Credit: PTI

BJP's rise has meant a shrinking number of Muslim lawmakers in India

The traditional underrepresentation of Muslims in the police, army and bureaucracy now extends to elected assemblies.
Published April 10, 2019

This is an excerpt from Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India by Christophe Jaffrelot, published by HarperCollins.


Between 1980 and 2014, the number of Muslim MPs in the lower house of the Indian parliament — and hence their percentage — diminished by more than half. This evolution is all the more significant as the share of Muslims in the Indian population rose during the same period. Consequently, the gap between their proportion of the population (which rose from 11.1 to 14.2%) and that of their elected representatives in the Lok Sabha (which dropped from 9 to 3.7%) increased fivefold, jumping from two to ten percentage points. Responsibility for this trend lies primarily with the BJP, which has only ever endorsed very few Muslim candidates, and this in constituencies where the party had a slim chance of winning, even as its group in parliament continued to increase in numbers.

In 2009, the BJP fielded 4 Muslim candidates, or 0.48% of the total, and only got one elected. In 2014, it fielded 7 Muslim candidates out of 428 (or less than 2%) and none were elected. For the first time in India’s history, the winning party in the general elections had no Muslims in its parliamentary group in the Lok Sabha and therefore, in states such as Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, where Muslims make up over 18% of the population and where the BJP won 71 out of 80 seats, did not have a single Muslim MP (compared to 6 in 2009 and 10 in 2004).

The BJP decision not to field any Muslim candidates aimed to liberate the party entirely from the “Muslim vote” that other parties were accused of wooing for electoral gain at the expense of the Hindu majority. During the 2017 state election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, one BJP leader admitted:

“Everyone was wooing the Muslims. We told the Hindus — they will unite, will we always remain divided? Trump in the US showed that it is not blacks and Hispanics and Muslims who will decide who becomes US president. It is whites. Here too, it is not Muslims who will decide who rules UP. It is all other Hindus. They want to defeat us. We want to defeat them and their parties. It is a battle.”

The formation of a Hindu vote bank by the BJP, which in particular aimed to sideline minorities in the political arena, prompted other parties as well no longer to nominate Muslim candidates, except in areas with a high Muslim majority. This tactic was especially clear in the Congress’ case, which the BJP accused of cultivating a Muslim vote bank by showing concern for their social and economic condition — a false claim if one goes by the impoverishment of Muslims under the UPA regime.

In 2009, the Congress, unwilling to embrace its traditional secularism, only endorsed 31 Muslim candidates (or 3.7% of the total), among which only 11 won seats. That year, the parties that fielded the most Muslim candidates and got them elected were regional parties, starting with the Bahujan Samaj Party. Five years later, the Congress fielded 27 Muslim candidates out of 462 (less than 6% of the total). Among non-Muslim parties, only the Rashtriya Janata Dal (a lower-caste grouping based in Bihar), the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) fielded a percentage of Muslim candidates higher than the share of Muslims in the population (see Table 2). But in many cases, the candidates in question were in constituencies far from the areas where these parties were strongest.

Not only did parties of all political stripes field fewer than 10% of Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha in 2014, but above all, few of them were elected. Muslim MPs finally made up about 4% of elected representatives in the lower house. This underrepresentation, linked to the boom in Hindu majoritarianism, was reflected at the government level by an unprecedented situation. Only two members in the first Modi government – or less than 3% – were Muslims in 2014. Both had come from the Rajya Sabha (the upper house), given that there was none among the BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha and that only MPs can be appointed as government ministers in India. In July 2016, the minister of Minority Affairs, Najma Heptulla, resigned but was replaced by another Muslim minister in this position, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (minister of state prior to that). A second Muslim minister was then appointed in the government, M. J. Akbar, who became minister of state for External Affairs. Inventorying the loci of power in the Indian republic, veteran journalist and media personality Shekhar Gupta concluded, “India’s minorities have never been so out of the power structure. They are justified in having a sense of unease about it”.

However, an examination at the level of the states of the Indian Union is necessary to make a full appraisal of the situation. Aside from the fact that there is no longer a single Muslim chief minister, the presence of Muslim representatives in state assemblies (as Members of Legislative Assemblies – MLAs) and governments (as Ministers or Ministers of State) is on the wane. In January 2018, out of 1,418 BJP elected representatives in these assemblies, only four were Muslim and only two members of the BJP state governments (coalition governments are not taken into account here) were Muslim. This situation holds true as much in states where the BJP has been governing for a long time (such as Gujarat, where the party did not endorse a single Muslim candidate in 2007, in 2012, or in 2017) as for those it recently conquered, such as Assam (30.9% Muslims), where out of 61 MLAs (enabling it to win the elections in 2017), it has only one Muslim elected representative.

Christophe Jaffrelot's Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India
HarperCollins, 2019
Christophe Jaffrelot's Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India HarperCollins, 2019

In general, when the BJP conquers a new state that was ruled by a regional party, the number of Muslim MLAs drops. The most spectacular example is found in Uttar Pradesh where, in 2017, their proportion went from 17 to 6%. While the figure of 17%, achieved in 2012 mainly thanks to the success of the Samajwadi Party, had brought the share of Muslim MLAs closer to their share of the population in Uttar Pradesh, that is, according to the 2011 census, 18.5%, the figure of 6%, associated with the BJP landslide victory, reflects an underrepresentation comparable to that of 1991, when the party had already taken control of the state.

A similar diminution in the number of Muslim representatives was not noted systematically when power changed hands from the Congress to the BJP, simply because the Congress never fielded very many Muslim candidates, especially in northern and western India where the Hindu nationalists traditionally have the greatest influence. In Maharashtra, whatever the winning party, the portion of Muslims among the MLAs has never exceeded 5% (i.e. half the proportion of Muslims in the state), including when the Congress won, because it never endorsed more than 7% of Muslim candidates. In Gujarat, Muslim assembly members already made up no more than 1% of the assembly in 1990, prior to when the BJP came to power – and they have remained at this level, as the Congress never fields more than a half-dozen Muslim candidates in the elections. The situation is comparable in Madhya Pradesh and in Karnataka (see Table 3). In Rajasthan, by contrast, the Congress has always fielded the same number of Muslim candidates since the 1990s, despite the rise of Hindu nationalism. More interesting still, this number — between 13 and 14, or at least 8% of the candidates, a proportion close to the share of Muslims in the population, 9% in 2011 — is higher than it was in the 1960s to 1980s, a trend found, moreover, in Maharashtra.

To sum up, while Muslims have traditionally been underrepresented within the institutions of the Indian republic, this phenomenon, which was primarily salient in the police, the army and the administration, has now been extended to elected assemblies owing to the rise in power of the BJP. But that is only one aspect of Indian-style ethnic democracy. Majoritarianism has also developed with the rise of a new Hindu nationalist cultural police that seeks to control and put down minorities. Muslims are once again the main victims of this trend, which has strengthened since the years 2014-15 and of which the primary actors are vigilante militias generally working with the tacit agreement of the states’ police forces.

This piece originally appeared on The Wire India and has been reproduced with permission.