The proposal by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to allocate 15 per cent funds of development and welfare schemes exclusively for minorities has triggered nationwide resentment. In the interests of its own political survival, the Congress Party would do well to rethink its tendency to nurture communal vote banks as these are beginning to face the law of diminishing returns.
Most politicians have short memories. Hence it will be in order to briefly recall the 2004 Assembly election in Assam, where a new Muslim political party, the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), startled the nation with its performance. Muslims comprise 30 per cent of Assam's26 million population and play a decisive role in nearly 40 constituencies that have hitherto been traditionally won by Congress.
Floated by wealthy businessman Badruddin Ajmal, AUDF contested on a platform of safeguarding Muslim interests ?without closing the doors to other communities?. It had an electoral understanding with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and gave tickets to Hindus. It contested 66 of the 126 Assembly seats and won an impressive 10?a greater achievement than the four seats that heralded the arrival of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh in the early 1980s.
The Assam election is worth recalling because though Congress managed to form the government, Muslim religious leaders campaigning for AUDF revealed it was the first step in a long-term vision of establishing a pan-India Muslim political party. One has only to recall that the last Muslim pan-India formation was the Muslim League to envisage the possible consequences for the Republic. The comparison with the BSP is also apt, because like Ms. Mayawati, Muslim parties will also eat into the Congress vote share and further fragment the polity.
In fact, Muslim political assertion will impact upon all political parties prone to relying upon the community for a consolidated vote share. The CPM is already feeling the heat on this score in West Bengal; observers say events in Nandigram contained an unstated component of Muslim assertion for power within the hitherto bhadralok-dominated party. In this connection, it may be pertinent to recall that following Partition, the Muslim community voted en masse for the Congress party. After consolidating their separate identity, they united against the Congress in 1967 and brought the CPM to power. Nandigram is the beginning of the challenge to CPM hegemony in West Bengal. As the Hindu community looks for a new saviour, the BJP would do well do rebuild an independent identity in the State, and not latch on to the tails of the highly unreliable Mamata Banerjee.
Muslim leaders, both religious and political, are canny enough to recognise that the Muslim community will remain educationally and socially backward so long as it persists with the traditional system of education in the madrasa. It is true that this does not necessarily translate into economic backwardness, because Muslims largely hail from artisan and other professional groups that manage to make a comfortable living without formal education, as is true of similar Hindu caste groups. But it cannot be denied that this education tends to reinforce separateness and over-emphasise their religious identity.
The UPA has erred grievously in creating a separate Ministry for Minority Affairs. Since as many as 28 per cent of Indians live below the poverty line, there was no legitimate basis for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to state that Muslims have the first claim on resources, and to follow this up with the Eleventh Plan draft document setting aside 15 per cent of all developmental and welfare funds for minorities. It may be added that as in the debate over creamy layer in caste quotas, so also, the minority quota will not differentiate between needy and rich Muslims, and may thus end up cornered by families with political clout or physical muscle. This is already happening as banks have received instructions to grant loans first to Muslim applicants; banks will naturally ensure that the recipient of loans have some financial standing as that the loans can be repaid.
Hindus as a community will have to pay the price of this mindless pandering to the Muslim community. Sadly, among political parties, only the BJP has dared oppose these moves, with president Rajnath Singh warning that this will intensify communal competitiveness and strife. There is a legitimate fear that the UPA'sspecial 15-point programme for minorities in the Eleventh Plan draft paper may trigger competitive communal demands for budgetary allocations in all states. It can also lead to caste-based demands for resource allocation, thus destroying the traditional holistic approach to national development.
The BJP states roundly opposed ?communal budgeting? at the National Development Council meeting in December 2007. Fearing social strife, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi suggested that funds for various schemes and programmes be allocated solely on the basis of socio-economic criteria and execution entrusted to the States. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh insisted that rather than caste or religion, economic criteria alone determine allocation of funds for welfare schemes. As economic deprivation is a quantifiable and objective criteria, not prone to political manipulation, it would be worthwhile if political parties could sit across the table and opt for economic criteria over caste and community wherever there is a legitimate case for special reservations or allocations.
Fortunately, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes nipped one UPA mischief in the bud by refusing to endorse the May 15, 2007 recommendations of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities that Scheduled Caste status be extended to ?Dalit Christians? and ?Dalit Muslims?. NCSC chairman Buta Singh resisted the move by Justice Ranganath Mishra to amend the Constitution (SCs) Order, 1950, which restricted SC status to groups among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.
Shri Buta Singh candidly asserted that the basic parameter for recognition as Scheduled Caste was ?untouchability?, which does not exist in the theology of Christianity and Islam. Thus, the UPA will not be able to poach upon the constitutional benefits for Hindu SCs and extend them to Christian and Muslim converts. It is well known that the recent violence in Kandhamal, Orissa, was caused by a perverse attempt by converted groups to grab Scheduled Tribe quotas by forcing the administration to give them ST certificates to which they are not legally entitled.
(The writer is a senior journalist and can be contacted at [email protected])