babri Masjid demolition and the wave of anti-Muslim violence in the 1990’s.

In Uttar Pradesh, home to the largest Muslim community in the country, Congress won 22 seats, at the expense of parties that have for nearly two decades monopolized Muslim vote. This is the battleground state that often determines who gets to rule from Delhi. According to an internal assessment of the party, Muslim vote has played a decisive role in Congress’ resurgence.

No wonder the once sulking Muslims are celebrating the Congress victory with the rest of the country, even though there’s some concern over their under-representation in parliament. With only 28 Muslim MPs in the 543-member house, this Lok Sabha has the lowest ever representation of the community.

But it is not the number of representatives in parliament and assemblies but the work they do that should be the real concern of the community. What really matters is if they are getting a fair deal, as fair as the next Indian. 

Like I said India is changing. And it is changing for the better. It is up to Muslims now how they adapt themselves to changing times, to be in step with the rest of the country.

Let us not forget, in the end if this country remains a secular democracy and a rich, pluralist society, the credit goes to its humble and magnanimous people. If India is the way it is, it is because of its tolerant and reasonable majority. So the real winner of the 2009 election is the Indian voter. He makes you proud of the idea of India.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to

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