The real problem for the non-BJP parties is not how all Muslims vote but how some of them vote. Even if 20 per cent of them vote for the BJP, it could get 220-230 seats in 2014…
Four and a half months ago, the Janata Dal (United) broke with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And recently, 14 non-Congress parties shared a platform to show just how much they were against Narendra Modi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP. At stake are two things. One is for the short term, namely, the Muslim vote. The other is long-term, comprising two diametrically opposed belief systems.
These belief systems pertain to how India should define itself. Should it, like so many countries where Muslims are an overwhelming majority, define itself chiefly through its religion? Or not? The RSS says yes. The others say no.
Paradoxically, the key to this problem lies not in the hands of the majority Hindus, who lose nothing by the RSS view, but in the hands of minority Muslims who stand to lose a lot. So do other minorities, at least one of which has been a steadfast ally of the RSS-BJP combine. The voting problem is that if enough Muslims vote against their long-term interests for the BJP, the RSS could have its way. Will that happen?
There are three key questions that require unemotional answers. First, given that in the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections many Muslims voted for the BJP, where is the evidence that the non-Gujarat Muslims will vote against Modi in 2014? There is none so far, because he has not been tested outside Gujarat yet. There is, however, a very high probability that a sufficiently large number of non-Gujarati Muslims will vote against the BJP, that is, differently from the Gujarati Muslims. But as long as this probability is not 1, which means all non-Gujarati Muslims will vote against the BJP, it can hope to get at least some Muslim votes.
Second, all the evidence shows that Muslims, like everyone else, vote rationally and unemotionally for their best interests as they see it. This, unfortunately, includes voting out of fear, which may be bad but is nevertheless rational. So the real problem for the non-BJP parties is not how all Muslims vote but how some of them vote. Even if 20 per cent of them vote for the BJP, it could get 220-230 seats in 2014. Third, very importantly, the secular-liberal opinion which is more concerned about the long term is pretty worthless to a vast majority of Muslims who may well put immediate gains ahead of deeper concerns about the nature of Indian society. The development argument would appeal to them as much as it does to any other voter.
That said, in the end it will all boil down to adding up the individual preferences of Muslim voters. Mathematicians, logicians and economists have grappled with this aggregation problem for a long time. They have come up with many answers, all of which have a common element: the distribution of the individual preferences over the population which takes into account the voter diversity within otherwise homogeneous groups. This distribution is a measure of how many of each type of voters (or consumers) there are. This is important because most Indian liberals tend to assume that there is only one type of Muslim in India, the anti-BJP/RSS one.
They then assume not only that all Muslims will vote in the same way, but also differently from Hindus. But there is no evidence for this either. The BJP, meanwhile, thinks that it will win 180 or so seats without the Muslim vote. With some of the Muslim vote, it thinks it can cross 200. With around 20 per cent of this vote, it thinks it can cross 250. There are, by and large, two major criteria on which the entire electorate votes – economic security and physical security. Both are important to all voters but the latter may be more important to some Muslim voters. So the non-BJP parties are harping on this aspect while the BJP is saying that it will give both to everyone. The others are saying that only the Hindus will get both while the Muslims get neither. This is what polarisation is.
Now, clearly, a lot of Hindus are likely to vote for the BJP. But how the Muslims vote will depend on how they view the following three things. First, the record of the non-BJP parties in regard to economic and life security. Second, the strength of perception that is being fostered that Narendra Modi will be to the Muslims what Hitler was to the Jews. And third, in direct opposition to this, is the experience of Gujarat’s Muslims since 2002 – security and economic opportunity.
This is where the distribution of Muslim voting preferences becomes crucial. All that Mr Modi needs to do is to convince around 20 per cent of the Muslim voters in about a third of the 60-odd constituencies where the Muslim vote is decisive. In effect, this means a very small number of voters hold the key to the next election.
– BS: How a small number of Muslim voters could be the deciding factor