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How Minorities Voted in the Indian General Election

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How Minorities Voted in the Indian General Election

Results show that Muslims and Christians largely consolidated behind the Congress and its allies.

How Minorities Voted in the Indian General Election
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 4, after the results of the Indian parliamentary elections were clear, Mayawati, who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that once ruled Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, blamed Muslims for her party’s poor electoral performance.

The “Muslim community has not been able to understand the BSP despite the party giving them adequate representation in the past several elections,” she said in a statement after her party failed to win a single seat in the general elections. She was especially hurt by the voter response her party received in Uttar Pradesh, which is home to India’s largest Muslim population.

Drawing lessons from this experience, Mayawati said her party would henceforth think twice before fielding Muslims in elections to avoid the repetition of such “a terrible loss.”

It is evident from the results in Uttar Pradesh that Muslims consolidated behind the Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance, picking them as the strongest contender to defeat candidates of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The Congress is India’s main opposition party and the SP is an Uttar Pradesh-based regional party. In the 2019 election, the BSP and SP were allies and won 10 and five seats, respectively. Contesting separately, Congress won only one seat.

In 2024, the SP won 33 and the Congress bagged four. The BSP, which contested separately, drew a blank.

In 2019, a split in Muslim votes helped the BJP win seats like Muzaffarnagar, Kairana, Meerut, Baghpat, and Aligarh, where Muslims form about or over one-fourth of the population, as the BJP managed to polarize Hindu votes in their favor.

In 2024, the Congress-SP alliance wrested Kairana and Muzaffarnagar from the BJP, while the BJP won Meerut and Aligarh by slim margins.

A similar shift in the northeastern state of Assam led to the rout of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which represents Muslim interests.

Across five parliamentary seats in Assam where Muslims constitute from one-third to two-thirds of the population, most of the AIUDF’s traditional votes shifted to the Congress, as the Muslims picked it as the best contender to take on the BJP.

Muslims in Assam face multiple challenges. The state is a hotbed of Islamophobia being spread by the BJP, which rules the state. Muslims have even faced terror charges for setting up a humble private museum on their identity.

However, a large number of Muslims thought the AIUDF’s religion-oriented politics were aiding the purpose of the Hindu nationalists, and that a secular force like the Congress was a better option.

Similarly, Christian votes consolidated behind the Congress in the southern state of Kerala as well as the small northeastern states of Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland.

This led senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who heads the Assam government, to allege that the BJP’s partners in northeastern states lost because “[i]n this election, in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur, a particular religion was openly against our government. They openly worked against the NDA.” Although he did not name the religion or mention the Christian church, he said that the “religion has a tremendous following in those states.”

Christians form the overwhelming majority in the tribal-dominated states of Meghalaya and Nagaland and are also the majority religion among tribal people in Manipur. The Congress wrested four seats from the BJP’s allies in Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Manipur.

“It is not a political defeat. We can’t fight a religion,” Sarma claimed.

“Usually, they [Christian missionaries] do not interfere in politics but this time, for whatever reason, they interfered. We did not get their votes in Assam either,” he added.

Why minority votes polarized against the BJP and its allies is anyone’s guess. The Hindu nationalists’ aggressive majoritarianism made minorities feel insecure, a fact widely reported – due to incidents ranging from cow vigilantism to the spread of Islamophobia and vandalism of churches in DelhiMaharashtra, and Chhattisgarh.

In India, the largest number of Christians live in the southern state of Kerala, where they form 18 percent of the population. Muslims constitute over 26 percent of the state’s population. Together, minorities make up nearly 45 percent of the state’s demography.

In a minority consolidation behind the Congress-led alliance in the state, the Congress and its allies bagged 18 of the state’s 20 parliamentary seats.

However, the BJP’s Christian outreach program in Kerala – banking on Christian-Muslim conflict in parts of the state – seemed to have yielded results, as a section of Christians likely voted for the BJP candidate in Thrissur, leading to his victory.

In the eastern state of Bihar, such polarization behind the Congress helped it retain the Kishanganj seat, where Muslims make up over 55 percent of the population, despite a formidable challenge from the All India Majlis Ittehad E Muslimeen (AIMIM), a party that represents Muslim interests. However, Muslims overwhelmingly backed a Hindu independent candidate in neighboring Purnia.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, where India’s second-highest number of Muslims live, their voting pattern changed from region to region.

In the northern and central part of the state, the three Muslim-majority districts of Murshidabad, Malda, and Uttar Dinajpur have been traditional Congress strongholds where the state’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), made inroads in recent years. With Muslim votes splitting between the Congress and the TMC – both champion secularism – the BJP was able to win two of the six parliamentary seats in these districts. Of the rest, the Congress won one and the TMC won three.

However, in the southern part of the state, where the Congress has been weak, Muslims consolidated behind the TMC, helping it win every seat in constituencies with more than 30 percent Muslim population, including Diamond Harbour, Krishnanagar, Birbhum, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, and Basirhat, with big margins.

In the union territory of Ladakh, where Muslims are the majority, followed by Buddhists, voters rejected the BJP. Modi’s party had won two consecutive terms from Ladakh, fielding Buddhist candidates, but this time a Muslim contesting as an independent won. Political observers, however, see  recent agitations, rather than communal polarization, playing a greater role in this victory.

While the election saw the presence of Hindu nationalists in Parliament reduce and those of the parties championing secularism increase, Muslim representation in Parliament has not improved much.

As pointed out in an April 2024 article in The Diplomat, Muslims do not receive a fair share of nominations from secular parties, a trend that continued this year as well.

While different parties had fielded 119 Muslim candidates in 2019, the number dropped to only 78 in 2024. Many parties feared Muslim candidates had less winnability due to the prevailing atmosphere of majority polarization.

Therefore, despite such Muslim consolidation behind secular parties, the Muslim representation in the current Parliament matches the lowest-ever strength – 24 in the 543-seat House. This is the same as in 2014 and two fewer than in 2019. This is less than 5 percent, whereas Muslims constitute over 14 percent of India’s population.

The new Parliament will have 10 Christian MPs: five from Kerala, two from Meghalaya, and one each from Manipur, Nagaland, and Mizoram. Christians make up about 2.3 percent of India’s population.

Among other religious minorities, the Sikhs, who live mostly in the northern state of Punjab, sent back the BJP empty-handed yet again.