UP polls: Congress’ quota bet

The Congress has again woken up to the cause of Muslims in the season of polls.

Ritesh K Srivastava

‘Bending backwards while standing straight’ is an art mastered by few. In the present Indian political context the Congress seems to have learned this trick and has been using it with great finesse for electoral gains.

The party has demonstrated the potent use of this art by carrying out ‘technically (constitutionally) difficult’ summersaults on the issue of Muslim quota. The grand old party felt the pressing need to reiterate its commitment to provide them the real benefits of country’s socio-economic development just when Rahul Gandhi put his prestige at stake in Uttar Pradesh.

However, it would be unfair to say that the Congress has just now woken up to the cause of Muslims given the life-long association of several popular and nationalist Muslim leaders of the Congress, who helped the party nurture its secular image.

Though, the idea was to provide equal opportunities to all marginalized sections including Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs etc., the term ‘minorities’ later became a byword for reference to Muslims only. While other religious and ethnic minorities prospered after Independence, there was no substantial improvement in the condition of Muslims. Post-Independence, the formation of other political outfits on religious lines further changed the approach towards Muslims, and the community subsequently became a vote bank – exploited time and again for electoral gains.

In the absence of prominent political outfits to voice their opinion, the Muslims also kept switching sides, first in the favour of Congress, then they sought solace in the Samajwadi Party (SP) and, to some extent, they were also lured by Mayawati’s BSP. As per the 2001 Census, the Muslims constitute 13.4% of the country’s total population and that’s what prompts a maddening race among most political parties to get a share of the same.

The quota controversy

Just when the electioneering was in full swing in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the ruling Congress dropped the quota bomb promising 4.5% reservation to minorities out of the existing 27.5% OBC quota in its election manifesto, which further fuelled the race for securing Muslim votes.

The move drew intense criticism from all quarters with the main opposition the BJP opposing reservation on religious lines, while the SP and the BSP dismissing it as mere ‘tokenism.’ The grand old party was so sure that its quota ploy would work that one of its senior leader Salman Khurshid went a step ahead and promised to give 9% reservation to Muslims if the party was voted to power in UP.
As if this was not enough, another senior Congressman Beni Prasad Verma later made a similar statement further igniting the quota war, clearly overlooking the election watchdog’s censure of Khurshid and the political heat, which his remarks generated.

The promise of providing 9% reservation for backward Muslims within the existing 27% OBC quota in UP, in case the party comes to power in UP, appears to be a well-calibrated strategy of Congress to gain political mileage over its rivals.

This becomes evident from the fact that shortly after Khurshid’s quota remarks, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi challenged Mulayam Singh Yadav if he could promise 18% quota in the SP manifesto, as he had demanded while protesting the Congress’ 4.5% decision.

The challenge thrown by Rahul Gandhi to SP and other opposition parties has only set the ball rolling in favour of the Congress, which appears comfortable so far with the outcome of the quota row.

By promising a sub-quota for minorities, the Congress has already taken a lead over its opponents as they are aware of the consequences of opposing the move – losing out on the Muslim votes.

Politically, the Congress quota idea seems to be aimed at dividing the votes of Muslim and OBCs – which forms the core of the Samajwadi Party’s support base. Further showing sympathy to Muslims, the Congress also advocated the idea of a minority quota in the Lokpal Bill – which is aimed at ending corruption.

Another issue, which proves Congress’ policy of Muslim appeasement, is the government’s refusal to give security to the controversial author Salman Rushdie and permission to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, clearly under pressure from Muslim fundamentalists.

Congress’ quota promise has made things difficult for Mulayam Singh Yadav - a known sympathizer of Muslims - who cannot oppose it for obvious reasons.

At the same time, the SP chief cannot also support the categorization of the OBCs since it would anger Yadavs and Kurmis.

Both Yadavs and the Kurmis are "forwards among backwards" and the two communities have largely benefited from the 27% reservation given to them by the Mandal Commission, and if the sub-quota promise for Muslims is implemented, it would certainly reduce their catchment area in jobs and education.

The Congress leadership is aware that SP`s aggressive advocacy of ‘Muslim rights’ would hurt its traditional vote bank, but the former would attract the `most backwards` for whom it has promised a sub-quota. Congress`s desperate attempt to woo Muslims and Dalits also throws a big challenge at the BSP which is trying to avoid any intrusion into its vote-bank and keep its pro-Dalit image intact.

The looming danger

Although, the quota controversy has given an interesting twist to the seven-phased polls in UP, there are concerns that this political master stroke of the Congress party may even backfire. There is a dissent within the Congress party over the wisdom of the line adopted by Salman Khurshid. While one section of the party feels that Khurshid is trying to project himself as the new Muslim mascot of the Congress, others think that there was no need for him to promise a 9% reservation for minorities without taking consent of the party high command.

Khurshid’s supporters have sought to downplay this by saying he had the right to make such a promise since he was the chairman of the committee, which prepared the election manifesto of the Congress. His critics believe that by provoking the BJP to attack him, he has actually pulled in Muslim votes for Congress, and his wife, Louise Khurshid, who is contesting from Kaimganj.

The Congress may be taking pride in projecting itself as a pro-Muslim party, but the voters from the community may not fall in its trap this time. The Muslim leaders, including the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, have already rejected the sub-quota ploy of a ‘communal’ Congress and asked why the party did nothing in all these years.

In Salman Khurshid’s own constituency, the voters have not taken the sub-quota promise seriously as they think it is just a strategy to lure them to ensure victory of his wife. Muslims here are clearly not excited by the quota sop and appear more inclined towards the BSP candidate Mohd Umar Khan, who is not seen as an outsider like Louise. Besides, the lady also faces the risk of losing the Hindu voters, especially Brahmins, who played a crucial role in Salman’s victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
For the BJP, the reservation controversy has come in handy. The party, backed by the Sangh Parivar, has launched a scathing attack on Congress seeking to consolidate the Hindu vote by saying the Constitution does not permit a quota on religious lines. The right-wing party is also not sparing any effort in provoking the Hindu OBC voters that the Congress is giving a big chunk of their 27.5% pie to Muslims.

In UP’s highly polarized contest, Muslims have become the prime targets of vote-bank politics. The battle is harsher this time because the Muslim vote will be divided between the SP, Congress and Mayawati.

The Sachar report

Wooing Muslim voters is not going to be easy for all parties, especially Congress, due to its repeated failure to meet the community’s expectations. Soon after the Congress-led UPA government came to power in 2004, it constituted the Sachar Committee to look into the socio-economic and educational condition of Muslims, and to recommend ways to improve their social status.

However, not much has changed in all these years and the Congress leadership made Muslims live in a utopian world that the ruling disposition was working for their welfare. The community still lags far behind on various development indicators in comparison to other communities.

The leaders of the community have accused the successive governments for not taking enough steps to bring Muslims in the mainstream and empowering them. Hence, Muslims can’t be fooled anymore and whichever party manages to win their support will eventually have to work for them.

Having failed to implement the recommendations of the Sachar panel, the Congress is again wooing Muslims with sops and quota promises, thus it would be interesting to see if the community falls for it or ditches the grand old party this time.