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Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014

Muslim Voters and BJP’s Secularist Attempt

Monday 19 May 2014

by Arun Srivastava

The threat of communalism is not merely a bogey, and the Muslim ‘sense of alarmism’ does not exist in a vacuum. It may be exaggerated by some parties to get Muslim votes, but it is a real threat. The BJP leaders have a common refrain that the Muslims should understand them. But this is not a one-way traffic. During the 2014 Lok Sabha election the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate tried their best to entice the Muslim voters, but they could not succeed. Barring one or two Muslim leaders or clerics, by and large the Muslims were averse to support Modi. The BJP leaders ought to answer: why did they fail to win over the sentiments and feelings of the Muslims? The BJP President, Rajnath Singh, offered a backdated apology to the Muslims while appealing to them to give the BJP a chance in the coming general election. But he did not spell out the party’s holistic approach to the Muslim question. The BJP is pretending to rethink the Muslim issue, but in reality that is not so. Modi might not have been raising contentious Hindu issues in his campaigning, but he is also not making clear his stand and approach to the Muslim issues.

 Hindutva and Hindu supremacy is so deeply ingrained into the saffron DNA that all-pervasive attempts by Narendra Modi to project the facade of a Centrist face would not be enough to erase the element of suspicion from the minds of the Muslims and win over their trust. The contour of “ideological personality” makes it clear that it will be utopian to expect the saffron die-hards to transform into an all-inclusive forum over-night. To achieve this, the BJP leaders would have to initiate the process of transforming them as liberals and also to cut off their umbilical cord with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor. And this is absolutely not possible. It will require an attitudinal change in leadership to become a truly modern party free from sectarian prejudices.

If Narendra Modi really meant business and wanted to dispel the “wrong” impression from the minds of the Muslims, he should have asked his police to proceed against Praveen Togadia for what he said and did in Bhavnagar and charge him with spreading hate. On April 19 Togadia threatened a Muslim businessman who had bought a house in a Hindu-dominated area in Bhavnagar, asked his supporters to take control of the house and put a ‘Bajrang Dal’ board on it. Modi condemned it but no action was initiated against Togadia.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate tried to reach out to the Muslims by promising them “inclusive” economic development. But his assertion lacked conviction. He never spelt out his philosophy of inclusiveness. He simply tried to throw jibes at the Congress and those were nothing but rhetorical. In India Muslims account for 13 per cent of the country’s population and play a critical role in deciding electoral outcomes in at least 100 of the 543 parliamentary seats. While seeking to woo the Muslim voters he is desperately trying to change the popular Muslim perception about him as being an anti-Muslim leader. His not seeking apology for his involve-ment in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom has turned Muslims suspicious about his intentions. Muslims strongly nurse the view that Modi was the mastermind behind the riot that killed nearly 1200 Muslims and made 100,000 refugees. Ironically in the past 12 years he has consistently and arrogantly refused to show any remorse for the 2002 happenings. Even then he and his party leaders are exhorting the Muslims to vote for the party to turn India into a ‘riot-free’ country. It is like asking the Jews to support Hitler to escape the gas chamber.

It is an open secret that Modi has been a Hindutva fanatic. His recent posture of liberalism is simply a mechanism to deceive the Muslims and secular people in the country. If at all he had undergone a change of heart he would have certainly apologised. Moreover, it would be foolhardy to expect that a person sitting on the lap of the RSS and enjoying their patronage to become the Prime Minister would ever change his psyche and attitude towards the Muslims. Ironically, some Muslim leaders and clerics have turned soft towards Modi in their frus-tration with the Congress. They nurse the feeling that the Congress was given many chances, but it disappointed them. Some of them are enamoured of his project of the Gujarat model. But the fact of the matter is that the scenario is not conducive in Gujarat. It is the Gujarati entrepreneurs, irrespective of their communal affiliation, who have been trying to do some-thing. The Muslim leaders must dig out the information on Human Development Indices.

From 1992, there has not been any action from the side of the BJP that can instil confidence among Muslims. Moli’s chief lieutenant, Amit Shah, congratulated the perpetrators of the Muzaffarabad riots. He even asked them to retaliate. The history of independent India is replete with communal riots. But the riot in Gujarat was unique since it was a state- sponsored massacre of Muslims. Significantly, there was a time when the BJP leaders used to claim that they did not need Muslim votes. But the same party is now striving hard to gain Muslim votes.

