On May 8, at around 5 pm, rumours brought curious faces out of the shops and houses of Madanpura, one of the main Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods of Varanasi. When the Central Paramilitary Force jawans started lining up on either side of the Madanpura road, it became evident that the rumour was true— Narendra Modi’s impromptu road show was to go through Madanpura, all the way to the BJP headquarters in Sigra.
By 7 pm the number of police personnel and jawans had increased and the “Har Har Modi” chanting crowd—consisting largely of young men on bikes—had thickened considerably. But Modi was nowhere to be seen. I asked a police officer about the need for such security, and his reply was, “Modi ko toh security kee jaroorat padegi yahaan pe” (Modi will surely need security here).
After another hour and a half of waiting, it was evident that Modi’s motorcade was nearby. Suddenly, a line of local residents came forward so as to have a better look at the incoming avalanche of saffron-capped supporters and the motorcade of Innovas. The paramilitary personnel pushed them back. And then the avalanche was there with all those standing pushed to the edges of the road. Endless streams of young men on bikes—interspersed with women and families—screamed slogans in favour of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Since this was not an official road show, Narendra Modi’s car came and went quickly, and after a little more than 15 minutes, it was all over. All that this road-show elicited from the Muslim residents of Madanpura was curiosity at best and naked diffidence at worst.
When I began asking around for opinions on the BJP leader, “killer”, “Adani’s friend” and “RSS man” were the most common responses. Some were sympathetic to Modi’s efforts and thought that he ought to be given a chance, but they also made it clear that their vote was not going to him. The 'Modi wave' found no takers in Madanpura.
However, the Madanpura crowd could not be more different the next day. In the massive crowd present at the AAP’s roadshow, not only were Muslims present in a disproportionate number—estimates by observers range between 40 to 70% of the total participants—but even the skullcaps had been switched for white AAP caps. The meaning was clear—the Muslim vote in Varanasi was to go to the AAP.
The heated debate this election on Narendra Modi and his politics makes it rather banal a statement to say that Modi is a controversial figure amongst minorities. His rise within the BJP hierarchy was against the backdrop of the rise of the Hindutva political coalition in India. He was largely the key organiser behind many of the BJP’s formative electoral victories in Western and Northern India. His one-time key partner Praveen Tagodia, and protector LK Advani, used to be the leading exponents of a worldview that sought to impose a singular cultural narrative upon India—that of India being dominated by the ‘Hindu way of life’. His accession to the chief minister’s office in Gujarat came at a time when the state had been witnessing the deterioration of inter-religious relations for more than two decades.
Then came the burning of the Sabarmati Express and the brutal carnage that followed. Intense and unresolved controversies over the handling of the riots have ensured that the reputation of the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee shall remain forever haunted by words like “genocide” and “pogrom”. While Gujarat has remained polarised—with ghettoised Muslim communities and conservative laws that seek to prevent religious conversion—it has admittedly had no riots or curfews since 2002. Few of Modi’s critics take that into account.
Come election 2014, the BJP’s official policy on minorities and matters of religion seems to be that of rejecting ‘communal appeasement’—essentially stating that while their politics has not been particularly warming towards Muslims, it shall not be antagonistic towards them either. The BJP has also attacked the Congress and said that it has been using Muslims as a ‘vote-bank’ without doing them any real favours. When charged with rejecting the skullcap or not including a single Muslim MLA in his council of ministers in Gandhinagar, Modi has repeatedly stated that token symbolism is not real secularism.
Meanwhile the BJP’s Hindutva stalwarts, who Modi decries as “diverting the campaign from the issues of development and good governance”, feel that they have a free rein when it comes to making fiery statements. Hence Giriraj Singh thought it fine to tell people who do not like Modi “to go to Pakistan”, while Tagodia tells his Bajrang Dal henchmen to “evict Muslims from their houses”. This is bound to fuel mistrust in the minds of minorities in India.
According to Dr Abdul Waheeb Ansari, a respected and influential figure in the locality of Lullapura—another Muslim-dominated neighbourhood of Varanasi, “Modi left his family to become a brahmachari for the RSS. He is now set to destroy the secular fabric of India”. When asked why he feels that way, he says, “He is an RSS man, who is responsible for the riots that occurred in Godhra.” It mattered little to him that the SIT committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, had exonerated him of any wrongdoing. “He still presided over it; remember when Atalji asked him to follow the Raj Dharma”. And finally, who will Dr. Ansari support? His reply is simple, “Kejriwal, he is more like a cross between Gandhiji and Lal Bahadur Shastri.”
Two lanes from Dr Ansari’s home, I meet Muzaffar and Abdul Ansari at a tea shop. “He has bought the media, and has big guns like Adani and Ambani supporting him,” is the best they think of Modi. When I said that his campaign this time has largely focused on development and good governance, their response is, “On the one hand he talks about putting the Koran and the computer in the Muslim’s hand, on the other he invokes Lord Rama and the sensitive issue of the temple in Ayodhya. If he really cared about Muslims, why bring up buried hatchets again?”
Their opinion is not an isolated one, and has tremendous implications. Political compulsions have forced Modi and his team to broadcast the possibility of a Ramrajya and ‘revenge’ in UP and Bihar, especially in the eighth and ninth phases of this election. Governance and development have little currency in a region so used to poverty and so wedded to the caste hierarchy. Invoking the most powerful name in Indian mythology is perhaps one of the few ways of convincing such people to put their petty caste differences aside and vote for Modi.
The virulent obstinacy over any key symbolic acts to reach out to the Muslim community, and the need to resort to Ramrajya politics, means that the inevitable suspicion that Modi and his political past elicits in the minds of Muslims remains unresolved. For them, the Godhra riots were orchestrated by Modi, and the only reason why there is a wave is because of a media that is “bought”. There may or may not be any truth in these pronouncements, but it is equally true that Modi’s campaign has done little, if anything, to alleviate such suspicions.
The only Muslim group vouching for Modi that I could find in Varanasi was a tiny band of around 15 women from the Bharatiya Awam Party—a BJP-affiliated Muslim Women’s organisation. Why Modi? “Because he will bring progress and development," replies Nazni Ansari, the leader of the pack. What about Modi being an RSS man, I ask? “RSS seeks to ensure national unity, not religious unity, so it’s okay.” As for post-Godhra violence, “Every party has presided over ghastly riots, especially the Congress.” What about the Ramrajya invocation at the Ayodhya rally? They reply, rather surprisingly, “Rama is the forefather of all Indians, so there is nothing wrong with that either.”
If this is the Muslim mind that the BJP is looking for, it is definitely going to be a long and hard search.
(The author, Akshat Khandelwal, tweets @Akshat_Khan)