General elections are around the corner and the so-called secular parties are trying to keep their vote banks intact by playing it around the much discussed concept of secularism. Several parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have already played their tricks in the poll season to woo the Muslim community especially in North India, a region, where Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is considered to have a significant influence. It’s not for the first time that they have played the Muslim card in order to meet the demands of their parochial politics. Prior to every election, the nation has often witnessed such political stunts when issues related to caste and religion is being brought into play mainly to woo a particular section of the society. Usually, it has been seen that Muslims become the focal point of religion-based politics, which is nothing but an attempt to trigger the fear of communalism in their minds. Their sentiments are often stirred by digging the skeletons of hyper-sensitive issues like Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and Gujarat massacre in 2002. By touching these controversial subjects, the political parties make their intent of going to any extent to gain their support. The same thing is happening this time as well. There is no dearth of such political parties, be in power or in Opposition, which encash on to the ‘politics of secularism’ by including Muslims in their series of strategies. The political corpus of Mulayam Singh Yadav-led SP, which wields considerable influence in Uttar Pradesh, is based on Muslim-Yadav equation. On the other hand, BSP, which is led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, banks on Dalit-Muslim equation in order to climb up their political ladders. Something similar can be seen being brandished by Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal as well.

The political fulcrum of Congress has been moving around Muslims right from the beginning. This time, party president Sonia Gandhi went to such an extent that not only did she meet Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Sayed Ahmed Bukhari, an influential Muslim leader but also made him appeal his community to cast their votes in the favour of Congress. Only time would tell that if this appeal will derive dividends for Congress but this has, for sure, given the BJP another opportunity to train their guns, which charged the nation’s oldest party with indulging in communal politics in the name of secularism. Congress’ attempt also raises eyebrows mainly since Sayed Ahmed Bukhari’s stature as a religious leader is not considered so profound that the Muslim community will cast their vote on the basis of his appeal. It won’t be strange if in the coming days; more religious leaders or institutions may appeal Muslim community to cast their votes in favour of Congress and other parties. This could be seen as nothing but an attempt by them to prevent division of so-called secular votes. They may also create a fear-psychosis among the Muslims that if BJP comes to power at the Centre, their needs and necessities could be overlooked. In fact, in order to woo the Muslim community, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government tried to get the Communal Violence Bill passed in the last session of Parliament. However, due to stiff opposition by the BJP and other parties, this bill did not see light of the day. The bill is, however, included in the Congress’ agenda.

The politics of vote-bank has reached that ebb where all the so-called secular parties are competing with each other to woo the Muslim community. One of the major factors behind this is the gradual change in the mindset of a section of Muslims towards BJP. The party has been able to send a positive message to a sizeable section of Muslim community, mainly those belonging to elite strata ever since one of the most respected journalists MJ Akbar joined BJP. It’s a different matter that the party, looking to develop affinity to the Muslim community welcomed expelled JD (U) leader Sabir Ali into its fold which resulted in its embarrassment. Ali’s inclusion was vehemently opposed by the senior leaders in the party, mainly its vice-president and prominent Muslim face Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, which eventually prompted the high command to terminate the ex-JD (U) leader’s membership. However, the issue did serve a body blow to the saffron party’s credibility. BJP’s concern towards strengthening its foothold among Muslims in understandable as by maintaining a distance from the community, which comprises close to 20 percent of the nation’s overall populations, it can’t emerge as a major force to reckon with in the national political horizon. It’s mainly in this particular context which made the BJP president Rajnath Singh is ready to ‘apologize’ to the community for all the hits and misses which took place in the past. The party has stressed on building a reinforced India this time and the vision can be executed only when it would receive whole-hearted support of every section and community.

Undoubtedly, the 16th Lok Sabha elections are quite important for Muslims and for other communities as well. They will have to look into the other side of the picture and introspect what those parties, which raise hue and cry over communalism prior to elections have actually done for them. There could be some genuine problems of Muslim community but it’s also true that no one but the community itself is responsible for all their grievances. Since Muslims get easily swayed away by the allures of so-called secular parties, that’s why the ill-tradition of the community being ‘exploited’ for political gains is not seeing any end. The incidents of communal violence can’t be a determinant to secularism or communalism. Neither politicians nor political parties are in a position to claim that no incident of communal violence took place during their regime.

The Election Commission is repeatedly appealing the voters to exercise their franchise rising above caste, creed, community, religion and region. It’s not known that to what extent this appeal would have its impact on the voters but one more fact, which can’t be ignored, that casting votes on caste and religion lines is nothing but to malign the very image of our democracy. The irony is that national political parties adopt the tactics of regional parties during elections and bring issues associated with caste and religion into application. The parties have been successful in benefiting from this particular brand of politics mainly since a large section of the country’s populations residing in small towns and villages have drawn their ideologies on religious and caste-based grounds. The parties as well as leaders are well aware of this very fact and never shy away from ‘harnessing’ it in order to derive political mileage. The nation’s politics is yet trapped in the narrowly defined alleys of caste, religion and region and it’s indeed a matter of shock as well as concern, especially at a time, when it’s being said that this is one of the major factors behind India faring consistently poorly when it comes to development.  There is no place for division of religion and castes in development. The nation needs a strong government at Centre after the general elections, which can keep the self-centered and short-lived politics at bay and include agenda and far-reaching vision of development in its functioning.

(An original copy of the article published in Hindi on April 06, 2014 translated by the English editorial. The author is the Group Editor of Dainik Jagran)