Friday, June 14, 2024

2024 elections bring a sigh of relief, but is the nightmare over for Indian Muslims?

The much anticipated and much feared 2024 Lok Sabha elections are over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will continue to be the Prime Minister. Still, against all odds, the government’s seat and vote share have considerably declined, giving life to a much more robust and united opposition. The most considerable dent to the BJP came from UP, where the Samajwadi party posed a major comeback and became the second-largest party in the Congress-led INDIA coalition. The SP also pulled off the most spectacular and talked about upsets of this election as it comprehensively beat the BJP’s candidate from the Faizabad constituency, which houses the recently built Ram Temple. According to many media analysts, the Ram temple’s inauguration in January was expected to guarantee a major success for the BJP in this election, and it also marked the beginning of almost a five-month-long election campaign. 

The Ram Temple inauguration became a massive festival as all the streets, buildings, and vehicles carried saffron flags to mark the celebration. Even on Republic Day, which closely followed the inauguration, the large waves of saffron flags veiled the far less visible tricolours. The whole country seemed euphoric, and the Muslims, to whom this event marked a painful memory, decided to stay silent. Their exclusion seemed complete. The BJP appeared to believe that this euphoria would last up to the May elections, and that was probably their first strategic mistake. The excitement soon wore off. Following what seemed to many like the completion of the Hindutva project with Article 370 scrapped and Ram Mandir built, everyday politics returned to India for the first time in a decade. Issues like jobs, infrastructure, and inflation began to be discussed, and questions about the ruling government’s deliverance on promises of governance began to be asked. The opposition’s well-directed campaign, marked by countrywide unity marches, warning people of a constitutional dilution and promises of tackling inflation and joblessness, worked, and in the results, BJP was handed a much-reduced mandate. 

To a foreign political analyst, it may seem that the people voted for a hung assembly, with none of the major parties securing a majority on their own. But if we contextualise this within the more extensive discussion of Indian politics of the last decade, the mandate is quite clear. India’s parliament has not had a vocal or strong opposition for ten years. India even looked at certain points, leaning towards a single-party system. When the ruling party started to feel invincible, and its leaders exhibited blatant arrogance by comparing themselves to Godsent avatars, the voters decided to cut them to size. People have voted for a vocal and strong opposition. That, for now, is the mandate. 

For the dissidents who had for the last 10 years been feeling suffocated under the arm-twisting regime of Hindu nationalists, the result is a cause for celebration. The pluralism of the country has hit back at the homogenizing tendencies of the political right. Taking a sigh of relief are also the country’s religious minorities, who often find themselves at the receiving end of all kinds of political aggression that aims to consolidate Indian Hindus beyond caste and linguistic lines. The BJP’s simple formula has been to plaster over the class and caste divisions by constructing a united Hindu identity, which they often did by pitting them against the ‘other.’ For this purpose, the image of the country’s Sikhs, Christians and Muslims was often morphed to make them seem more threatening. Muslims, being the largest religious minority, easily associable with the Muslim populations of neighbouring countries and the history of partition, remained in the pole position to be demonized by the right wing. 

The Muslims had to face mob lynching, arbitrary house demolitions, increased institutional discrimination, and otherising legislations during the Modi regime. There were apprehensions amongst Muslims that another term with a brute majority for the BJP may bring even more severely anti-Muslim measures. But now, with visible gains for the opposition and tangible losses for the ruling party, it may be difficult for the BJP to go ahead with hardline communal rhetoric that breeds violence against the Muslims and insecurity within them. There is a feeling that fears of a constitutional change and further systemic marginalization of Muslims have been allayed for now. But whether the opposition will do the job of reining in the government’s majoritarian tendencies remains to be seen. 

The bitter truth, however, is that even when it came to clear targeting of Muslims and lucid attempts to exclude them, Congress and many of its allies stuck to a broader logic of inclusivism without directly addressing the Muslim minority’s fears. While the BJP has been outright in its threatening of Muslims, the opposition has been quite reserved when it comes to standing up for them. In the Muslim housing ghettoes of Delhi, for example, no opposition members came to campaign. It was taken for granted that their vote would go to the opposition, both by the ruling coalition, who more or less relinquished the claim to minority vote with their anti-Muslim campaign, and by the INDIA bloc, who just assumed that the Muslims had no other option but to vote for them. While general promises of inclusivity were made, there was an active avoidance of making any promises directly to the Muslim community. Even assurances of security in the face of blatant attacks were never given to them. In his first press conference after the election results, the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi thanked the marginalized people for saving the constitution. He thanked the workers, farmers, Adivasis and Dalits and completely failed to mention the Muslims in this statement. This maintenance of a strategic one-arm distance by the ostensibly progressive wing of Indian politics should at least concern, if not worry, the Indian Muslims. 

The results of the 2024 elections bring hope. The threat of arbitrary constitutional changes has, for now, been averted. The democratic institutions, which seemed overwhelmed in front of the overawing and what until recently seemed like the uncontrollable power of the Modi regime, can now be expected to function more freely. The Judiciary, which essentially is the last layer of protection for the citizens from an overexcited state, can also breathe easier than it did in the last few years. It will be harder to steamroll or power bills through the parliament without discussion. Even within the government, the unquestionability that the Prime Minister and the Home Minister seemed to have for the last decade will most probably give way. Regional politics and smaller political parties will gain more relevance. 

All this should make the minorities more at ease than they were before. But for them, it would still be better to err on the side of caution. The last ten years have changed a lot in India and that too at the very fundamental levels. Mahapanchayats opposing the entry of Muslims into villages have been held. Police and administration have actively discriminated against them. The visual of a Railway Police officer going through the train compartments to identify and then shoot Muslim passengers to death should not be forgotten. Neither should we forget the incarceration of hundreds of Muslim activists. The demonization of the women of Shaheen Bagh and the brutalization of the students of Jamia Milia Islamia should also not be forgotten so easily. The celebration around the reduction of BJP to size and a partial failure of communal politics is as welcome as it is necessary. But one thing should be remembered. The liberals have only managed to reclaim Twitter for now. Reclaiming and detoxifying the streets and villages of India will be a long and arduous journey.

Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a  PhD scholar and Teaching assistant at Shiv Nadar University

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