Chennai, bhiram Ghadyalpatil(swarajyamag): Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics always remind us of his ‘refusal’ to wear a Muslim skull cap offered by a cleric in Gujarat, in 2011. Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, had accepted the shawl from the cleric. But the ‘refused’ skull cap has interested the critics more because it helps them paint Modi as communal and dismissive of Muslims and their sartorial symbols.
2013, Modi, as the head of BJP’s election campaign committee, ‘compared Muslims to puppies’ in an interview with Reuters. This is the man the RSS-BJP wanted to become the Prime Minister of India, his critics screamed. The voters did not buy into these creaky constructs and elected Modi one year back.
These constructs are the offshoots of prejudiced minds hell-bent on projecting Indian Muslims as an ever-aggrieved party which must be pandered to, through such meaningless symbolic gestures. After all, how many skull-cap-wearing politicians have done something substantial for the Muslims apart from such shambolic symbolism?
When he refused the skull cap, Modi was being honest about his convictions and traditions instead of being politically correct. Yet, the skull-cap moment remains the point of reference for Modi’s critics and supporters alike for judging his Muslim strategy.
His critics use this imagery to portray him as a bigoted Hindu. The same imagery reveals a different Modi to his supporters—an honest, straightforward, and individualistic politician who won’t be remote-controlled by his critics’ definition of secularism which is symbol-proficient but substance-deficient. Modi’s Muslim strategy will forever be guided, implemented, and judged from these two angles.
As the politician who famously refused to be a prisoner of politically correct tokenism, he won’t indulge in the skull-cap chicanery to please Muslims, if at all they are pleased by such acts. Yet, Modi, being the PM now, must address the Muslim question in a substance-rich matrix.
One year into his rule, how much has he done?
The difficulty of being Narendra Modi
It is quite unenviable to be Modi while talking about Muslims. He has multiple constituencies supporting him, and the Muslims are not -as yet- one of them. But his Muslim strategy must ensure that not only are Muslims on board but his existing support base stays supportive as well. He need not run his strategy past the RSS. Yet, he has to keep the RSS in the loop and on board.
To conjoin diverse constituencies into a happy marriage and cohabitation is tough. Besides, when it comes to Muslims, Modi carries a history no other Indian politician since Mahatma Gandhi has. What most Muslims beyond Gujarat know and perceive is largely a product of fiction, perverse media campaigns, and unfamiliarity with his model of governance. As the PM, Modi has the chance to address the Muslim issue on these counts. Not easy. But then, his reputation of a capable, efficient, and communicative political administrator is unknown to none.
An appropriate summary would be that Modi’s first year has largely been neutral for Muslims, which is not a bad thing considering the imaginary ideas stoked by the ‘secular’ fear-mongers about a Modi regime that would go after Muslims from day one.
The positives: No to populism, yes to bold realism
First, the positives. Modi hasn’t resorted to populism. He didn’t host the ‘secularly mandatory’ iftar but offered chadar at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, an epitome of India’s composite culture rather than an exclusive Muslim shrine. He hasn’t followed former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who hosted iftar parties. The reason: this can be misconstrued as politically correct symbolism. The dialogue with the Muslims must outgrow the iftar diplomacy which has served no point to the larger Muslim cause.
That Modi wasn’t ready to pander to populism showed when he didn’t react to the Jama Masjid imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari’s intended snub. Bukhari purposely made it a point to not invite the Indian Prime Minister (though he extended the invite to the Pakistan Prime Minister) for his son’s anointment as the chief imam.
What the imam had said then is worth a recall to appreciate Modi’s eloquent silence.
“Modi claims to be the Prime Minister of 125 crore Indians but conveniently and deliberately avoids addressing Muslims. He has shown that he does not like us. He is the one who has been maintaining distance from the community. So, I too choose to maintain my distance,”
Modi does not need to address the Muslims separately. He must talk to them as Indians.
The BJP’s alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir is a bold statement of Modi’s political realism that conveys a clear message to the Muslim constituency not only in Jammu and Kashmir but elsewhere in the country. If a Modi-led BJP could do business with a predominantly Muslim and practically Kashmir-based political outfit, the message is clear — ideology and religious identity must be accommodative of democratic politics and governance aspirations.
This alliance was, in a way, Modi’s Vajpayee moment. It projected him as a statesman fluid enough to temper his party’s political position in the larger interest of democratic politics and governance. Contrary to what his critics have claimed, Modi, by getting the BJP to team up with the PDP, also demonstrated that he had not grown larger than the party. The BJP-PDP alliance, even if it delivers very little, has already set a new benchmark to judge the party’s evolution into a political movement with the ability to accommodate diverse constituencies.
As the alliance reminds the BJP, in particular the more faithful, that politics is the art of the possible, it also conveys that it is not only possible to have a dialogue with a Modi-led BJP, but also that this dialogue may also be in the mutual interest of both.
The negatives that backfired
We don’t know if Modi sent Zafar Sareshwala as his emissary to attend the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) session in Jaipur in March this year. The Gujarat-based businessman and a Modi-critic turned-friend was asked to leave even when he described himself as the representative. If Modi indeed had deputed Sareshwala, it was a misstep.
