Published On:04 February 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Rahul Gandhi's Shah Bano moment in UP

By Minhaz Merchant

Uttar Pradesh will determine the trajectory of Rahul Gandhi’s political future. Anything less than 80 assembly seats in a state where Rahul has invested so much personal political capital could disrupt the carefully choreographed dynastic succession in the Congress ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha poll. The party’s vacillation over Salman Rushdie’s visit to Jaipur and Priyanka Gandhi’s decision to campaign for Rahul show how seriously the Congress takes the UP elections.

Taken together, the 4.5% minorities quota, the 9% sub-quota for backward Muslims, the pre-poll alliance with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the appalling corruption in Mayawati’s BSP government and the overall lack of development in the state are anti-incumbency force multipliers. They could hand the Congress enough MLAs to support a Samajwadi Party (SP) government in UP in return for support for the UPA at the Centre. This would reduce the government’s dependence on Mamata Banerjee’s 19 TMC MPs.

Armed with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s 22 Lok Sabha MPs, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could restart economic reforms after the Budget in March. First on the list: FDI in multi-brand retail and the land acquisition, pensions and food security bills – all of which Mamata fiercely opposes. By the time the 2014 Lok Sabha poll rolls along, a born-again reformist UPA-2, with a (weak) Lokpal finally in place and corruption cases off the front pages, would once again present itself to voters as the party of inclusive growth, secularism and economic reform.

Like all well-laid plans this too could come unstuck. History is a good reference point. In 1985, the Supreme Court directed Mohammad Ahmed Khan to pay Shah Bano, a penurious 69-year-old whom he had divorced after 43 years of marriage, Rs. 500 a month as maintenance. The Supreme Court verdict, under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, was widely hailed as a triumph of justice in secular India. Only the outraged Muslim clergy and its obscurantist followers condemned the Supreme Court’s “interference” in Muslim personal law.

What happened next was deeply regressive. In order to appease Muslim electoral sentiment, the Rajiv Gandhi government used its 404-seat majority in the Lok Sabha to nullify the Supreme Court’s verdict by passing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The legislation set aside the rights of divorced Muslim women to receive maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC.

With hindsight, the Shah Bano episode was the single biggest error of judgement Rajiv Gandhi made in his first two years as prime minister apart from Bofors. Muslims were traditional Congress voters and the legislation against Shah Bano was designed to consolidate that vote. Instead, three years later, the Congress suffered one of the biggest electoral defeats in its history, plunging from 404 Lok Sabha seats to 197 seats in the 1989 general election. The Congress has not won a majority in parliament since.

The lesson? Short-term strategic gain (in UP in 2012) can lead to long-term electoral pain (in 2014). “Quota politics” could well help the Congress win back the minority vote it has, over two decades, lost to the SP and the BSP: Muslim votes can still swing a seat in 120 out of UP’s 403 constituencies. The strong anti-incumbency factor due to Mayawati’s misgovernance could also erode the BSP’s voteshare from 30.45% in 2007 to around 25% next month.

Whatever the outcome in UP, the larger battle of 2014 might be lost by the Congress in the same manner the battle of 1989 was lost. Ominously, the two issues that sunk the Congress in 1989 were corruption (Bofors) and minorityism (Shah Bano). The former led to the departure of Rajiv’s most trusted friend and minister of state for defence Arun Singh. The latter cost Rajiv one of his cabinet’s most enlightened and genuinely secular ministers, Arif Mohammad Khan, who strongly opposed the government’s legislation to overturn the Supreme Court’s verdict on Shah Bano.

An uncomfortable question trails the Congress. After being in government at the Centre for over 52 years since independence (and for 42 years in UP), why are Muslims poorer and more backward than even SC/STs on most social and economic parameters? The 2006 Rajinder Sachar Committee report concluded that minority tokenism has harmed rather than helped Muslims. It has kept the Congress in power but Muslims in poverty.

The other principal culprit is the Muslim clergy which seeks control over its flock, not its upliftment. As the Sachar Committee pointed out, Muslims remain marginalised. The result: a vast majority of desperately poor Muslims fear voting for any other party but the “secular” Congress and (in UP) the SP – though it is their governance over decades which has imprisoned them socially and economically.

(Courtesy: The Economic Times)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on February 04, 2012. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

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