Stretching to reach out
The emphasis on winning over Muslims has put BJP's 'hardcore' base in a fix.
The overemphasis of the BJP on winning over Muslim votes soon after the first phase of voting has sent confusing signals both to traditional supporters of ‘hardcore’ Hindus and the new constituency which is sought to be created out of the section whose patriotism and nationalism have often been questioned by top Sangh parivar functionaries. The result of this seeming shift in the electoral strategy of the saffron brigade, therefore, could also boomerang if an adverse reaction sets in among the traditional supporters of the parivar or if the majority of Muslims view it as another poll-eve gimmick and decide to come out strongly against the NDA government at the Centre.
The PM’s campaign speech in Kishenganj in Bihar may project him as a moderate leader wanting to offer an olive branch to the Muslim community. But somehow it does not sound too convincing primarily because Atal Bihari Vajpayee has in the past taken divergent stands to suit the occasion. In fact, after talking about the need to implement raj dharma (tenets of governance) in Gujarat following the riots, he
defended Narendra Modi and campaigned extensively to ensure that he got elected as the chief minister once again. Vajpayee’s flip-flops apart, the sudden overture made during the poll process to the Muslims is obviously a last-minute attempt to resurrect the sagging fortunes of the NDA which found reflection in the exit polls. Not that exit polls in this country have always proved correct but those who have been using different surveys to hype their campaigns may find it difficult to distance themselves from their faith in psephology even if it is an evolving science in India.
Another aspect of this new-found love for Muslims is that even if some of the modern and urban-based sections of the community may accept Vajpayee’s leadership, they may find it hard to endorse the philosophy of the Sangh. It may be true that a minuscule section of Muslims, mostly from big cities or universities, may be interested in giving the BJP a chance. But it’s equally true that the old RSS slogan giving two options for Muslims — Kabristan (graveyard) or Pakistan — has not been totally forgotten. The scars left behind by politics of hate do not get washed away by oral assurances that no Gujarat would be allowed to happen again. Of course, no one in this country wants Gujarat-type incidents to ever happen. But the minority community can also interpret references to Gujarat as intimidatory tactics even if that was certainly not the intention in the latest instance.
Minority thinking is normally based on a feeling of insecurity, especially when the track record of the major party in power has left a lot to be suspicious about. Vajpayee’s appeal to Muslims or his assurances of creating more jobs for Urdu teachers is a clever political ploy to neutralise or contain the reaction among Muslims towards the BJP. Inadvertently, the emphasis he has laid on Urdu may tempt the critics of the BJP to believe that the PM was drawing a linkage of the language to a community. However, it needs to be clarified that Urdu is not a language of any community and finds usage in everyday speech as many times as any other language which has been accepted.
In most elections which have taken place in the last few years, Muslims have voted for any party or individual who they have thought is capable of beating the BJP. The attempts by several top Sangh leaders to re-open the debate on secularism by using phrases such as ‘pseudo-secularism’ was an attempt to consolidate the Hindu vote.
The Muslims, in this context, have never voted for any one political party across the board but for those who could defeat and contain the BJP. The latest scramble for Muslim votes by the BJP is aimed at softening a section of the community just ahead of the next phase of polls. And to convey this message, they have chosen the prime minister whose overall image is perceived to be of a broad-minded leader as compared to his other colleagues in the party.
But the question which remains unanswered is whether the BJP or the Sangh parivar will retain the same kind of reconciliatory posture as the PM adopted in Kishenganj after the second phase. Will its leaders unravel yet another strategy for the third phase? An aspect which is bound to become a point of discussion is also whether the PM’s overtures display the NDA’s overall nervousness. Linked with his interview to All India Radio, in which Vajpayee talked about re-alignment of political forces after the elections, the appeal could also be interpreted as preparations for the next stage where possibilities of an alliance with some secular forces other than the Congress and the Left may come up with a view to forming the government.
While there may be some similarities with P.V. Narasimha Rao — who tried to win back Muslims at the fag end of his prime ministership — Vajpayee has also played his card to derive benefits from his contribution to the peace process in Pakistan hoping that Muslims who have a large number of family members across the border may give him the endorsement. He wants to be remembered as a 21st century path-breaker. However, it’s to be seen how the BJP’s core Hindu constituency reacts. Between us.