There is no harm in designating Sareshwala, a true asset to Modi and the BJP, as the PM’s interlocutor on Muslim issues. Indeed, Sareshwala’s is the example many Muslims need to ponder—he took up his grievances with Modi instead of letting the grievance industry pamphleteers like Teesta Setalvad and Ashish Khetan carry out their hatchet jobs on Modi. The mistake in Sareshwala proposing to attend the session as the Prime Minister’s representative was that it gave a totally irrelevant body like the AIMPLB an opportunity to dismiss him as one.
The AIMPLB must have relished this opportunity and the media space it offered to an otherwise forgettable and clichéd event. The AIMPLB also got a chance to gain some respectability in the Muslim mind. After all, an average Muslim would consider the AIMPLB relevant because the Prime Minister had sent his man. This made the AIMPLB look like what it is not—a representative body of Muslims.
Such missteps could jeopardise Modi’s Muslim engagement strategy. The Muslim population, like all others, is a complex space. There may not be straight answers and simplistic solutions. Reality could be nuanced and negotiated. If dignity is conferred on the AIMPLB, the genuine representatives of the community, who could represent different realities and strains, may lose whatever interest they have in talking to Modi.
The other big mistake has not been perpetrated by the PM or his party or the larger Sangh Parivar. But, it could sabotage Modi government’s ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ narrative. Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut’s editorial in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna which proposed that Muslims be disenfranchised to spare the country of the ‘vote-bank politics’ was a stinker. While the Shiv Sena itself is no benchmark to judge the Muslim strategy, the editorial embarrassed the Shiv Sena also.
Those not well-conversant with the power dynamics within the Shiv Sena should try and differentiate between the Saamna editorials and where the Shiv Sena stands. Though Saamna was edited by the late Balasaheb Thackeray himself, it has often, in recent times, gone off tangent and deliberately so, many inside the Shiv Sena say. Raut, at times, peddles his own agenda mainly to put the Sena president Uddhav Thackeray in a spot. The editorial in question could be a case of similar internal dichotomy though, admittedly, Thackeray has not publicly distanced himself from it.
Opposition MPs in the parliament rightly protested against the editorial and the BJP was on the defensive. The justification, though valid, that the BJP could not determine what Saamna (or any independent publication) writes could not dilute the message the editorial had sent out—that the BJP has associates who do not want Muslims to vote.
The Saamna editorial dwarfed a few good steps the BJP government has taken in Maharashtra on the economic welfare of Muslims. The government has decided to offer Urdu as an optional language in all Marathi language schools and also set up a facility in all minority education institutes to teach Marathi so that Muslim children do well in competitive examinations and increase their representation in government jobs.
The Devendra Fadnavis-led government has not followed the populist measure that the previous Congress-NCP government had taken on the eve of elections to provide reservation to Muslims in education and government jobs. While this decision has evoked sharp reactions in Maharashtra, with the BJP government being called anti-Muslim, Fadnavis, a meritorious law graduate himself, has said the government would extend the provision in a legally and constitutionally tenable manner.
The challenge ahead
The Muslim constituency is restive and volatile. It is still early days because the constituency, as it stands today, is the mass total of decades of neglect and little internal reform, and obscurantist politics indulged in, and encouraged by most ‘secular’ parties. In different states, it is experimenting with different options.
In Maharashtra, for instance, they seem to be moving towards the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-Muslimeen (MIM) which has done exceedingly well in the recent civic elections. The MIM plans to enter Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal through the migrant workers from these states in Maharashtra.
The MIM’s rise presents both challenge and opportunity. The challenge is to ensure that the development narrative covers Muslims and gives them a credible political alternative not based on religious denomination. Actions must prove that economic growth, development, and aspirational social mobility will benefit the Muslims like they will benefit other Indians. The opportunity is to force the likes of MIM and other ‘secular’ parties to re-orient their politics on the singular agenda of India First.
For the RSS-BJP, Jammu and Kashmir is an article of faith for which Shyama Prasad Mukherjee died in 1953. In this very land, Modi has demonstrated that democracy, governance, and dialogue with those on the other side of religious divide is possible.
Before May 2014, his critics doubted his ability to govern India because ‘India was no Gujarat’ as if Gujarat does not belong to India. They probably feared that he actually knew how to reinvent himself as the PM of India. By defying restrictive definitions of a politically correct PM indulging in pretentious symbolism and simultaneously testifying to his capability as the nation’s leader, Modi has done exactly that.
Another doomsday scenario the critics painted was that the Muslims would be singled out for persecution under a Modi regime. While this was always a myth, his time to show that he will be a better Prime Minister for Muslims has just begun.
Editor's Note: Abhiram Ghadyalpatil was a mainstream print media journalist for 14 years and has worked for the Economic Times, Indian Express, and Hindustan Times. He took a purposeful break from mainstream journalism four years back. Now he is a private observer of politics and society in India. His deepest sympathies are with the Rightist thought in India.