The BJP means different things to different people. To some, it conjures up the image of a non-dynastic party (though it has some dynasts within its party, and is allied to dynastic parties like the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal), which consists of those who fought the tyranny of the Congress-imposed emergency for the sake of Indian democracy, a party which is itself internally democratic (highly questionable now, with the nature of the party under Modi’s demagoguery) that seeks to work for India’s development, without imposing a corrupt license raj and one which is relatively honest (though its relative honesty is also debatable), other than being assertive about national unity (defined in terms of Hindu cultural nationalism that is inclusive of those Muslims and Christians who are willing to identify with the larger cultural nationalist project, which is to refer to those of them who are not particularly offended at the prospect of constructing a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, beef bans, abrogating religion-based personal laws, doing away with special schemes for the religious minorities and the likes) and national security, without compromising on the same playing the politics of appeasement. (However, the idea of its non-appeasement becomes questionable, given its soft stand on hanging convicted Khalistani terrorists, owing to its alliance with the Akali Dal, as also its move to ban the film Madras Cafe to appease some Indian Tamils with an extra-territorial affinity to Sri Lankan Tamils, aside from many seeing its relatively indulgent attitude to Hindu extremism as amounting to appeasing those Hindus with an extreme Hindu majoritarian mindset, mirroring the attitude of ‘secular’ parties handing out doles to the Muslim and Christian minorities, though even this BJP-led central government has indeed started schemes specifically for the religious minorities.) Such people view the BJP as being the currently best national political alternative, even if some of its religion-based politics is perceived by them as irksome, or they believe that religion-based politics by any party is best turned a blind eye to (though I disagree with the idea that one should just conveniently overlook dangerous religion-based politics played by any political party).
To others, it is a party that stands only for Hindu majoritarianism of an extremely fascist nature, such people refusing to believe that its members spewing communal venom and at times, even instigating violence against Muslims or Christians, are any “fringe elements” not representing the party as a whole and possibly retained just to appeal only to a certain section of the electorate (interestingly, the Hindu majoritarian image of the BJP is believed to have contributed to its drubbing in the national elections in 2004 and 2009, as I have explained in some detail here), but rather, the true face exposing the supposedly hidden agenda of the party, even if the party leadership disassociates itself from those objectionable statements. Among those holding this point of view, the BJP is worthy of contempt for many and adulation among a handful, though this tiny extreme Hindu rightist loony minority is very loud on cyber space, with centrist and near-centrist people not wanting to, in metaphorical terms, bang their heads against the wall debating with these jerks.
Whatever may be one’s perspective of the BJP, it is undoubtedly seen as a party which is vocally “Hindu” on very many occasions (as many right-wing parties in the West are vocally Christian, though not having a record of their senior members allegedly having a hand in any anti-minority violence within their countries, as the BJP ashamedly has, as does the Congress, when it comes to the anti-Sikh riots in 1984; sporadic hate crimes have taken place in the West too, but usually not in complicity with sections of the administration) and so, the relationship of the BJP with Muslims and Christians is a subject that always attracts attention. While some Muslims and Christians think of the BJP as a whole to be their perennial foe with which they should have as dispense little to do as possible, others believe that the party as a whole is not ultra-rightist in the religious sphere, and can be engaged with or even joined to neutralise the ultra-right within the party, and those with such views on the BJP do often tend to have faith in its promises with respect to economic development.
Interestingly, the BJP has been fairly popular with the Muslims of Madhya Pradesh and Christians of Goa, where the BJP has been in power over the last few years (it has also been a part of the coalition government of Christian-majority Nagaland), and by and large, Muslims and Christians do, on the whole, lead regular lives in BJP-ruled states like their counterparts in other states (and communal riots do sporadically take place in states other than those governed by the BJP too, in which innocent Hindus do also lose their lives, and even non-BJP governments haven’t always been effective in checking riots either). Shahnawaz Hussain, an eloquent orator in Hindi, who has time and again won elections from Bihar’s Muslim-majority Bhagalpur constituency on a BJP ticket, has perhaps been the most visible Muslim face of the BJP for quite some time, though another equally well-known personality is Muqtar Abbas Naqvi, who has for long served as the vice president of the BJP and is known to make ridiculous statements (like commenting on female journalists reporting 26/11 and much more recently, asking beef-eaters to go to Pakistan), though the most prominent Muslim in the BJP currently is Najma Heptullah, who holds a cabinet portfolio in the central government.
