After Narendra Modi was sworn in for the third time as prime minister and his oversized cabinet of 71 members assembled for its first cabinet meeting at his residence, it was clear that he had taken care to include people of disadvantaged castes, tribes, minority religions and women in his cabinet.

There were seven women ministers, 10 Dalits, 27 of Other Backward Classes, and five of religious minorities. Although no Sikhs had been elected to the Lok Sabha from the parties in the ruling National Development Alliance, Ravneet Singh Bittu who had lost his bid to enter the Lok Sabha, and Hardeep Puri from the Rajya Sabha were included as Sikh ministers. Likewise, George Kurien who had not even contested the 2024 election was inducted from the Christian community.

Only one major minority that was conspicuously excluded from the cabinet. This was of Muslims.

A significant marker of democratic citizenship is political representation. All political parties together in 2014 had nominated 320 Muslim candidates. These numbers have plunged dramatically to a historic low of 94 in 2024. The numbers of people of Muslim identity nominated by even parties that were not the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2024 national elections were the lowest since India became a republic.

The success of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh juggernaut driven by Modi is not just that the BJP has ensured virtually no representation of Muslims in Parliament and state legislatures. Its even greater triumph is that parties across the spectrum of the political Opposition – including the Congress – that claim fidelity to India’s secular democratic Constitution are balking at choosing Muslims as candidates to fight elections outside Jammu and Kashmir and a few other constituencies of high Muslim concentration. This is the triumph of the political project of Hindutva and it is enabled by the supine surrender to the political agenda of the BJP-Sangh by the non-BJP Opposition.

The Congress in 2024 did not nominate a single Muslim candidate in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat. Indeed, the major opposition parties – the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nationalist Congress Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) together fielded only 43 Muslim candidates to fight the 2024 elections. This is a sharp fall from the already shrunken tally of 115 Muslim candidates in the 2019 national elections.

The Narendra Modi-led cabinet of ministers. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

The Congress fielded a total of only 19 Muslim candidates across the country for the 2024 elections, down from 27 Muslim candidates that it fielded in 2019 and 31 in 2014. Six of these were in West Bengal (down from 10 in 2019); only two each in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Andhra Pradesh and one each in Karnataka, Odisha, Kerala, Telangana and Lakshadweep.

The Samajwadi Party, with which the Congress was in alliance in Uttar Pradesh, nominated just four Muslim candidates, even though the alliance was critically dependent on Muslim votes. The Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, which also relies greatly on Muslim votes, fielded only two Muslim candidates in 2024, down from five in 2019 and six in 2014. The Trinamool Congress, again a party that widely solicits Muslim votes, nominated just six Muslims in 2024. By contrast, the much smaller Communist Party of India (Marxist) fielded 10 Muslims in total: five in Bengal, four in Kerala and one in Telangana.

Political scientist and historian at Ashoka University Ali Khan Mahmudabad is right when he declares starkly that India has gone from being a country where Muslims were largely marginalised to one where they are “actively excluded”.

The silver lining is that both Muslim candidates and the general voter fought back this collective political exclusion of Muslims. Although the number of Muslim candidates nominated by various political parties plunged to a historic low in 2024, the number of Muslim candidates elected, at 24, is almost the same as in the last two general elections. This powerfully dismantles the defence offered by non-BJP parties: they claim they nominate less Muslims not because they discriminate against Muslims, but only because they are guided by the “winnability” factor.

In other words, Muslims are not given party tickets to fight elections because they are less likely to win. But the performance of Muslim candidates in 2024 belies this, because the “success strike-rate” – the ratio of successful candidates to nominated candidates – is significantly higher in 2024 for Muslim candidates compared to those of non-Muslim identities.

There is bitter irony that in this national election marked by the greatest active exclusion from political representation across the political class of Indian Muslims, Indian Muslims abruptly found themselves thrust centre-stage midway in the political discourse in this fiercely contested electoral battle.

The Muslim question was pitched high during the election campaign – not to call out the unrelenting hate and violence to which they were subject over the last decade. Not to reverse their quickening political erasure. Not to advance their constitutional rights as citizens.

