Do Muslims vote on communal lines?

During elections, big parties try to ally with smaller parties who can push them past the first past the post system. Muslim parties are favourite pickings for those scounting for alliances since it is believed Muslims vote en bloc for parties claiming to represent their community. Booth level data of three Assembly constituencies (Ambur, Nagapattinam and Ramanathapuram) with substantial Muslim population during the 2016 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu show that Muslims in those constituencies did not vote for candidates for these parties in massive numbers. But these candidates polled substantial votes in non-Muslim majority booths indicating that the alliance partners were able to transfer their votes to the candidates of the Muslim parties.

During the 2016 Assembly elections, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) attempted to aggressively woo Muslim voters by handing over four seats to Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK) in Thondamuthur, Ambur, Nagapattinam and Ramanathapuram. In the same elections, it also gave Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) five seats. In comparison, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) kept 227 out of 234 seats to itself, which may have added to the party’s considerable majority in the Assembly.

Data: Election Commission of India

MMK is a political party founded in 2009 by the members of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazagham (TMMK), a tearaway group from IUML formed in 1995. In 2004, TMMK split for the first time, paving the way for the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ). And in 2009, a group from the TNTJ formed the India Thowheed Jamat (INTJ).

While TNTJ and INTJ did not form political parties, MMK went on to contest in an alliance with the AIADMK in 2011 and won in both the seats it stood. MMK president Jawahirullah won from Ramanathapuram and A Aslam Basha from Ambur. In 2015, there was yet another split, this time in the MMK, and Manithaneya Jananayaga Katchi (MJK) was formed by Thamimun Ansari. The party won the 2016 Assembly election in Nagapattinam in an alliance with the AIADMK.

Based on reports from the ground, The Federal classified the booths into Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority constituencies. Aside from Thondamuthur, the other three constituencies where the MMK contested have a substantial Muslim population.

In Ramanathapuram, MMK founder MH Jawahirullah lost to AIADMK’s M Manikandan by 33,222 votes, which represents a gap of nearly 17 percentage points. Across Tamil Nadu, wherever DMK candidates lost, the margin was nearly 12 percentage points. In the four constituencies MMK contested, the losing margin was roughly 20 percentage points.

Out of the 59 Muslim-majority polling booths in Ramanathapuram, Jawahirullah got above 60 per cent vote share in only five booths. In comparison, out of 261 polling booths in non-Muslim dominated areas, he got more than 60 per cent vote share in 11 booths. It appears that the alliance arithmetic was more important than the pull of religious community.

The highest vote share he got in any booth — regardless of it being in a Muslim or non-Muslim dominant area — was nearly 70 per cent. Until recently, smaller parties the MMK always relied on alliances with the AIADMK or DMK during elections. This high vote share shows that while the larger parties form alliances with smaller parties, the former benefits significantly more than the latter, to a point where they are almost entirely dependent on large parties for their survival.

Data: Election Commission of India

In Ambur and Nagapattinam, the MMK’s loss margin was 17.6 per cent and 15.4 per cent respectively. The highest vote share at the booth level in Ambur was 75 per cent and 57 per cent in Nagapattinam. But because of alliances, both areas saw relatively high percentage of vote share in non-Muslim dominated areas. In the non-Muslim dominant area of Thondamuthur, MMK lost by 32.7 per cent. Similarly, IUML won only one seat — Kadayanallur.

Jawahirullah disagrees with the inference that Muslims do not vote as a bloc to Muslim parties. “The reality on the ground is different. Our vote bank is increasing with every election. Winning or losing is another matter,” he says. According to him, Muslim parties like MMK are unable to contest independently. “Even if we get high vote share in the Muslim dominated constituencies, we cannot win. Our allies need to help us more.”

Data: Election Commission of India

The Dravidian movement, which integrated the Muslim community into its fold seamlessly, made it rather easy for people to distinguish between religion and politics. Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu doesn’t overtly demand for religious affiliations from its voters. People in the state, irrespective of religion, often want to vote for AIADMK or DMK, says Kalanthai Peer Mohammed, a writer and political observer.

“After Coimbatore bomb blasts, there was some dissatisfaction with the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. So, there was pressure for DMK to gain their confidence and hence, they should continue to include Muslim parties in their alliance. Often the Muslim parties were allocated seats that were practically unwinnable for the DMK. Overall, Muslim favour the DMK for historical reasons but many Muslims in southern districts tend to favour the AIADMK, just like the rest of population,” Peer Mohammed adds.

(Compiled with inputs from N Vinoth Kumar and Anupa Kujur. Graphics by Prathap Ravishankar and Eunice Elizabeth Dhivya.)