He does not understand that 70% of India is rural and this is not going to affect them. He is not only poor in calculation, but poor in history’.
That severe indictment of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, came in December last year from Sabir Ali, the politician who now has the dubious distinction of having been a member of the BJP for just 24 hours.
All it took for Ali to change his views on Modi was the fact that he was denied a re-nomination to the Rajya Sabha by the Janata Dal (United) in January.
Ali is a brazen political opportunist who has travelled from the Lok Janshakti to the JD(U) to the BJP.
MJ Akbar, the other high-profile Muslim face who has embraced the BJP, is eminently more qualified than Ali, whose exact business interests have been the subject of much speculation.
Akbar has, after all, been one of the country’s finest writers and editors. His political journey from a Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress to a Modi-led BJP has been nicely masked in intellectual sophistry, but he too has much to live down. After all, Akbar too once likened Modi to Hitler in the aftermath of the Gujarat 2002 riots, and even suggested awarding the Gujarat chief minister a Nishan-e-Pakistan for dividing communities.
Ali and Akbar, both originally from Bihar, represent the BJP’s unspoken desire for token Muslim representation to defend itself against the charge of being a Hindus-only party.
So, through the 1980s and 1990s you had Sikandar Bakht, a soft-spoken gent who seemed happy to remain in the shadows of the Vajpayee-Advani duo.
In the last decade, the BJP’s Muslim ‘faces’ have been Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain, both of whom have enjoyed political benefits disproportionate to their limited mass base.
Both have also zealously guarded their exalted space as a ‘minority within a majority’ as Ali has found out to his cost already. There is also Najma Heptullah, another Delhi drawing-room neta, whose political U-turn coincided with the onset of the 2004 elections when she, like many others, expected Atal Bihari Vajpayee to return to power.
Now, the wind is blowing once again in the BJP’s direction with Modi as the helmsman.
Only the Indian Muslim has steadfastly refused to be swayed by it. In the opinion polls done by CSDS for CNN-IBN, Modi at the moment enjoys higher popularity than his rivals across all social categories except the Muslims.
Just a little over 10% Muslims have said they are inclined to vote for the BJP in the coming elections. The majority remain firmly opposed to the idea of Modi as prime minister.
This in itself should come as no surprise. No BJP leader, not even Vajpayee, has been able to break the great wall of mistrust that exists within the Muslim community towards the Sangh parivar.
This is the cross of Hindutva’s traditional majoritarian-based politics which the party must bear.
The fact that Modi as chief minister was unable to prevent the mass killings in 2002 makes his position even more untenable in the context of the Indian Muslim.
That not a single Muslim is considered deserving of a party ticket from Uttar Pradesh or from Modi’s home state Gujarat only confirms that the BJP too is aware that a Muslim with a lotus symbol is unlikely to be a winning candidate.
And yet, Modi’s search for national ‘acceptability’ cannot be complete without an outreach to the Indian Muslim.
In an interview to this columnist, Akbar offered two explanations for his rethink on Modi. The first he said was the fact that, despite several inquiries, Modi had emerged unscathed for his role in the 2002 riots.
It is a legally sustainable argument but as a well-researched recent book by journalist Manoj Mitta, The Fiction of Fact Finding, highlights, the Gujarat riot inquiries have been caught in a tangled web of half-truths and cover-ups.
Modi may not have been held personally culpable by a lower court, but the fact that the violence took place under his watch, that his senior minister has been convicted, that footsoldiers of the Sangh parivar were directly involved are moral taints he must live with.
Akbar’s second argument is more persuasive.
Modi’s growth focus, he says, is the only way Muslims can move out of a trap of fear and poverty which the Congress has created.
But while it is true that the Gujarati Muslim is much better off than his counterparts in many other states, the emergence of an affluent Gujarati Muslim middle class predates the rise of Modi.
The Bohra Muslims, for example, have been strongly entrepreneurial for centuries. Surveys confirm that the socio-economic condition of the average Muslim in Gujarat is still well below other communities in the state. And the sense of ‘separateness’ is reinforced in large ghettoised neighbourhoods across the state.
Let me offer a more credible solution then to Modi.
If he really wants to end the trust deficit with the Indian Muslim, he needs to look beyond high-profile individuals.
Why doesn’t he take a short trip to Citizen Nagar, a Muslim basti on the edges of Ahmedabad where hundreds of riot-affected refugees live in near sub-human conditions next to a large garbage dump. If he can truly rehabilitate them and make them feel a part of Vibrant Gujarat, he will have won their hearts. And possibly the mind of the average Indian Muslim.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network. The views expressed by the author are personal)