 That the BJP has not transformed at all is clearly manifest in the comments of Giriraj Singh, a senior leader of the party in Bihar. Addressing a public meeting he said those opposed to Modi would have to go to Muslim-majority Pakistan after the BJP won the election and formed a government. Paradoxically, Modi did not admonish him publicly; instead he used twitter and it was nothing more than simply putting his opinion on record.

 The worst had happened at the April 22 public meeting in Mumbai. In the presence of Modi, Shiv Sena leader Ramdas Kadam made a controversial statement targeting Muslims and resorted to hate-mongering. He said Modi would teach a lesson to Muslim rioters. Modi did not object to his speech. In fact a day later, on second thoughts, he disapproved what Kadam had said. What does it imply? If his conscience was clear and he was honest towards Muslims he should have admonished Kadam at the public meeting itself. But he preferred to remain a passive spectator.

Modi’s attitude towards Muslims ought to be viewed in a holistic perspective. Maulana Suhaib Qasmi, a Deoband-based cleric, has pledged his support for Narendra Modi. Qasmi, the head of the Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind, a group that claims to have 16,000 Islamic clerics as members, cannot, nevertheless, deny that Muslim clerics should give enough space to the liberal and emerging new middle class of Muslims. It is unfortunate that the clerics and maulanas have not been giving them space to ventilate their views. Muslims should send their kids to Madrasas but at the same time must realise the importance of competitive studies. Maulanas need to answer why the level of matriculation education among Muslims, both in rural and urban areas, is lower than even the SCs and STs? The participation of Muslims in higher education too is poor as Muslim OBCs are much behind Hindu OBCs, SCs and STs.

It is also unfortunate that the operations of the Maulanas and Maulavis have turned the Muslims suspect in the eyes of the Hindus. They are often accused of tactical voting, which is not correct. Electoral data show that Muslims do not always vote for any one party or candidate, they have been generally cagey about Hindutva-based politics.

Why, precisely, should the world think that the man who presided over India’s worst gover-nance failure in decades is somehow a role-model for efficiency? The odd thing is that he has become iconic—in the original meaning of the word. He stands for more than what he actually is. He attracts myths to himself.

It is the general perception that India’s Muslims are a vote-bank. But for this the Maulanas and Maulavis are to be blamed. They have turned the Muslims into captives. They are impediments to the liberal transformation of the community. They are also responsible for the Muslims’ lack of education and growth. They should realise that the world is changing and Muslims should also change. In fact this approach of the Maulanas and Maulavis has permeated the impression that Muslims vote enbloc. This is detrimental to the interest of the Muslims. The electoral behaviour of India’s Muslims is often presented as one of the most inscrutable aspects of Indian politics. There is a general notion that India’s Muslims form a closed, homogeneous social group. As rational political agents, they are fully aware of their legal-constitutional status as a religious minority and they always evaluate the ideologies of political parties and the statements and acts of political players. Eventually, they make certain strategic political choices. This interesting formulation leads us to two obvious conclusions: (a) Muslims of India constitute a political community, and, therefore, (b) there is a clear market-type political relationship between Muslims and various political parties which revolves around a much talked about pheno-menon—the “Muslim” vote-bank.

Yet another factor that has been working against the interest of the Muslims is the sharp split in the community on caste lines. Like the Hindu upper castes the upper-caste Muslims also speak on behalf of the general Muslims. The upper-caste Muslim leaders generally are not much concerned of the plights of the backward caste, the Pasmanda, Muslims. In a patronage democracy, where resource distribution depends on the discretion of elected officials, it pays to stay close to the power-centres in the govern-ment.

Some Muslim leaders even hold the view that by mentioning the Gujarat pogrom they were being terrorised. This is factually wrong. The fact is otherwise. By mentioning it they were being cautioned: do not fall into the trap. Why should any Muslim be scared of him? Why should any Muslim be scared of anybody in India if he loves his country as much as the person next door? Prosperous Shias concentrated in Lucknow, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh/Telan-gana’s Hyderabad, are willing to support an alternative that does not discriminate against them in favour of the Sunnis. The Shias leaning towards the BJP have yet another reason. The Samajwadi Party and its government are perceived to favour the Sunni sect. A long-standing demand for a Shia Wakf Board for Uttar Pradesh has been languishing too. It is the internal contradiction in the Muslim community that has made the Shia community incline towards Modi.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at arun52@gmail.com