Muslims became a centrepiece of the elections with only one aim: to stoke further the already smouldering social fires of fear and hate against Muslims. Two motifs of Indian social and political life dominated the stewardship of India for 10 years by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These were hate speech and hate violence. Hateful speech targeting Indian Muslims included even chilling calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing. Mob lynching and hate attacks amid allegations of cow slaughter and love jihad became commonplace.

Indian Muslims became public subjects of hate and fear in the searing midsummer elections of 2024 through a succession of speeches by Modi. Barely a day passed without Modi or his senior colleagues stigmatising Indian Muslims with openly hateful speech. They were pilloried as infiltrators, disloyal, love jihadis, vote jihadis and a community that breeds large families in a conspiracy to one day outnumber the Hindu majority.

His odium to Muslims was matched by hateful utterances of his senior party colleagues. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Adityanath, for instance, routinely characterised Muslims as “terrorists”, “criminals” and the “mafia” and Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam promised to put an end to “this business of marrying four times” and shut down “shops that produce mullas” – pejoratively alluding to madrasas.

Credit: AFP.

Modi also did not tire of accusing the largest opposition party, the Congress, of conspiring to steal wealth from Hindus including their savings, jewellery and even more bizarrely their buffaloes, so as to redistribute these to Muslims and claimed their willingness to even dance the “mujra” for their favourite “vote-bank”.

India’s 2024 national elections will indeed be remembered for the conspicuous silences about any of this, even by opposition parties – except to some extent the Left. Opposition leaders would speak of unemployment, inflation, attacks on women, crony capitalism, oligarchy, corruption, demonetisation, incursions by China and the criminalising of dissent – everything, except the Muslim question.

The Congress manifesto, Modi claimed, reeked of the Muslim League responsible for India’s Partition. This was especially mystifying because the word Muslim never appears once in the Congress manifesto, nor was there any promise in it of redistribution from Hindus to allay the impoverishment of India’s Muslims. Not just the Congress party but almost the entire political opposition were notably silent on political platforms and in their manifestos about defending the constitutional rights of Muslim citizens.

The acrid irony that I spoke of earlier is that Muslims were suddenly dragged into the electoral arc lights in an election in which the BJP but also almost every political party went further than in the past to significantly actively exclude, even erase Muslims from political representation, that.

A hard truth of Indian political life is that Muslims have never been represented in the Lok Sabha in proportion to their share in the population. From the time of India’s first national elections in 1952, an average of 6% members of the Lok Sabha have been Muslim.

Political scientist Hilal Ahmed observes that in earlier decades non-BJP governments tried to compensate for this by nominating more people of Muslim identity to the Rajya Sabha, to which elections are indirect by elected Members of Parliament and state assemblies. As a result, their average share in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha has been higher, at 10.5%.

The share of Muslims in both houses of Parliament taken together, and in the state legislatures, has steadily declined further especially after the mid-1980s, when the movement for building a Ram Temple at the site of the medieval Babri Masjid gathered strength and stridency. Muslims in the mid-1980s were 11% of India’s population and had 9% of seats in parliament – aided by larger numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Their numbers shrunk over time to 29 Muslim MPs in 1998, 32 in 1999, 36 in 2004 and 30 in 2009.

But the decline of Muslim representation in Parliament and state assemblies sank to new lows in 2014 and 2019. If Muslims were represented proportionate to their share in the population which was around 14% in 2014, they should have had around 75 representatives in a total of 543 in the Lok Sabha. But their numbers were just 23 in 2014 with a marginal rise to 25 in 2019.

After the 2019 national elections, when Muslims were at least 14% of the population, they held less than 5% of the seats in Lok Sabha. In 28 state assemblies taken together, they were elected to only 6% of the seats. In the 18th Lok Sabha, their numbers are only 24.

Declining Muslim representation in elected houses of Parliament and state assemblies is closely linked to the political rise of the BJP. Before the rise and rise of Modi in the Indian political firmament, conventional political pragmatism compelled even the BJP to tone down the stridency of its anti-Muslim rhetoric in national politics. Political scientists were widely convinced that a political party could not win political power on its own on an openly anti-Muslim platform. After all, Muslims lived in significant numbers in more than a hundred constituencies.

The 2011 census showed that there were 12 districts in the country with Muslim populations above 90%, six from 70% to 90%, six from 60 to 70%, nine from 50% to 60% and 10 from 40% to 50%. It seemed improbable that any political party could win power nationally if it alienated Muslim voters.

