The threat of communalism is not a mere bogey, and the Muslim ‘sense of alarmism’ does not exist in a vacuum. It may often be exaggerated or fuelled by secular parties to get Muslim votes, but it is real

In a TV interview last week, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley admitted that the BJP had a Muslim “problem.” “Yes, we have it,” he said, pointing out that there was a “problem both ways.”

“Part of the problem is that they (Muslims) have to understand us and part of the problem is we have to accept it…But I see a huge change in the situation.”

His remarks came on the heels of the party president, Rajnath Singh, offering a slightly puzzling, backdated apology to Muslims while appealing to them to give the BJP a chance in the coming general election.

Then came Mr. Narendra Modi’s “big” speech in Lucknow in which he studiously refrained from raising any contentious issue, choosing instead to direct his fire against Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav. If you didn’t know it was Mr. Modi speaking, it could have been any garrulous politician shopping for voters. Indeed, the party’s hard-core base in Uttar Pradesh may have been disappointed that there was not even a pro forma reference to Ayodhya.

A concern?

So, is something going on here in terms of the BJP’s approach to Muslims? A rethink of its Muslim policy?

On the face of it, all this sounds very much like an all-too-familiar pre-poll tactic to woo Muslim voters, but could it be that these developments reflect a genuine concern within the BJP over its “Muslim problem”?

Has the penny finally dropped that it cannot hope to prosper as a truly national party or effectively govern the country if it continues to exclude 170 million voters on the basis of some ancient feud and old prejudices whose provenance even is not clear to a new generation of Hindus and Muslims?

Mr. Swapan Dasgupta, the party’s resident intellectual, appeared to reflect this concern when he said in a television debate that the fact that Muslims were not with the BJP amounted to its failure to reach out to every segment of society.

“Yes, naturally if it fails to appeal to a certain section of the population it will count as a failure,” he said.

Likewise, Mr. Jaitley acknowledged, albeit with gritted teeth, that the party needed to soften its hard anti-Muslim image or “soften its angularities,” as the interviewer Ms Barkha Dutt put it. Yes, it had “a certain ideological personality” and took “positions” on issues such as the uniform civil code, but while theoretical and ideological beliefs were one thing, practical realities of day-to-day politics were quite another, he suggested.

“Judge us by our record,” he said implying how the party had put the Ramjanambhoomi issue on the back-burner when it was in power.

The BJP believes that it has already won over the Sikhs and sections of the Christian community (nearly half the cabinet ministers in the BJP-led Goa government are Catholics) and Muslims are next on its shopping list. It is convinced that only the “bogey” of communalism raised by “secular’’ parties is keeping Muslims away from it.

The trick, the party believes, is to be able to counter this “bogey” and rid Muslims of their “sense of alarmism,” to quote Mr. Dasgupta.

One wishes it was that simple. The truth is that the threat of communalism is not a mere bogey; and the Muslim “sense of alarmism” does not exist in a vacuum. It may often be exaggerated or fuelled by secular parties to get Muslim votes, but it is real and there is a basis for it. The basis is the history of Sangh Parivar’s Muslim-baiting to the extent of questioning their loyalty to their own country.

So, what is it that, in the words of Mr. Jaitley, the BJP must “accept” and the Muslims must “understand” that would pave the way for the twain to meet?

Notion of supremacy

The notion of Hindu supremacy is so deeply hard-wired into the BJP’s DNA and a part of its “ideological personality” that it will be unrealistic to expect it to transform miraculously into an all-inclusive big tent overnight. For that to happen, it will have to cut itself loose from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its ideological mentor and, effectively, puppet-master. And that is not possible so long as the old guard — born and bred in RSS culture and dependent on its support — is incharge of the party. It will require a huge generational shift in leadership for the BJP to change and become a truly modern party free from sectarian prejudices.

Meanwhile, what it can do is what, in Britain, the Tory party is doing in relation to its old racist and homophobic attitudes. At its core, it remains largely a party of closet racists, misogynists and homophobes but in practice it is trying desperately hard (and succeeding, to some extent) to reach out to all — ethnic minorities, women and gays.

Who would have thought that one day it would fall to a Tory government to legalise gay marriage, and a Tory Prime Minister would be heard saying that he supported “gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative,” as Mr. David Cameron did. For a party which, until barely a decade ago, wanted innocuous gay groups to be shut down, legalising gay marriage is akin to crossing the Rubicon.

The BJP needs to do something like this vis-à-vis Muslims — some grand public gesture to make them feel welcoming and wanted, not just merely tolerated. Mr. Jaitley favours fielding more Muslim candidates in elections.

“We must get into the habit of giving tickets to them even if they lose initially,” he said.

That will, of course, help but more than anything else what Muslims really want is to be shown respect rather than being patronised. The problem that Muslims have with the BJP is not that it doesn’t give them an election ticket but that it tends to look down upon them and treat them as outsiders whom it has to tolerate because of political compulsions. This mindset must change.

Bridging the divide

As for what Muslims need to do to bridge the divide, it will require a huge leap of faith for them to embrace a party that, rightly or wrongly, they see as congenitally hostile.

But for starters they should shed their blind anti-BJPism. To some degree that is already happening. Disillusioned with secular parties and driven by sheer pragmatism they now have a more open mind when it comes to voting. No longer do they see the BJP as “untouchable,” a process which would have gained greater traction if Gujarat 2002 had not happened. The BJP also alienated many potential Muslim supporters by insisting on nominating Mr. Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in what they see as a calculated attempt to add insult to injury.

But it is still not too late. The Muslim mood is not set in stone and there is still a lot to play for if the BJP really wants their support. For example, a public show of genuine contrition by Mr. Modi for what happened under his watch or a direct appeal by him to Muslims can change the whole climate. The garbled apology issued by Mr. Rajnath Singh may have made a greater impact if it had come from Mr. Modi.

The good news, however, is that amid the fog of mutual distrust and suspicion, both sides have been making tentative moves to break the ice. Perhaps few people know that the RSS, of all things, has a Muslim wing, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, ironically formed the same year as the Gujarat riots with the avowed aim of reaching out to Muslims. It claims to have 10,000 Muslim members nationwide and is said to be engaged in creating a network of sympathetic Muslim clerics.

It is notable that despite initial fears of polarisation along communal lines, the election campaign so far has been mostly secular with developmental concerns trumping mandir-masjid-like issues. With one month still to go, that is a long time in politics but could it be that we are seeing the beginnings of a long-haul journey towards some sort of a BJP-Muslim entente cordiale?

hasan.suroor@gmail.com

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