What the success of BJP’s Pasmanda strategy means

The BJP fielded 391 Muslim candidates in the UP municipal polls and 61 of them won. This successful experiment may become part of the BJP’s strategy for the 2024 general election.
For me, the most unexpected change in the ninth year of Narendra Modi’s rule has been the fielding of a record 391 Muslim candidates by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Uttar Pradesh municipal elections, of whom 61 won. The BJP’s ally, the Apna Dal (Sonelal), fielded a Muslim for the Suar assembly by-election, who also won.
The state has 17 municipal corporations for the largest cities, and the BJP won all 17 mayoral posts with Hindu candidates. But in smaller cities — where the local body is called a nagar palika panchayat — 32 of the BJP’s 199 candidates for chairmanship were Muslims, and five won. The municipal corporations have 1,429 wards and the nagar palika panchayats have 5,327 wards, so the number of Muslims fielded were only a tiny fraction of the total BJP candidates.
Many will say that Yogi Adityanath has merely made a cosmetic attempt at Muslim inclusiveness. Yet even cosmetics constitute a change from past practice.
Historically, the BJP rarely fielded Muslim candidates, largely because of its aggressive Hindu agenda but also because the few Muslims it fielded in the past were usually beaten hollow like in the 2017 UP municipal elections. This time things were very different.
The BJP is staunchly Hindu nationalist, and this has been the reason for its rise from obscurity in the 1984 general election to pole position. In theory, the party is secular. It has always had a minorities’ cell. In the Vajpayee-Advani era, it described the Congress party’s secularism as actually being minorityism and claimed that the BJP alone stood for true secularism. But in the last nine years, its trolls have increasingly sneered at “sickularism”.

BJP-ruled states have waived entertainment tax on films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story that have been described by critics as Islamophobic. In the Karnataka assembly election, the BJP posed as a Hindu saviour from the Islamic radicalism of the Popular Front of India (PFI).
However, the BJP in recent times has been working on winning a larger share of Muslim votes even while espousing Hindu majoritarianism. In the last two decades, the party has won 6-10% of Muslim votes in elections, mainly from Shia Muslims who resent the Sunni majority that is overwhelmingly with the Congress. But the BJP has now decided to shift its focus to wooing Pasmanda Muslims — low-caste converts to Islam.
Indian Muslims fall into three categories — the upper-class ashrafs descended from the Muslim nobility and landowners; the ajlafs or backward-caste converts to Islam; and arzals, the Dalit converts. The word Pasmanda is sometimes used to denote just Dalit Muslims and sometimes to cover other backward class (OBC) converts too. The upper-class ashrafs have long been the political leaders of Muslims but are resented by the lower Muslim classes.
Islam forbids caste distinctions, but the Pasmandas have organised themselves to demand job quotas in government services, which the judiciary once interpreted to apply only to Dalits and OBCs. Many state governments have, with judicial approval, granted quotas to Pasmandas. This has helped solidify their status as a lobby worth wooing.

Critics have accused UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath of denigrating Muslims. But he has appointed Danish Azad Ansari, a Pasmanda, as minister for minority welfare, bringing him in via the UP Legislative Council. This is a decorative rather than substantial post, but is a ministership, nevertheless. It is one more straw in the wind.
The Congress has long campaigned for quotas for Pasmandas. This was once decried by the BJP as minorityism. But now the BJP perceives that it can win over a slice of the Pasmanda vote. The UP municipal elections were a test of this thesis. An estimated 90% of BJP Muslim candidates were Pasmandas. The success of this strategy in UP suggests that it may become part of the BJP strategy for the 2024 general election.
Muslims account for almost 15% of all voters. If even one-tenth of them can be persuaded to vote for the BJP, that will amount to 1.5% of the total vote. Many elections are won and lost by margins of less than 1%. Hence, getting even a tiny slice of the Muslim vote can be important for the BJP. In search of this, it may field more Pasmanda candidates in the coming assembly elections, and maybe even in the 2024 general election.
Will this make any difference to the overall state of Hindu-Muslim relations? Probably very little. In Karnataka in the run-up to the assembly election, the BJP decided to scrap the 4% job quota for Muslims and distribute it among Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Clearly it views wooing Hindu castes as more important than wooing Muslims.
Yet developments in UP cannot be ignored. While they do not portend any major change of heart, the very fact that Pasmandas are being wooed implies some dampening of communal fires. The BJP will remain a Hindu majoritarian party but if its roughest edges are smoothed by a search for Pasmanda votes, that will be a change for the better.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on June 3, 2023.

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