What does it take for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress to put up a Muslim candidate?

Comparing candidate selection in the five states going for elections – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana – with Census data at the constituency-level gives a picture of the bar set by the two parties for Muslims to be given a ticket to contest.

The data on candidates is from the two parties’ official Twitter handles and the MyNeta.info public database, while the data on religious population in assembly constituencies for these five states is from the data analytics firm Gramener based on the 2011 Census.

The BJP has nominated one Muslim candidate each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In MP, where elections are being held for 230 seats, the candidate is in a seat that has over 20% Muslims. The three Muslim candidates nominated by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh are also in seats that have at least 20% Muslims.

In Rajasthan, where the assembly has 200 seats, the Congress has fielded 15 Muslim candidates in seats that have between 10% to 24% Muslims. Interestingly, in Jaisalmer, a general constituency which has the highest Muslim population in the state, the Congress has nominated a Scheduled Caste candidate. The BJP’s lone Muslim candidate in the state is, demographically speaking, something of a troll – Yoonus Khan has been given the BJP ticket in Tonk with 11% Muslims to take on the Congress star and chief ministerial candidate Sachin Pilot. The Congress hasalways put up a Muslim candidate from Tonk, allowing the BJP to make something of a point with its selection, given that it has always put up a Hindu candidate in this seat.

In Telangana, which has a 120-member assembly, the bar for giving Muslims tickets is set sky high. There are 15 constituencies – seven of them in Hyderabad – with over 40% of their population Muslim, one of which is reserved for Scheduled Castes. The BJP has given tickets to just two Muslims in the remaining 14 constituencies. As for the Congress, three of these seats have gone to its allies in Telangana, the Telugu Desam Party and the Telangana Jana Samithi. On the remaining 11 seats, it has given tickets to just five Muslim candidates. On the other hand, the party has given tickets to two Muslim candidates in constituencies where the community’s population is just 15% – Kamareddy and Nizamabad Urban.

Even though the Congress too nominates far fewer Muslims than their share in the population, the selection of Muslim candidates seems much less closely tied to numbers in many cases. In Chhattisgarh, where Muslims make up just 2% of the population, the Congress has given tickets to two Muslims – Badruddin Qureshi in Vaishali Nagar and Mohammed Akbar in Kawardha. The Chhattisgarh assembly has 90 elected seats.

In Mizoram, 39 of 40 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, leaving virtually no room for Muslim candidates.

Shrinking space for Muslims

With the rise of the BJP, the number of Muslims elected to state assemblies has fallen steadily since 2014.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP gave tickets to seven Muslim candidates – in Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and Lakshadweep. Using religious data based on the 2001 Census from the data analytics firm Datanet India, it is clear that in four constituencies, this was a numerical compulsion: Muslims made up between 95% and 100% of the population. In one case, it was to support a party stalwart – Shahnawaz Hussain, the sitting MP in Bhagalpur, Bihar. In the two Bengal constituencies, numbers were not the reason. The BJP was presumably testing the waters in seats it expected to lose. In all the seats, the party lost, and the incentive to give more Muslims tickets withered, both within the BJP and among other parties.

In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, the lesson had been learnt. In a state where one of every five people is a Muslim, the BJP did not give even a single ticket to the community. The most egregious case is in Gujarat, where the party has systematically shut out Muslims who form 9% of the population. The last time the party fielded a Muslim candidate in the state’s elections was in 1998 (and he lost).

Political scientists Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers found that among 14 major states that went to polls since 2014, Muslims represented less than 10% of all candidates and 7% of MLAs. Taking into account the most recent assembly election in all states, the Congress nominated 277 Muslim candidates to the BJP’s 66, more than half of whom are in Jammu and Kashmir, I found. As of January 2018, out of 1,418 BJP MLAs, only four were Muslim and only two BJP state ministers were Muslim, Jaffrelot and Verniers found.

Even though every party makes cold calculations about the precise number of votes likely at every booth from each religious denomination and sub-denomination, they would like to pretend otherwise. The BJP, for instance, has gone to the Election Commission to complain about Congress leader Kamal Nath urging party workers to ensure high polling in Muslim booths. Both parties’ spokespersons trot out the same line about “winnability” being the key factor, not numbers, even though in private they say they are only recognising the electorate’s preference for candidates who mirror their caste and religion.

In surveys done after the 2014 election by Lok Foundation in collaboration with Oxford University and Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 12% of Hindus and 9% of Muslims said the candidate’s caste and religion mattered the most in their voting choice. This might seem like reason enough to say that people do not vote along caste lines, but that would be inaccurate. In pre-election surveys by the same organisations, 45% of Hindus and 40% of Muslims said it was important to them that the candidate was of their own caste.

A voter is unlikely to call caste and religion the deciding factor, but it remains important to him or her, and parties duly oblige. Like money, the candidate’s caste and religion does not guarantee a party victory, but gives them a seat at the table. In the five states voting over this month and the next, these same underlying calculations have determined the names on the ballots, no matter what leaders might like to say about looking “beyond” caste and religion. For Muslim candidates, the bar is set even higher – even numerical strength cannot guarantee representation.

Read more in the How India Votes series:

How India Votes: Sabarimala adds wind to BJP’s sails in South India but won’t take it far in 2019

How India Votes: The BJP could retain the millennial vote, but it doesn’t mean a ringing endorsement