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Changing Pattern of Voting Among Muslims in US, Bihar

Muslims are increasingly disillusioned by secular and left politicians. Islamophobia was on the rise even before Trump became President and 37% of American Muslims, pre-Covid pandemic, were found hovering near the poverty line. There is much discontent. I think just as 17-25% American Muslims voted for Trump rejecting the centrist politics of Democrats – many Muslims in Bihar too are frustrated by the failure of secular parties to improve their material condition. The region of Bihar where Owaisi’s party won five seats is the poorest and infrastructurally the least developed area of the state. Voting for secular parties for decades did not help them much. They have been voting without hope. They too are tired of the lip service.

Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan*

Recent national elections in the U.S. and regional elections in India have presented an interesting conundrum. The numbers show that some Muslims, are voting in a counter-intuitive fashion. Given the rise of Islamophobia and right-wing religious nationalism, both in the U.S. and in India, one would surmise that Muslims would vote overwhelmingly to the left of center. But both, in India and in the U.S., many Muslims have however chosen to send a message to the center-left – your sympathetic rhetoric and your verbal condemnations of Islamophobia is not enough, we want to see concrete policies that improve our political and economic conditions. Neither the promises of Joe Biden, nor the fear of Hindu-nationalism is influencing their vote. These Muslims are, for sure, in a minority albeit a growing one. Politicians on the center-left may ignore them at their own peril.

In the U.S.

In the U.S., President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign outreach to Muslims went far beyond that of any presidential candidate in the past. Biden’s campaign had a manifesto for American Muslims and a designated outreach person. Biden spoke at Muslim conventions and even quoted from Islamic scripture. He dropped an “inshallah” in the debates. Biden promised to end the so called ‘Muslim-Ban’ on day one and has repeatedly condemned Islamophobia. Biden spoke up for Uyghur Muslims in China and Kashmiris in India and has opposed the annexation of West Bank. He has promised to resume relations with the Palestinians and restore aid to them. Even Imran Khan, the PM of Pakistan, a self-proclaimed champion of Muslims, does not have such an impressive pro-Muslim curriculum vitae, he has repeatedly refused to speak up for the Uyghurs.

While a majority of American Muslims campaigned very aggressively for the Biden-Harris ticket and raised millions of dollars for the Democrats, the exit polls indicate that only 69% of American Muslims voted for them. On the face value that is a huge win, but if you look at in comparison to the past it is troubling. Despite the fact that Biden went far beyond any other candidate in his outreach to Muslims, and the Islamophobia of President Trump is well documented, Biden has garnered the least percentage of votes by a Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections according to exit polls conducted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.

 A possible explanation for this relatively weak performance is that, for some Muslims his “iron-clad” support for Israel and his willingness to work with pro-Hindutva operatives in the U.S., make his opposition to Islamophobia sound less credible.  Words are not enough. If his electoral promises do not actually translate into actual policies, one can expect further decline in Muslim support for Democrats. American Muslims are a rapidly growing and politically engaged community that is over-represented in swing states.

A closer reading of the exit polls suggest that things are worse than they seem. The exit polls show that while 17% American Muslims voted for Trump (up from 13% in 2016), 11% declined to reveal who they voted for. It is possible that they lean heavily towards Trump, hence the secrecy. That would mean that in spite of all his Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump may have doubled his support among American Muslims. One Trump supporter told me he voted for Trump because Trump did not invade a single Muslim country in four years unlike Biden who supported the invasion of Iraq. 

Year     Candidate       Muslim Vote

2008    Barack Obama 88%

2012    Barack Obama 85%

2016    Hillary Clinton 74%

2020    Joe Biden        69%

In Bihar

The recent elections in Bihar has an interesting story to tell. The state is clearly polarizing as most gains have been made by parties on the extremities. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning 53 wins in the 2015 elections to winning 74 of the 243 seats in 2020. A significant swing in favor of Hindutva ideology. The Communist Party (CPI-ML) gained 9 seats, it had 3 seats in 2015 to 12 seats in 2020. The communist parties combined had a 400% increase, they went from 4 to 16 seats. The parties in decline are the so-called secular centrist parties. The Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is the biggest single party in the state lost five seats (80-75) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the grand old party of India, also lost ground (27-19).

Clearly the secular center is shrinking. The biggest surprise of the elections was the performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All Indian Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim party, which in the past five years has gone from 0-5 seats. The Majlis won in predominantly Muslim area of Seemanchal and is being accused by commentators of stealing the secular vote away from secular parties. Some are describing Majlis as BJP’s B-Team.

It is interesting that now in Indian politics, the code for Muslim vote is ‘the secular vote’. Indian Muslims are now the last line of defense for the rather rapidly shriveling secular space. The criticism of Owaisi and the Majlis for denting the prospects of secular parties in Bihar is both misplaced and inaccurate.  The question that is important is not why Owaisi’s Majlis, a party historically based in Hyderabad (South India) is contesting elections so far in the North of India. The key question is why are Muslims in Bihar voting for Majlis? A party that has no record of governance in their region.

In a speech months before the elections, Owaisi predicted a tectonic shift in Seemanchal’s politics and he said that it was coming because of the profound injustices and inequities that plague Muslims of that region. If secular parties that have governed the state for decades had delivered good governance to Muslims, Owaisi would have stayed at home.

Muslim Disillusionment

Muslims are increasingly disillusioned by secular and left politicians. Islamophobia was on the rise even before Trump became President and 37% of American Muslims, pre-Covid pandemic, were found hovering near the poverty line. There is much discontent. I think just as 17-25% American Muslims voted for Trump rejecting the centrist politics of Democrats – many Muslims in Bihar too are frustrated by the failure of secular parties to improve their material condition. The region of Bihar where Owaisi’s party won five seats is the poorest and infrastructurally the least developed area of the state. Voting for secular parties for decades did not help them much. They have been voting without hope. They too are tired of the lip service.

Muslims of Bihar are fortunate that they have an alternative in Majlis and they are able to reject both Indian secularists and Hindu nationalists unlike some American Muslims who feel that they are stuck between Republicans who are Islamophobic and Democrats who promise much but deliver little. The minority of Muslims who appear to be voting counter intuitively, seemingly against their own interests, either for Donald Trump in the U.S. or the Majlis in Bihar, are clearly sending a signal to secular politicians – do not take our vote for granted, you need to earn our vote.

The center-left may be a natural ally of Muslims, but if it does not deliver for Muslims, they may lose their vote in ever increasing numbers.

(Credit: Modern Diplomacy)

*Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor of Islam and Global Affairs in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, USA. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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