It is fairly well known that Muslims in India have poor access to schools, jobs, rented accommodation and a range of public services, including health and sanitation. A large part of that can incontrovertibly be attributed to state failure. As if those indignities aren’t bad enough, Muslims are also subject to some very virulent rhetoric in the public sphere. The post-9/11 climate has been hostile to Muslim minorities the world over, including in India. They have been targets of endless stereotyping, including by BJP politicians who have attacked them in Parliament and crafted elections campaigns around spurious issues like ‘love jihad’. This has caused a great deal of consternation among liberals who have questioned why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not clearly denounced such rhetoric.
Mr Modi has now sought to distance himself from his BJP colleagues on the matter. Answering a question in an interview with CNN about al Qaeda’s plans to recruit cadres in India, he said such schemes were “delusional” as Indian Muslims will not “dance to their tune”. In remarks that received wide coverage, Mr Modi said “Indian Muslims will live for India” adding that “they will not want anything bad for India”. These remarks are welcome and will hopefully set the tone for future political messaging. Two constituencies must echo the PM. One is the social media sphere where rhetoric about Muslims has a particularly nasty edge among self-proclaimed nationalists. Such a degree of intolerance is toxic for Indian society. There is a need for consistent rhetoric that refuses to stigmatise the other in order to reassure minorities and moderate political discourse.
The BJP, in particular, must take cue from the PM’s remarks and desist from anti-minority posturing. The party is known for imposing internal discipline; compliance will thus easily follow if there is a steer from the top. The BJP should know that empathy with minorities goes to the heart of nation-building that it feels strongly about. It also happens to be good politics. Recent by-polls in Uttar Pradesh and other states have shown that anti-minority tactics can be counterproductive as constituents quickly tire of negative campaigns.
The BJP needs to realise that moving away from governance and development issues will ultimately hurt the party’s main asset — the PM himself. A party and a leader cannot speak in different voices without detriment to both. The BJP must remember that it has some way to go in extending its reach across India, notwithstanding Mr Modi’s popularity.
It needs to develop a politics that accounts for both India’s diversity and its aspiration for development.