UPA’s tunnel vision


Is there a light at the end for India’s Muslims?

Light is too powerful a concept; it suggests hope. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did promise Indian Muslims some solace at the end of a long and silent tunnel. That will probably be recorded as his biggest political mistake. When you raise expectations of a fragile community and then shatter them without remorse, each shard develops a poison edge.

Indian Muslims believe, with good reason, that it was their massive mobilisation in the 2004 general elections that made Dr Manmohan Singh the most unexpected prime minister in India’s electoral history. Those whose eyebrow has already risen may want to note a significant truth about Indian politics. It is expected that non-Congress PMs will be unexpected, which makes every surprise very unsurprising. But when Congress deviates from its well-established ground rules, we have a story.

It took three degrees of surprise to catapult Dr Singh into his present chair: He had to overcome one probability, one certainty and one possibility. First, the probable winner of the 2004 general elections, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, lost. Then, for reasons that still have not been made entirely transparent, his certain successor, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, stepped aside, leaving the Congress dazed and Opposition bemused. Finally, Mrs Gandhi discarded the claims of the senior-most

Congress leader, Pranab Mukherjee, and pushed Dr Singh, who would have been content with the finance ministry, forward. That sort of dream triple wins you the lottery of a lifetime. Dr Singh sent a thank you note to Muslims soon enough. It was called the Sachar Commission. Justice Rajinder Sachar shocked the establishment with his honesty. First, he delivered his report very quickly. He did not linger in order to enjoy the various benefits that came with the appointment, as so many of his peers have done: There are instances that are shocking beyond belief. The Sachar Commission’s report was an exercise in depth as well as profound and discerning empathy with its subject. It quickly became embedded within the Muslim political consciousness as a defining document. The Left Front never recovered from its revelation that Narendra Modi’s Gujarat had a far higher percentage of Muslims in government employment than Marxist Bengal. Sachar etched a portrait of a community left in neglect by those political parties it had trusted.

The Muslim response was dual: It spurred a momentum that had already been building up, motivating a thrust towards education as the only means to reach out towards economic opportunity. Simultaneously, Muslims began to demand reservations in government jobs to compensate for the gap that had built.

Self-help brought rewards. Education among Muslim girls, for instance, has multiplied at a geometrical pace. But the Congress Government which sired the Sachar Commission did nothing about its recommendations. Instead of job reservations, Muslims got the old and stale retinue of gimmicks. Come elections, and the promise of reservations went into the first paragraph of speeches. Once votes had been counted, this promise went into a dustbin.

The Muslim voter’s faith in Dr Singh did not wane easily; in fact it peaked in 2009. But a pinnacle, thanks to its height, offers clarity; illusions melt very quickly. When Congress continued to do nothing even after the substantial endorsement in 2009, Muslims began to slip away from the party, with devastating effect. The consequences of Congress’ demolition in UP are still playing out. Assam turned this slippage into a fall.

The politics of Assam is not simple. Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi wore his heart literally on his sleeve during visits to Muslim refugee camps when he chose to flaunt a Bodo scarf. Muslim reaction has also changed. Anger used to be diluted by fear, but fear has evaporated. SMS, and its more sinister cousin MMS, have eliminated the distance between Bodoland, Bangalore and Mumbai. Technology has also opened the market for mischief: Between the photoshopping and visual cropping, murder on the Indus can be easily distorted into death on the Brahmaputra. For our government, alas, the most volatile problem becomes an opportunity, not for a solution, but for another veil over misdeeds. Officials began to censor tweets critical of the prime minister, thereby managing to increase the intensity of criticism from all sides. Technology is community-neutral.

The collapse of hope in Congress has driven various Muslim communities into disparate political camps. Mulayam Singh Yadav was a major beneficiary, but the next question is more worrisome: Where do UP Muslims go if the Yadavs also disappoint? In Assam and Kerala, they have banded around exclusivist flags, which is bound to inspire a reaction, sooner rather than later. Desegregation divides communities with rivulets of suspicion. Instead of controlling this drift towards danger, the UPA Government has disappeared into its own tunnel of silence.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.