Guest post by JYOTI PUNWANI
Shazia Ilmi’s exit marks a real blow for AAP supporters. Her frequent TV appearances as AAP spokesperson made her out to be an articulate, confident woman who didn’t need to assert her religious identity to prove a point, which is a rare thing in today’s politics. Her participation in the Anna andolan was as much a pointer to its inclusive nature as it was to the emergence of a new kind of Muslim in public life: one who had no hesitation plunging into a mass movement which had strong nationalist overtones, was avowedly against the political system and had little to do with minority concerns.
When Shazia almost won from Delhi’s R K Puram constituency, it suddenly came home – for the first time in years, a Muslim candidate had been fielded from a Hindu-dominated constituency, and the Hindus had voted for her. In Mumbai, a Muslim political activist who’s friendly with every political party, has for long told Shiv Sena leaders that the moment they field a Muslim from any of their strongholds, he would join them. “The ability to take the other community along, that’s the test of a secular politician,’’ a senior Congress Muslim in Nanded told me, rueing the fact that Muslims who could do this were ignored by his leader Ashok Chavan (one of the two Congressmen to win in the state this time).
The Congress does not give Muslims tickets to stand from Hindu-dominated constituencies, on the grounds that they lack “winnability’’. This party, that defines itself as the `secular’ alternative to the BJP, and which continues to be seen as such by secular activists, has always believed that Hindus as a community will not vote for Muslims. Party leaders are unwilling to test this assumed prejudice and work to break it. The few tickets it gives to Muslims, are from Muslim areas. Wearing your religious identity on your sleeve becomes inevitable then, for these Muslim candidates. As it is, the kind of Muslim the Congress chooses as candidates, are anyway there only because they are Muslim. That’s their only qualification. The more steeped they are in their identity, the better – that’s the Congress formula to win Muslim (“secular’’) votes. As Muslim activists have long pointed out despairingly, the kind of Muslim projected by the Congress is unlikely to have a vision for the community. Even the seemingly modern Salman Khurshid didn’t.
What of the other ‘secular’ parties? The Samajwadi Party’s Muslim candidates (at least in Maharashtra) have been the kind from whom most educated Muslims prefer to keep their distance. In Maharashtra, the NCP has a sizeable Muslim membership; however, its leadership is constantly sending mixed messages. Sharad Pawar has yet to live down his role as impassive onlooker during Mumbai’s 92-93 riots, despite having been sent by PM Narasimha Rao to the burning city to save it as Defence Minister. And before every general election, he makes it a point to flirt with the Shiv Sena-BJP, as he did this time. This might well be only to blackmail his ally, the Congress, but it certainly leaves the party’s Muslim cadre confused, to put it mildly.
Shazia Ilmi therefore was like a breath of fresh air. As it is, young educated Muslims were attracted to AAP. Shazia being one of its prominent faces made them so proud. She represented everything they wanted to be known for, unlike the Muslim leaders in the Congress, NCP and SP, who they were ashamed to describe as their leaders. That is why they were so disappointed when she made that “Muslims must become communal’’ remark in Mumbai, on the eve of the Mumbai election. The bunch of people whom she chose to say this to are totally discredited as Congress dalals. So low is their stock in the city that when they called a press conference in April to tell Muslims to vote for the Congress, so that the “secular vote is not divided’’, Muslims in the audience booed them.
These elections posed a real dilemma to many Muslims. Instinctively attracted to AAP like so others, they still wondered whether a vote for AAP would defeat Modi. Had Shazia tried to persuade such Muslims to trust her party to deliver them from vote bank politics, had she interacted with the numerous grass-root community activists who flocked to AAP, she would have actually strengthened her party. But she chose to waste an evening with self-proclaimed community leaders and ruined her image with her careless remark.
When the election campaign started, it became common knowledge that AAP had dealt unfairly with one of its valuable assets by denying Shazia a Delhi ticket. Despite that, she fought gamely from Ghaziabad and campaigned for other AAP candidates. Why then did she leave at this stage, when the chips were down? The reasons she has given do have substance in them, as AAP activists will admit in private, but hasn’t she dealt the party she helped form and to which she contributed so much, a terrible blow? Where does her exit leave the thousands of supporters of AAP, Muslims specially, who looked up to her?