ElectionWatch: NYT misinterprets UP's Muslim vote


Indian Muslim devotees offer prayers at The Washiullah Badi Masjid in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, on August 5, 2011, during the first Friday prayers of the Islamic month of Ramadan. A Muslim surge in favor of the Samajwadi Party spelled defeat for the Congress Party in recent state polls.



Blogging for the New York Times from Bangladesh, Dan Morrison argues that the ignoble defeat suffered by Rahul Gandhi and his Congress Party in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections came as the result of a decision to pander to the state's Muslims. That's true, kindof.

Morrison is spot on in agreeing, with local observers and party sources, that the Congress miscalculated in thinking that it could woo Muslim voters away from teh Samajwadi Party (SP) -- which has traditionally commanded their loyalty.  For one thing, voters appear to have (rightly) identified Gandhi as a temporary guest in the state on his way to bigger and better things in the federal government, while the SP's Akhilesh Yadav is a bonafide son of the soil with no place else to go.

But Morrison also implies (echoing an editorial in the Indian Express) that some new wave of post-caste politics is rising, and Gandhi and the Congress failed to catch it.

'Congress was tone-deaf, perhaps not having realized the electorate has changed,' he writes. Then goes on to quote the Express saying, '“Our voter is no longer confused,” an editorial in the Indian Express noted. “Nor is she a prisoner of narrow-focus prejudices and loyalties.”'

Far from it, I'd say. Cobbling together a constituency of various interest groups based on their caste and creed doesn't mean the end of identity politics, or anything close to it.  People are still voting on the basis of their identities. It's simply that the politicians who rose based on an affiliation to a particular caste or creed are now becoming more savvy about appealing to other groups and more successful in allying with their representatives.  

The SP's Yadav and his father, party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, are not Muslims themselves, after all.  For decades, they've built an on-again, off-again career at the helm of India's most populous state by wooing a combination of Muslims and the "other backward classes" or OBCs -- a group of underprivileged agrarian castes, including the Yadav clan.

Before them, Mayawati, UP's outgoing chief minister, built a coalition of upper caste Hindus and her core supporters among the Dalits (erstwhile untouchables), essentially by offering to represent them against the rising tide of the OBCs.

So, if anything, Gandhi's failure in UP wasn't due to pandering to the Muslims -- which the SP did as well. Put it down to pandering unconvincingly.