Come election season and the media can be counted on to repeat the insidious narrative that Muslims will turn out in overwhelmingly high numbers to vote tactically, driven by their passion for the politics of identity. But neither is empirical evidence furnished to sustain this narrative, nor are comparisons made with the voting behaviour of other social groups to establish the seemingly exceptional nature of the Muslim community’s political choices.

This narrative has acquired tremendous salience in the two decades following the Mandir-Mandal movements, which prompted the upper castes and middle class to switch over from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party. But what diminished the political heft of these groups was that Muslims and Dalits, who had sustained Congress domination for decades, didn’t follow them into the BJP.

In fact, the reverse happened. Alarmed at the BJP’s propensity to demonise Muslims to consolidate Hindu votes, the former sought to combine with other social groups to tactically exercise their franchise in favour of a party or parties best placed to vanquish the saffron alliance in any constituency. In determining their primary interests and identifying parties most likely to promote them, Muslims don’t behave any differently from other social groups. But what distinguishes the choice of Muslims from that of others is the paramount importance they place on security of life and property.

Despite this, the voting pattern among Muslims is as diverse as that of any other social group. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey of the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, published in the Economic and Political Weekly in the same year, shows that 39 per cent of the Muslims voted for the Samajwadi Party, down from the 45 per cent in the 2007 assembly election. The Bahujan Samaj Party mopped 20 per cent of Muslim votes, an increase of three per cent from 2007. In other words, even though the SP won a majority in 2012, its support among Muslims was eroded, challenging the dominant media narrative that saw them as having played a crucial role in SP scion Akhilesh Yadav’s ascent to power.

Muslims are not the only social group that identifies and votes for parties most likely to preserve their interests. Every social group tends to rally behind one political party or the other. For instance, the same CSDS survey shows that the BJP secured 38 per cent of the Brahmin votes in 2012, down from the 44 per cent in 2007; 29 per cent of the Rajput votes, registering a steep decline from the 46 per cent in 2007; and 42 per cent of the Vaishya votes, a 10 per cent decrease from 2007.

The splintering of votes of these social groups benefitted the SP, which poached from the BJP’s social base. Despite these losses, the BJP still retained the allegiance of a substantial section of Brahmins, Rajputs, and the Vaishyas, indicating that the loyalty of these groups to the party runs deep and is enduring.

The CSDS election survey tells a similar story about the voting pattern in Bihar. For instance, in the 2005 October assembly election, 64 per cent of the upper castes voted the BJP and Janata Dal (U), which were allies in the National Democratic Alliance. This was up from 42 per cent in 2000. Similarly, 61 per cent of the Kurmis-Koeris voted for the NDA, an increase of 22 per cent over the 2000 figures. By contrast, only 36 per cent of Muslims voted Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Oct 2005, a drop of 12 percentage points from 2000, much of which the Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan’s party mopped up. Once again, as in UP, each social group in Bihar has a favourite political party to whom it is inclined, but the degree of its tilt varies from election to election.

These figures belie the media narrative about the voting behaviour of the Muslim community. They show that Muslims display a greater diversity in exercising their political choices than, say, the upper castes, the Yadavs and the Kurmis. Besides, it is not the Muslims who exclusively determine the victory or defeat of political parties. A political party or alliance could be swept into power through an accretion of votes to its core base of, say, the Yadavs for the SP and RJD, and the upper castes for the BJP in the Hindi heartland.

There is no denying that the BJP’s support among the Muslims is negligible. But this is understandable, for the saffron brigade has defined its politics against the minority communities, in the hope of consolidating Hindus around their religious identity. True, the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has chosen to orchestrate his 2014 campaign on the development plank, but Sangh Parivar activists relate more to his Hindutva appeal than his Mr Development persona.

That is clear from a report by the Hindustan Times’ Prashant Jha on Varanasi’s response to Modi contesting the election from there. The article narrates the dilemma of Pandit Girija Shankar Mishra, president of the Kanya Kubj Brahman Samaj. Mishra said the Brahmins were a little alienated from the BJP because they don’t have “as much say in BJP” as they did during the time of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He was also irritated by Modi’s attempt to place the Other Backward Classes. Nevertheless, Mishra said his social group still remains strongly inclined to the BJP. Why? "Modi's appeal lies in the fact that only he can make Muslims second-class citizens,” Mishra replied. “That is our primary aim right now."

The apprehension among Muslims about Modi could cut both ways. It could inspire them to turn out in extremely high numbers on polling day. But, perhaps persuaded by the media hype that Modi’s march to power is inevitable, they could be dissuaded from even exercising their franchise. In an EPW essay, ‘Whither Muslim politics?’, Mohammed Sanjeer Alam cites figures to say that, contrary to the myth the media has created, Muslim turnout is usually lower than the national average. In 1996 general elections, for instance, the Muslim turnout was 56 per cent as against the national average of 58 per cent.

Only in two national elections – 1998 and 1999 – was it higher than the overall turnout (65 per cent against 62 per cent in 1998 and 67 per cent against 60 per cent in 1999), perhaps indicating the community’s anxiety to stall the BJP from coming to power. However, the Muslim turnout dipped to 46 per cent, as against the national average of 58 per cent, in the 2004 elections. Perhaps the disinterest among Muslims in the elections arose from the media projection that the NDA was bound to return to power, which ultimately proved wrong.

What explains the stereotypical media narrative about the voting behaviour of Muslims? Perhaps the answer lies in the social origins of journalists, who are overwhelmingly upper caste Hindus. They are influenced by their social group’s preference for the BJP, which doesn’t gather Muslim votes in significant numbers. They buy into the BJP propaganda that the minority community coalesces around other specific parties, ignoring empirical evidence to the contrary, because of its attempt to protect its religious identity. Ironically, the fact that the upper castes vote the BJP overwhelmingly is viewed as secular. It is this media narrative that creates the ambience for communal polarisation, much to the BJP’s advantage.