Kenneth Bo Nielsen, SUM, UiO
When one reads the English language Indian newspapers’ coverage of Indian elections, one often learns that the various political parties seek to ‘woo’ voters by offering them ‘sops’. This ‘wooing’, one gathers, usually forms part of a grander ‘vote bank politics’, where political leaders adopt particular rhetorical styles and make grandiose promises aimed at pleasing specific constituencies, usually defined by caste, religion or language. The term ‘vote bank’ was in fact coined by the Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas more than half a century ago. Srinivas referred to the intricate workings of the patron-client relations that linked political parties with local constituents, mediated by a (village) middle man. The political party, in casu the Congress, would align itself with local village leaders (usually influential landowners) who would then assist the party to ensure that the voters under his obligation would vote for the party when elections were held. He would achieve this by making various kinds of promises and by distributing favours and benefits among the electorate.
The term ‘vote bank’ has since crept into common parlance where it today, according to Ramachandra Guha, connotes ‘the more general tendency of individuals to vote in herds or groups, whether these herds or groups were defined in terms of caste, class, language or religion.’ For example, in UP the Chamars are widely considered as Mayawati’s vote bank, whereas the Yadavs are believed to side with Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Jats with Ajit Singh. On the other side of the state border, in Bihar, the Yadavs and the Muslims were, at least not long ago, believed to vote for Lalu Prasad, while SC Dusadh voters were loyal to Ram Vilas Paswan. And so on. While some commentators use the term descriptively, others use it in a somewhat derogatory sense. They see the common Indian voter as a kind of crossbreed between Homo Collectivus and Homo Hierarchicus: at heart motivated by group desires and loyal to the leader. Such creations of electoral democratic evolution in the tropics can supposedly be wooed (read ‘tempted’) by sops (read ‘bribes’). When minorities are the target of concerted ‘wooing’ they are said to be ‘pampered’, that is, ‘catered to excessively’. Incidentally, Muslims are widely perceived as constituting a vote bank in the sense that they are ostensibly more prone to voting en bloc.
The state of West Bengal presents us with an unfolding case of politicians ‘wooing the Muslims’. The competition for political power in the state has been particularly intense over the past five years or so. The two main combatants are the incumbent Trinamul Congress (TMC) in a shaky alliance with the Congress, and the Left Front (LF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The TMC rose to power in 2011 following a campaign where both the TMC and the LF had sought to woo Muslim voters, who make up around 26 percent of the electorate. As part of its campaign the LF proposed 10 percent reservations for Muslims in government employment and in government and government-aided colleges. In addition it significantly increased public spending on madrasa education and scholarships, allowances and hostel facilities for Muslim students. Most spectacularly, it raised the allocation to the state’s Minorities Development and Financial Corporation to INR 425 crore, up from INR 7 crore in 1998. That amounts to an increase of nearly 6,000 percent over a 12 year period. All these initiatives were clearly linked to the coming elections. As one reporter noted, the LF’s spending on ‘minority issues’ seemed to be inversely proportional to the decrease in its vote share!
Not to be outdone, the TMC targeted Muslim voters with equal dedication. Party leader Mamata Banerjee campaigned to increase the status of Urdu, and her fellow party members demanded higher salaries for imams and muezzins. And while she was Railway Minister from 2009 to 2011, Banerjee used the resources of that ministry (among critics widely seen as a patronage machine) to cater to the West Bengal electorate, and to Muslim aspirations in particular. Thus, over a seven months period in 2010 she inaugurated or laid foundation stones for no less than 120 railway projects in West Bengal, many of them in areas with a significant Muslim population.
In the event the majority of the Muslim voters voted for the TMC. But after the elections a certain dissatisfaction soon set in among the Muslims as they felt that ‘their’ new government did not act swiftly and resolutely enough to deliver on its electoral promises. Fortunately, the beauty of India’s democracy is that a new election is always just around the corner, thus offering the electorate ever new opportunities for rewarding or punishing its political leaders who, in turn, rarely get a break from their ‘wooing’. Presently the state is slowly readying itself for the coming panchayat elections, scheduled for 2013, and the perceived concerns of Muslim voters are once again high on the agenda. Thus, over the past few days and weeks Mamata Banerjee has spoken at length about what she will do next for the Muslim electorate if they remain with her. While doing so she has focused on issues of both identity and development. Addressing a programme recently organised by the West Bengal Minority Development and Finance Corporation in the district of North 24 Parganas, she said that: “The minorities constitute 30 to 31 per cent of the total population in West Bengal but they are not even aware of all the schemes and funds that the state and Central governments provide for their welfare. When our government came to power, we decided to open a separate Minority Bhavan in every district to help them in availing these schemes”. She added that a “comprehensive employment bank” would be set up to cater to the growing job needs of the youths belonging to the minority community. Moreover, this year her government would provide loans and stipends to 75,000 Muslim students, up from 52,000 in 2011. In all, the monetary support to the minorities department in the state budget had been increased by 76 percent in just one fiscal year.
On the issue of language and religion the Chief Minister reminded the audience that “It was our commitment that we will grant Urdu the second language status in districts where there are over 10 per cent Urdu-speaking population. The bill has already been passed and notification issued for this purpose.” She went on to proclaim that even though her government had “no money”, it had “the right intention to do something for the minorities. Hence we have decided to give recognition to 10,000 madrasas even if we are unable to provide grants to them,” she said. She had also announced a package for imams in the state, which included a monthly honorarium of INR 2,500, a housing scheme and stipends for their children.
There are still months to go before we will know what effect, if any, Mamata Banerjee’s promises will have on Muslim voters. But one thing we know for sure: there is no straightforward relationship between the ‘sops’ that politicians offer, and the votes they get. The LF learned this the hard way in 2011 when they, in spite of promising 10 percent reservations for Muslims in the state, saw many Muslims voters abandon the party. And just a couple of weeks ago the Congress in UP discovered this too. As part of its campaign to attract Muslims to the party it made an offer of 4.5 percent reservations for Muslims if they were voted to power. By all indications this offer had no effect. It may even have backfired as some voters dismissed it as an insulting last minute election gimmick – ‘a sop’. Voter preferences are dynamic and complex, and voters are not easily lured by ‘sops’ or ‘wooed’ by fancy words and tall promises. ‘Sops’ may ‘woo’, but so may other things. Indian voters are not bound in spirit to transactionalism, nor do they suffer from amnesia.
Oh, and by the way, Muslims do not, strictly speaking, constitute a vote bank. Politically speaking, there is no single unified Muslim community in West Bengal. Muslims do not vote en bloc; but all credit must go to them for having us – and the politicians – believe that they do!