But a BJP powered by Modi rewrote the rules of Indian electoral politics, winning convincing majorities in the Lok Sabha in 2014 and 2019 while flaunting as a badge of honour its hostility to Muslim citizens. Indeed, this belligerence only swelled in successive elections after 2014, in 2019 and now in 2024. By 2023, for the first time in the history of the Indian republic, the national ruling party had no Muslim minister and no Muslim member of parliament.

In the 2024 national elections, the BJP fielded only one Muslim candidate in the entire country. This was Calicut University’s former vice-chancellor Abdul Salam, the party’s candidate from Kerala’s Muslim majority Malappuram. Of course he lost, as did the two Muslim candidates fielded by other alliance partners of the victorious ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, both of which nominated one Muslim for the polls.

Members of Hindutva organisations protest following the violence in Haryana’s Nuh in August 2023. Credit: PTI.

It is evident today that a dominant political aspiration of the BJP under Modi to cleanse Muslim citizens from political representation has met considerable success. Political scientist Adnan Farooqui credits its success to portraying Muslims as a monolith minority pitched against a united majority, and by this making Muslim votes dispensable. It accomplished this by constructing Muslims as the principal “enemy within” and substantially uniting all other caste and religious groups, including even Christians, against this common internal adversary.

The success of the BJP to win the support of many sections of Christian voters is particularly notable because the Sangh is ideologically as opposed to the inclusion of Christians in the polity of Hindu India as it is to Muslims. Likewise, every third Dalit voted for the BJP in 2019 and again in 2024, even though Dalits could be in little doubt that they would continue to be denied equality within the Hindu social order.

What drives the BJP to exclude Muslims from political participation is its core ideological imperative. The founding texts of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh advance the ideal of a Hindu India in which Muslims are denied equal citizenship. MS Golwalkar, the most influential Sangh ideologue, described Muslims as a “threat” and “menace” and called for Muslims to be allowed only second-class citizenship, without rights.

It is not the duty just of Muslims to represent and advocate for Muslim concerns in the country’s highest law-making body. However, the studied silence of most political parties about the unprecedented crises faced by India’s Muslims under Modi during the election campaign fuels worries about their political appetite to champion the constitutional rights of Muslims amid swirling hot Hindutva winds.

But simultaneously, it is also true that more Muslims representatives do not automatically signify greater voice and public attention to the aspirations and concerns of Muslim citizens. After all, Muslims are very far from being a homogenous group. Scholars have observed that a large majority of Muslims in high public office tend to be men from upper-caste Muslim backgrounds. The subaltern voices of Pasmanda and working-class Muslim, and those of women and gender minorities, need to resonate far more noisily in India’s parliament and legislatures.

Adnan Farooqui observes that securing fair representation of geographically dispersed minorities is always a challenge in any democracy. The Indian Constitution addressed this by providing for reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes. But there are no such quotas for Muslims. Muslims form a majority in only 15% of parliamentary Lok Sabha seats. Therefore, Muslims depend on the goodwill of other communities to secure their fair share of political representation.

As far back as in the 1940s, architect of the Constitution BR Ambedkar foresaw the dangers of what he called a “communal majority” as opposed to a “political majority”. In Britain, he observed that majorities were formed on the basis of issues and the proposed policies – social, economic and political – of political parties. A “communal majority” by contrast is “born; it is not made”. It is based on political choices when a person votes on the basis of her religious or social identity, and not on the basis of policy promises and aspirations.

The sagging political courage of even non-BJP political parties to nominate people of Muslim identity for national and state elections reflects an assumption that Hindus today constitute a communal rather than a political majority and that they will vote as Hindus and not as secular citizens. It is left to the geographically dispersed Muslims to vote as secular citizens rather than as communal political agents who place their trust only on fellow-Muslims.

The 2024 elections have laid bare, with poignant urgency, this long-festering but neglected political and moral crisis. Are Indian Muslims simply the non-belonging “other”, worthy only of the fear and hate of their fellow citizens? Or are they in every way equal citizens of the secular democratic republic of India?

I am indebted to Badre Alam for his extensive research support, and to Mohsin Alam Bhat, Omair Khan, Imaad ul Hassan and Rubeel Haider for their suggestions.