Had Narendra Modi simply said that he would not don the Muslim skull-cap because it was his personal cultural choice not to do so or had he restricted himself to state, something that I too firmly believe, that merely embracing outward symbols of identity cannot be a solution to the plethora of socio-economic issues confronting Indian Muslims, I would have applauded him. Both of these answers would have demonstrated his ability to be sincere to his slogan of “India First” and rise above the politics of closet majoritarianism, which has not only, rather overtly, informed his “Gujarat model” over the years but has also been covertly mainstreamed, into his current campaign, by him and his acolytes, with communally loaded slogans of “Apman ka badla”, “Pink revolution” and the age-old “Ram Mandir”.
Ironically, his re-iteration in TV interviews, of the fact that he views the wearing of a Muslim cap to be a symbol of “minority appeasement”, betrays an eagerness on his part, to appease the strong Hindutva-RSS lobby, of which he is a product. That it ends up revealing his blatant hypocrisy on this subject is a mere co-incidence.
Modi says that he wouldn’t wear the Muslim headgear for a mere photo-op. Now, that’s truly ironic because the skull-cap itself was first offered to him, by a “stage-managed” Imam in one such “Kodak moment” in 2011, during his Sadbhavana fast, which was nothing but a visible “PR exercise”, orchestrated to, rather cynically, whitewash his saffron poster-boy image with a “coat of secularism”, in order to make him acceptable on the national scene.
The greater irony of course, is that Modi continues to indulge in such photo-ops, donning headgears, from the religious turban of Sikhs whilst sharing stage with the Akalis in Punjab to the tribal Dumluk in Arunachal Pradesh. A leading news portal has even done a photo-story titled “The different headgear avatars of Narendra Modi” in February 2014. You get no extra points however, for guessing which is the only headgear Modi has shied away from sporting, rather consciously! So in poll season, you can get a Sikh Modi, a Tamilian Modi, a Tribal Modi, surely a saffronised Modi but a Skullcap-clad Modi would be a bit of a stretch, politically and symbolically.
Modi is absolutely right when he tells his interviewers that Nehru and Gandhi never wore a Topi to show that they were secular individuals. Then, “why do these scheming secularists have such expectations of me?” he asks rather innocently! Well firstly, the fact that Mr. Modi invokes Nehru and Gandhi, despite his ideological bearer, the RSS, preferring Savarkar and Godse over them, is indeed heartening but somebody ought to tell him that those two did not share his dubious track record on treatment towards minorities and that they were certainly not predisposed to making communally loaded references like “Miyan” Musharraf, “Miyan” Ahmed Patel and James “Michael” Lyngdoh as was done by him, to drive home a very sectarian point, in the course of his Gaurav Yatra, undertaken in the run up to the assembly elections, following the 2002 riots, that were described by his own party’s Prime Minister as a “blot on democracy” and where his own role was described, by no less than the Supreme Court, as reminiscent of a “Modern Day Nero who twiddled his thumbs” as the plural fabric of his state was set ablaze.
I am not sure whether Modi’s resolve not to “appease” Muslims by wearing a skull-cap was essentially a contemptuous dig at his own colleagues like Rajnath Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and of course the BJP’s patriarch Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who haven’t shown the same pathological hatred towards embracing the headgear and its embedded symbolism of accepting India’s cultural diversity. I wonder if this innocuous debate, ironically predicated on a Muslim cap, at its core documents a larger identity crisis persisting within the BJP, which finds itself oscillating between soft and hard Hindutva; between a one-man show and collective leadership.
Modi’s counter question on whether Sonia Gandhi ever donned the Muslim skullcap does indicate his utter ignorance towards the cultural tradition of India’s second largest community where only Muslim men sport these caps not women-folk! Modi should just thank his stars that Sonia Gandhi hasn’t retorted by asking him whether he had ever worn a dupatta! I am certain that it won’t do much good for his macho, 56-inch chest thumping, “iron man” image that he has so carefully crafted for himself.
To be fair, Modi did suggest that while he might not fancy wearing the Muslim Topi he surely wouldn’t allow anyone to denigrate it- hinting that a future administration under his watch would not be caught “twiddling its thumbs”! (You know because the second time around, it would be rather clumsy on his part to allow hundreds of people to be killed and displaced under his watch again!) Well, how convincing that would have sounded only if his own cabinet minister had not led predatory mobs in Naroda Patya and his administration not been charged of weakening the cases of riot victims in active collusion with the accused!
So, let us objectively examine Modi's resolve towards his above commitment on minorities. Recently, while sharing the stage with his alliance partner Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Ramdas Kadam, Shiv Sena's topmost leader made some vitriolic statements about Muslims in the presence of Narendra Modi. Did Modi chide Ramdas Kadam for doing so? No, he kept listening with rapt attention. After much outrage was expressed on the statements made by Praveen Togadia in Bhavnagar,advocating an almost Nazi form of racial segregation where minority Muslims must be evicted from Hindu localities and on Giriraj Singh's remarks that were laced with an anti-Muslim flavor, when he repeatedly asked for Modi baiters to go to Pakistan since their "political Mecca Medina" exists there, Modi reluctantly issued a rather cosmetic condemnation on twitter! But actions speak louder than words and despite making those outrageous statements in Gujarat, a state ruled by Modi, VHP's Doctor of Hate Praveen Togadia roams freely and what is indeed shocking is the fact that after Togadia's speech in Bhavnagar, a Muslim family was prevented from entering their own home in a Hindu area and Modi did nothing to ensure justice for them! The saga of discrimination against Muslims in Modi's Gujarat is visible in every aspect.
Poverty amongst Muslims is eight times more pronounced than the average poverty level across the state, their access to loans, government jobs, basic civic amenities and political representation is quite low compared to their share in population. The only area Muslims find an over-representation is in the jails of Gujarat where they languish for years,without trial, on petty charges!
Has Modi done enough to "protect the Muslim topi" or to dissuade his "Parivar" from toying with the Muslim topi in the last 13 years? Clearly not. And if he hasn't done it in 13 years and he seems reluctant to do so even today, what guarantees do we have for the future?
Anyway, I think the more relevant question that TV interviewers and citizens must ask Modi, is not about why he refuses to wear a Muslim cap but why, despite being the Prime Ministerial candidate, whose bumper sticker reads “India First”, he never found the time to visit the riot victims of Muzaffarnagar or work towards their rehabilitation. The answer to this question, I am afraid will be found in the "Gujarat Model" itself.
(All views are writer's own)