And indeed, under this current BJP government at the centre, Modi seems to have now successfully put a leash on the tongues of rabble-rousers in his party, and we had without any state intervention whatsoever, screenings of movies like pk, a film criticizing Hindu extremists and even questioning several mainstream Hindu beliefs and practices, and Haider, a film supporting the Kashmiri Muslim separatists and critical of human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian Army (a taboo subject for many Hindu rightists, and those contending that the film was, in any way, biased against the Kashmiri separatists should read this article), with Haider even winning National Awards from the government as also Sania Mirza getting the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, S. Christopher becoming the DRDO chief, and Syed Akbaruddin continuing as the spokesman of India’s foreign ministry, even getting a further promotion, with their religious identities not coming in the way, and yes, life has continued just as usual for Muslims and Christians, going to educational institutions (my college in BJP-ruled Gujarat inducted Muslim employees under a pro-BJP vice chancellor, and after Modi becoming PM, a Christian teacher became registrar – not to say that the BJP had any proactive role in this, but to say that there wasn’t any negative role either), workplaces and recreation centres, often alongside their Hindu friends. In fact, this BJP government at the centre apologized to the people of Kashmir when two innocents were killed by some rogue soldiers in a fake encounter, and also struck a peace accord with the fanatically Christian Naga rebels.
However, while most Muslims and Christians may not deeply abhor the BJP as a whole, on a national scale, most of them usually do not vote for the BJP, and have valid reasons for the same, given that the loony right within the BJP, even if a fringe in the BJP, has instigated violence against them, which is scary enough and must be condemned in the strongest terms. [As for readers who are even mildly resentful of Muslims, I would request them to peruse with an open mind (not skim through and judge based on their preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download.] And speaking of the Gujarat riots of 2002 and their immediate aftermath, at least within Gujarat, the loony right did seem to constitute the mainstream (obviously even including the then chief minister Narendra Modi, as you can see here, and he subsequently modified his politics vis-a-vis the minorities, as you can see here) and not the fringe.
If the BJP wishes to win the trust of the minorities, it would have to remove all the extreme rightists within its fold and severe ties with ultra-rightist outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which does claim to speak for all Hindus but does not represent a vast majority of Hindus.
Equally, ‘secular’ parties should stop pandering to minority voters by offering reservations and special schemes, trying to release all Muslims charged in terrorism cases (yes, the Samajwadi Party tried that, but was disallowed from doing so by the judiciary), suffixing ‘ji’ with the name of Osama (as Digvijay Singh did), or using look-alikes of Osama and Saddam while campaigning, being soft on Muslims during communal riots (as the Samajwadi Party had initially been in the Muzaffarnagar riots, with Azam Khan allegedly telling the cops to not fire at Muslim rioters, and even governments in West Bengal are believed to have been in case of the riots in Deganga in 2010 and Canning in 2013), opposing forging strong ties with Israel and the United States (but never opposing forging relations with Islamic states with a horrible human rights record) even if it is in India’s national interest, and acceding to communal demands like stopping Salman Rushdie from coming to India to attend a literary festival and banning films like The Da Vinci Code and Viswaroopam in states where they are in power, in spite of the films getting censor board clearance (though the bans were lifted on judicial intervention).
Perhaps the most controversial Muslim recruits of the BJP in recent years have been Shazia Ilmi and Sabir Ali.
Speaking of Shazia, while campaigning for the AAP (of which she was then a member) in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, she had once, in a private gathering in Mumbai (a video of which had been leaked), explicitly asked Muslims to be more communal, which had served as a setback to many AAP-supporters (like me), and after the national elections, she made an exit from the party saying that none other than Arvind Kejriwal had asked her to resign. More surprisingly, however, she found herself a place in the BJP, which is certainly not assumed to accommodate blatantly communal Muslims! Interestingly, Shazia’s brother Aijaz Ilmi has been a member, and in fact, spokesman of the BJP even prior to her joining the party. Another Muslim spokesman of the BJP has been the remarkable journalist and author MJ Akbar, who joined the BJP shortly before these national elections.
However, in the backdrop of the Bihar elections, this piece is focused on the other controversial Muslim recruit to the BJP, Sabir Ali. Those who had closely followed the national elections in 2014 (which have indeed been the most closely followed elections in the last few decades, thanks to the interest in polity generated by the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation) and have a good memory would recall that there were, in some succession, two people inducted in the BJP and quickly expelled. One was ultra-rightist Hindu leader Pramod Muthalik, while the other one was Sabir Ali.
Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene was most notorious for its attack on girls in a pub in Mangalore, which Muthalik defended. He has a notorious record of moral policing and spewing venom against the religious minorities, and his induction in the BJP was followed by an almost immediate expulsion. The BJP was signalling to the young urban Indian voter that it was not a party that sought to interfere with their personal liberty. Indeed, the then BJP advertisements showed an urbane girl talking of how folks like her update their Facebook statuses, and should similarly also accordingly “update” their government by opting for Modi this time around, thus appealing to a modern, tech-savvy generation that usually loathes moral policing and in very many cases, religion-based politics.
Not long after the Muthalik episode, we had Sabir Ali, a former JD(U) politician from Bihar, walking into the BJP, but soon enough, we had Muqtar Abbas Naqvi accusing Ali of having connections with the notorious terrorist Yasin Bhatkal, with the RSS supporting Naqvi, leading to Ali’s ouster from the party. Were the induction and expulsion of Pramod Muthalik and Sabir Ali back in 2014 (when Shazia Ilmi was still in the AAP) pre-planned events to reach out to certain sections of the electorate to suggest that the BJP may have moved beyond Hindu conservatism but nonetheless has no place for dangerous minority communalism? Perhaps, perhaps not.
