As he towered over a special meeting at his party headquarters in June, BJP mascot Narendra Modi asked partymen not to consider Muslims “unapproachable”. They must be wooed, and not given up on, he said.
Modi’s chutzpah comes from Gujarat, where he has managed to garner Muslim votes. His call has led the party’s minority affairs wing to organise a series of outreach programmes. Muslims were encouraged to turn up in skullcaps and burqas at his rallies.
These efforts point to the significance political parties attach to Muslim voters in any election. But for most Muslims, Modi remains someone under whose watch a carnage in 2002 killed over 1,000 people, about three-fourths of them Muslims.
That is why when Mahmood Madni, a prominent cleric and a faction leader of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, hit out at the Congress earlier this week and warned “secular parties” not to scare Muslims by citing Modi, it was music to Modi’s ears.
Zafar Sareshwala, a prominent Muslim businessman and backroom organiser for Modi, claimed Madni was articulating a “churning” among Muslims.
But reactions to Modi can still be bitter among Muslims, India’s largest minority numbering around 160 million. “Who can forgive Modi? In Bihar, we are preparing to defeat him. It’s clear that Mahmood Madni has a secret pact with Modi,” said Qari Shoaib Ahmed, a leader in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.
Modi too isn’t expecting a red carpet from Muslims. “We don’t want Muslims to appreciate Modi as much as we want them to criticise Congress,” an insider in Modi’s team told HT.
After a Hindu fundamentalist movement led to the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, many Muslims have articulated a longing for a “truly secular” alternative to the Congress, accusing the party of often letting the community down. That option has remained elusive.
Syed Najeeb of the Mumbai-based Association of Muslim Professionals said Modi could trigger panic voting among Muslims to defeat the BJP. “It’s true Muslims don’t want to remain under the shadow of any event, like the Babri Masjid demolition or Gujarat riots, but the scars are difficult to forget,” he said.
Some Muslim leaders, like Jamaat-e-Islami’s national secretary Mohd Salim Engineer, are sanguine in the hope that Modi would face a bulwark of not only a majority of Muslims but also the so-called secular parties.