Congress Party and Muslims

Congress Party was founded in 1885. From an elite organisation set up largely to discuss issues and concerns ‘natives’ with the rulers, in the early part of the twentieth century it evolved into a mass organisation seeking  independence from those rulers, and articulating the views of all sections of the society. Here we examine the relationship of the party with one significant section of the society, viz Muslims.

The relationship of the Congress Party with Muslims can be divided into three distinct phases. The first attempt at co-opting them in the emerging mass movement started with the Party’s support for the Khilafat movement. This first phase can be called the Engagement Phase and can be said to have lasted until Independence.

Post Independence the needs of the party changed. This phase marked the attempt by the party to identify a particular role for them. The phase can be termed the Identity Phase and started to become weak in the late 1970s and finally died out in the 90s. The third phase can be said to be the Vote Bank phase. Although their value as a vote bank can be said to have started in the latter part of the Identification phase, crystallisation of their true value in this sense for Congress Party started only after the BJP came to power.

Pre-independence Phase: This phase marked the entry and participation of Muslims in the Congress Party’s programs.  The party had four presidents who were Muslims until 1920, but little evidence of mass participation in its affairs by that community. Congress joined the Khilafat movement in 1920 and in 1921, Hakim Ajmal Khan, one of the founders of the Khilafat Committee was elected as its fifth Muslim President. Two years later Maulana Mohammed Ali was elected as President.

Many chroniclers identify Congress’ participation in Khilafat movement had two consequences: a) Estrangement of Jinnah and b) Muslim involvement in mass politics led by Congress.  This initiative initiated the involvement of common Muslims in mainstream political action for the first time after the traumatic post-1857 experiences.  Jinnah’s move to the UK and re-entry transformed as a crusader for Pakistan is too well known.  The cause chosen, however, had nothing to do with the immediate concerns of Indian Muslims.  Specific issues of the community, in particular that of the poorer Muslims were not taken up by the party. This could be understandable as the priority for the party then was to gain independence.

Post Independence Phase:  In the first two decades following independence, Congress was practically the only national political force. It emerged as a broad coalition articulating the needs of all sections of the society. In that sense it never had the problem of having to protect its constituency. Congress’ dealings towards Muslims to a large extent were shaped by the Pakistan factor.

Significant sections of the party were not reconciled to partition. This prompted a desire to show Pakistan and by extension to the world, that Muslims were comfortable in India and that the two nation theory was flawed. Being a symbolic initiative, disproportionate effort was put in the superficial aspects – religious symbols, language, literature, and pop culture.  Parsing identities (as other minorities have done) and integrating themselves with the national mainstream would have helped the Muslims economically and socially.

But this would have impacted the story vis-à-vis Pakistan. India would have had to face nitpickings from Pakistan that Muslims left in India had to compromise their identity to remain there.  So rather than encourage them to parse their identity in terms of religion, culture, language, nation and engage with the others, the party preferred to showcase their separate identity for its own project.

For the elite it might not have mattered much, but poorer Muslims had to compromise a lot sociologically and economically for this effort of showmanship.  Secularism as defined by Congress and clarified by the liberal elite provided the intellectual garb for this exercise.

In this phase although the Muslims voted for Congress, it was not dependent on them electorally. Since there was no real competitive political force, other interest groups including those representing majority interests were part of the Congress big tent. These interests served as a brake and restrained the party in the ‘secularisation’ exercise.

Their limited electoral dependence on the Muslims too provided no incentive for the party to move beyond these token gestures.  Progressively the party internalised this so much that their version of Secularism became an ideology, and sought to consecrate it in the constitution in 1976. All through, the party took care to keep the definition of secularism fuzzy.  Later when the 42nd / 44th amendments were being repealed, the party ensured that the term ‘secular’ was not defined explicitly.

The third Phase commenced with loss of power in 1989. Impetus for this started in 1967 when the party lost ground for the first time, but extraneous events ensured that the party bounced back in 1971-72, 1980, and 1984. On the ground however it steadily lost support. Significant chunks of social coalitions went out of its umbrella. From 1996, it was evident that even Muslims were going out its fold in major parts of the country.

With the emergence of the BJP as a potential ruling party the Muslims especially in the North opted for tactical voting to ensure BJP’s defeat by voting for whichever party had the potential to do so.

Ironically while this impacted BJP’s prospects, it significantly reduced the ‘power’ of their vote – any party that is capable of defeating the BJP tended be sure of the community’s support, thus incentivising them to take the community for granted. Sensing this, Congress started seeing them as a force capable of providing it with power and sustaining its grip on the same. To do this it has to – a) ‘outbid’ and defeat competing political parties, and b) project itself to be a party capable of winning the seat and hence power.  Congress has started wooing them therefore with specific targeted offers.

In its dealings with Muslims, from merely co-opting to micro targeting benefits, Congress has come a long way.

One common element in each of the phases has been to stress the differences the community has with other components of the society. By extension one wonders if Congress really wanted Muslims to integrate with the national ethos. It suited them politically to keep them apart. It might be argued that for a minority, integrating to the extent possible (without necessarily compromising on what could be their defined core interests) with the majority community will be an expected route. That would also help them gain the benefits of a growing economy.

Indeed other minorities in the inherently multicultural India have done this. However Congress’ engagement with the Muslim community is characterised by its efforts to preserve, stress, and underline the differences although for different reasons from time to time.  Consequently the party has benefited from them for these multiple purposes. How this has benefitted the Muslims will be a separate question!

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