However, what makes Sabir Ali even more interesting is that in the wake of the coming Bihar elections in which Muslims do have an important role to play (more than in the national elections, with smaller constituencies giving voters from minority religious groupings a greater say, though even speaking of the national elections, the Modi-led NDA’s national vote-share was only 38.5%, which is to say that the votes in very many constituencies got divided in favour of political parties in opposition to the BJP – to explain this in simplified terms, imagine a hypothetical scenario with only ten voters in which three votes go to one candidate and the seven others go to seven different candidates, leading the candidate with just three out of ten votes to win), he has found a place in the BJP yet again. This rubbishes their earlier stand that the allegations against Sabir Ali had not necessarily been totally baseless, for they have not, in the public domain, presented any evidence as a basis for their apparent change of heart. The decision seems to be prompted by electoral arithmetic to get as many Muslim votes as they can, though they know that they are not likely to get the bulk of Muslim votes. Moreover, Muslim faces are important for the BJP not only to attract Muslim voters, but also, and perhaps more importantly, centrist Hindu voters who abhor majoritarian politics.
Some may recall that when the Anna Hazare agitation was at its peak, with the BJP supporting the same then, the BJP had also, in the wake of the UP elections, inducted an allegedly corrupt politician Kushwaha to get their caste arithmetic right, which reflected their hypocrisy on the issue of fighting corruption (which they continued to demonstrate by preventing lokayuktas, who were to be for the states what the lokpal is for the centre, from becoming constitutional bodies, misinterpreting Article 253 of the Indian constitution, and later by joining hands with the Congress to pass a weak lokpal bill, with none of the provisions which were guaranteed to Anna Hazare when he broke his fast, and now when in power at the centre, they’ve not even appointed a lokpal, just like Modi, as CM of Gujarat, never appointed a lokayukta in spite of a very weak lokayukta law). The outcome in UP didn’t go in their favour. Will inducting Sabir Ali this time around also prove to not be a good idea? That is something only time will tell.
The Bihar elections, however, have, in any case, posed a challenge to the BJP, like the Delhi elections did. They are contesting these elections on the Modi wave, without announcing their chief ministerial candidate yet, which may cost them dear, as it did in Delhi, with their opponents following the AAP pattern of demanding to know the chief ministerial candidate. Besides, disillusionment with Modi has been on a rise, and indeed for very valid reasons, as my friend Shardul Vats has very nicely elucidated in another piece on this very site.
While Nitish undoubtedly did wonders in Bihar as chief minister by drastically checking crime, compensating the victims of the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 and bringing unprecedented growth to the Bihari economy (what he achieved for Bihar as chief minister is much more remarkable than what Modi did for Gujarat, already a very developed state), when many thought that Bihar had little to look forward to after losing mineral-rich Jharkhand, his tie-up with the RJD, the party of Lalu, who is seen to represent corruption and hooliganism that Nitish had promised to eradicate once he was elected chief minister, hasn’t gone down well with many voters, though the RJD has stated that it will not field candidates with criminal records. While this alliance may be justified as an attempt by supposedly secular forces to fight the BJP, raising the slogan of secularism at the expense of many other real public policy issues is something that irks very many people, both Hindu and Muslim, and actually does damage to the sacrosanct idea of secularism.
Further, the actual practice of secularism by Lalu’s RJD has involved appeasement of Muslims, even attacking the JD(U) back in 2012 when the two parties were in opposition to each other for welcoming investment from Israel, which would only bring employment in Bihar, but the RJD has not uttered a word against the current Saudi aerial bombings in Yemen.
However, the BJP handing out special packages on the eve of elections also does not make much economic sense, and only demonstrates a very cheap demonstration of power politics. Besides, some elements in the BJP are also believed to have had a hand in the riots in the Muzaffarpur region of Bihar (not to be confused with the Muzaffarnagar region of UP), in which an old rural Hindu widow bravely gave sanctuary to some Muslims in her own home, rightly winning an award from the JD(U) government. This incident, like so many others, rubbishes the contention of very many of our self-proclaimed secular ‘intellectuals’ from the Hindu community exaggerating Muslim victimhood that religious tolerance among Hindus is a monopoly of the urban middle class they hail from.
Coming back to Bihar’s electoral battle, it is clearly an ironic two-way contest between an opportunistic alliance by Nitish’s JD(U) with a corrupt and hooligan RJD on one hand, and the BJP, which has allegedly played majoritarian politics in Muzaffarpur and has so far only made fairly empty promises judging by their performance in the centre, on the other. The people of Bihar have a tough choice to make. However, as an independent citizen, I feel that with the BJP trying to take control over judicial appointments, dilute the Right to Information Act, Whistleblower Protection Act etc., the nation does need the anti-BJP parties to emerge as stronger, and Nitish, having much to show in terms of his track record in Bihar, should make a good CM. The RJD should also learn the lesson from the drubbing they have, in the past, received from their current allies, the JD(U), to embrace good and clean governance rather than hooliganism.
(With inputs from my friend Akash Arora.)