When might we expect the development of an ethnic/communal/identification-based party in a polity? First, if the society at large is divided along ethnic or communal lines. Second, if other ethnic communities have already organized a political party on such bases. Third, if political demands in the society that happen to be couched in ethnic or communal terms find a more receptive audience, all else being equal.
Each of these conditions is met by India. It is one of the most ethnically divided societies in world politics. It features Hindu parties and Sikh parties. It has, according to Steven Wilkinson, become an increasingly consociational polity in recent decades, making demands based on ethnic or communal identities more attractive to political entrepreneurs.
Yet, despite this, and despite the fact that Muslims account for about 15% of India’s population (about ten times more than Sikhs), we don’t see the development of a national Muslim party. Why not?
Adam Ziegfeld, currently a post-doc at UChicago, was kind enough to send me this brief response to my question:
Personally, my answer would be that it’s a combination of demography and status. In most parts of India, Muslims are a pretty small chunk of the population, so any Muslim party would do pretty badly in a single member district system. A party would need more than 5-10% of the vote in order to be enough of a threat that other parties would want to ally with it. By contrast, for example, the PMK, which started as a mainly Vanniyar party, was working with a community that accounts for about 25-35% of the population in large parts of northern Tamil Nadu, where it was most active. In addition, given the status of Muslims (both socio-economic and in terms of social status), Muslims aren’t particularly well positioned to serve as the anchor for a larger party because they tend to be poorer and carry a social stigma in a way that upper or dominant castes would not. However, in many of the places where Muslims are heavily concentrated and could therefore support a party that could plausibly win seats, we actually do see quite a few Muslim parties (depending on how you define a Muslim party): Muslim League in Kerala, National Conference and People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir, the AUDF in Assam, AIMIM in Hyderabad. I don’t know much about them but the Peace Party and Qaumi Ekta Dal also won a couple of seats in the UP 2012 election. In general, there probably could be more Muslim parties that won seats in north Indian cities, but given the limited area of competitiveness, it might make more sense for Muslim leaders in north India to hitch themselves to bigger parties. More generally, I think the reason for the absence of a national Muslim party is just that it would be doomed to fail miserably in 90%+ of Lok Sabha seats.
So there seems to be an interaction effect between two variables here: sheer numbers on the one hand, and the relative levels of concentration of Indian Muslims. The number of Muslims in India would not be an impediment towards the creation of a Muslim party if they were geographically concentrated like, say, the Sikhs in Punjab. (The Sikhs are also helped, I think, by the fact that Punjab is an important state for both external and internal politics in India, bordering both Pakistan and the so-called Hindi belt in North India). But Muslims aren’t geographically concentrated, so their relative paltry numbers in the population becomes a problem (insofar as the non-creation of a Muslim party is a “problem”).
The funny thing is how similar this sounds to the Monica Toft story on ethnic violence, where both numbers and concentration really matter. Which leads me to this fearless prediction on a slightly related topic: if the two-party duopoly in the U.S. is ever broken, it won’t be by Northern Republican fantasies of a sane alternative to the currently nutty GOP, but by a Hispanic party based in the west and southwest of the U.S.
Also, going back to the Indian Muslims story, lurking in the background here are the electoral institutions themselves, given that first-past-the-post systems incentivize different types of action and mobilization than proportional representation. I’m almost certain we’d see a national Muslim party if India had a PR system rather than FPTP. Of course, given India’s diversity, PR would in all likelihood force gridlock and extremism the likes of which make the current Republican party the paragon of pragmatism.