Many Muslims in Bihar are not impressed by chief minister Nitish Kumar's latest move to target Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for his allegedly communal politics. It is mere "doublespeak", they say, and has little to do with secularism.
"After all, Nitish Kumar has been with the BJP for 17 long years. What happened to Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 is well documented, but all this while Nitish Kumar failed to criticise Modi and never demanded his sacking as chief minister. Suddenly, now, he questions Modi's secular credentials," says Irshadul Haque, a Dalit Muslim activist.
"If Modi is communal, how could Nitish Kumar treat senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, the man behind the demolition of the Babri mosque, as secular? For Muslims, Advani and Modi are two sides of the same coin," social activist Naiyer Fatmi told IANS
Mohammad Abid, a small-time contractor, said that Nitish Kumar had been trying to paint the BJP in white and Modi in black.
"If Nitish Kumar is so serious about the secular principle, he should first part ways with the BJP. Attacking Modi means nothing, as he was with Modi after the Gujarat riots of 2002," Abid said.
Sorror Ahmad, a community activist and mediaperson, said Muslims understand that they have nothing to do with Nitish Kumar's statement on 'topis' (skull caps).
Nitish Kumar had said that leaders should adopt the style of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was able to take everyone along. He had said that leaders should sometimes wear a topi, sometimes a tilak - a reference to the skull-cap and marks on the forehead that offer visible evidence of belonging to the Muslim or Hindu communities.
"One should know that 'topi' is part of culture, not religion. Nitish Kumar is using catchwords to send a political message to Muslims, but he has failed. He is widely seen as a close partner of BJP's Advani and Modi. Nitish Kumar was railway minister under Vajpayee, and when he raised the raj-dharam (duty of office) question for Modi after the Gujarat riots, Nitish Kumar deliberately maintained silence," Ahmad said.
Ahmad added that Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United was the first secular political party in the country to offer legitimacy to the BJP in 1996. "The JD-U was the first secular party to join the BJP; its earlier allies, Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, were religion-based parties," he said.
Muslims make up around 16% of the 105 million population of Bihar.
They determine the poll outcome in 60 of 243 assembly constituencies, mainly in the bordering districts of Kishanganj, Araria and Bhagalpur, north Bihar districts of Supoul, Madhepura, Saharsa and Darbangha, and central Bihar districts of Gopalganj, Siwan, Biharsharif, Gaya and Nalanda, where they have a presence of anything between 18 and 70%.
In about 50 other seats, Muslim voters make up 10-17% of the electorate, enough to substantially influence poll outcomes.
Ahmad said that Muslim votes were divided among four main political parties - JD-U, RJD, LJP and Congress. In some constituencies, Muslims also voted for the Left parties.
Haque too questioned Nitish Kumar's respect for Advani: Only this month, Advani claimed that BJP workers and leaders should not be apologetic for the Babri mosque demolition. Advani had strongly backed Modi after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, he said.
"Over 10 years after the Gujarat riots, and more than 20 years after the Babri mosque demolition, Muslims have learnt hard lessons to decide the fate of this country," Haque told IANS.
Saba Ansari, a 19-year-old college student, however, was more positively inclined to the chief minister: "He has, at long last, realised his mistake and is now open to taking on Modi," she said.
Nujhat Jahan, a 20-year-old student, said: "For me, Nitish Kumar is doing a repeat of (former chief minister) Lalu Prasad, who dared to stop Advani's Rath Yatra from entering the state, becoming a champion of secular politics," she said.