|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
BJP scrambles for Muslim votes
May 04, 2004
If one were to identify the one issue that powered the BJP's rise to national prominence and middle-class credibility in the 1980s, it was its campaign against the 'appeasement' of Muslims by 'pseudo-secular' parties.
Barring the Shah Bano case -- in which the Congress brought legislation to counter a court judgment granting modest maintenance to a Muslim widow -- the single greatest symbol of this 'appeasement' was the party's cultivation of leaders like Syed Abdullah Bukhari, the former Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid.
The BJP used to delight in publicising the fact that Congress leaders like the late Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna would punctiliously visit Bukhari every week, climbing the stairs to his flat even when in poor health themselves.
What better proof of the Congress's dependence on the Muslim 'vote bank'? Of course, the Congress cultivated conservative leaders from many different communities, including Sikhs, Christians and Hindus. But somehow, the minority 'appeasement' charge stuck in the middle class mind.
Today, the same BJP is busy appeasing rabidly communal or opportunist Muslim leaders. It has propped up a few token Muslims like Arif Mohammed Khan as its candidates, sponsored 'Atal Himayat' yatras, and even stooped to doing a deal with the Shahi Imam's son, Syed Ahmed Bukhari.
This Bukhari is almost a caricature of his father and enjoys little credibility even in Chandni Chowk. He has suddenly discovered that it's his 'religious duty to raise my voice against the exploitation of Muslims by the so-called secular parties.' He has appealed to Muslims to 'give the BJP a chance:' 'Let's befriend them and see what they have to offer.'
Bukhari's arguments can be easily discounted as specious, and even dishonest. He says the BJP unleashed a terrible pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat during its 6-year rule at the Centre, 'but the Congress is responsible for 36,000 Gujarats (riots) in its 50 years in power.' This is downright false. The Gujarat carnage remains unmatched in magnitude and virulence in Independent India.
Bukhari makes much of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 'condemnation' of the Gujarat violence, in March 2002, in Ahmedabad. But within days, in Goa, Vajpayee was back at crude forms of Muslim-bashing. The BJP has all along defended the Modi government. It never wanted to dismiss it, as it should have done. It's extremely revealing, although unsurprising, that Vajpayee has shared the campaign dais with Modi any number of times over the past weeks. The BJP's stand on the Best Bakery case, rightly transferred by the Supreme Court for retrial in Maharashtra, speaks of its true inclination. As for the 'apology' for the Babri demolition, 141 BJP MPs have called for a temple to be built at the very site -- without even mentioning the mosque!
It's easy enough to dismiss Bukhari's apologia for the BJP. But what of Vajpayee himself? After shouting from the rooftops for years against 'appeasement,' he now promises generous funding for madrassas and '2 crore' posts for Urdu teachers -- although the Sangh Parivar characterises madrassas as nurseries of bigotry and terrorism.
The frivolity and insincerity of the promise was exposed when the Prime Minister's Office lowered the figure one hundred-fold by 'clarifying' that he meant '2 lakh jobs.' Even this is huge. India has a total of 80 lakh teachers in all its schools. There are only 6 lakh Urdu schools, of which just 2,000 are under the Centre; they cannot possibly absorb 2 lakh teachers.
What about Vajpayee's speech before the launching of the 'Himayat caravan' on April 21? He said: 'I need your support not because these are election times (sic),' but 'because I have been trying for many years to see that Hindus and Muslims in India walk hand-in-hand, live in brotherhood, help one another, provide each other security and strive together to take the country forward. [I have been sincerely working] 'for a larger purpose. Firstly, to develop cordial relations with our neighbour. And, secondly, to develop a feeling within the country that we have to live together.'
The first proposition insultingly equates Indian Muslims with Pakistan. This is fully in keeping with the Sangh Parivar's description of them as the 'internal enemy,' a Pakistani Fifth Column who, unlike other Indians, look up to it. As for the rest, it is pious, sanctimonious blabber, which means nothing in the light of the BJP's actual record and its Hindutva core-ideology, which privileges Hindus alone as 'authentically' Indian.
The whole distinctiveness of the BJP lies in its rejection of the plural, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nature of Indian society. Vajpayee's deceptive sweet talk has provoked anger amongst many Muslims. Says one, quoted in The Indian Express: 'Does he think we are fools? They abuse us, loot us, kill us -- and then suddenly want our votes.' It's unbecoming of the prime minister to stoop to such deception. It won't even help the BJP garner Muslim votes.
The reason for the BJP's colossal hypocrisy is obvious. It faces a bleak electoral prospect. Its internal surveys say it won't cross the upper limit of 22 seats in Uttar Pradesh, and the NDA will get 260 to 270 Lok Sabha seats. All opinion polls show a momentum building up away from the BJP-NDA. The average of the five big polls conducted in mid-April is under 270 seats.
The latest exit polls suggest the NDA's national tally could be as low as 235. It's likely to lose the Andhra assembly. In UP, the BJP is in bad shape. The Brahmins are moving away from it. There's a surge of support for the Congress thanks to Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Trying to win some Muslim votes by hook or by crook is the BJP's first line of defence. So even Murli Manohar Joshi, one of the more inflexible of BJP hardliners, promises to modernise madrassas by installing computers!
It's unlikely that such 'appeasement' tactics will convince Muslims that the BJP has changed its spots.
The second line of defence is to try to confuse Muslims. Thus, NDA leaders, including Vajpayee and George Fernandes, have said there are no serious 'ideological differences' between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. The objective here is to discredit Mulayam Singh Yadav by exaggerating his compromises with the BJP. (He accepted its tacit support while forming the government in Lucknow, and welcomed its nominee Kesarinath Tripathi as UP assembly speaker. He didn't file a common chargesheet for the prosecution of BJP-VHP leaders in the Babri demolition case.)
Despite these compromises, the SP remains the BJP's strongest opponent in UP and the BJP needs to weaken it so that it might back an NDA-led government falling short of a majority.
On the other hand, the NDA is worried sick because the Congress is winning a great deal of Muslim support in UP. So, it's appealing to Muslims to 'stick to the SP.' Vajpayee himself did so in so many words at Bakshi-ka-Talab on April 27. It's shocking that the BJP's 'star' performer should ask people to vote for a rival party!
However, it's unlikely that even a minuscule section of Muslims will be confused by these crude ploys. So the BJP has taken to outright bribery. That explains the Lucknow stampede in which 21 women and a child were killed during the free distribution of saris on April 12. Despite denials, the event was organised by the BJP on the occasion of its campaign head Lalji Tandon's birthday. The BJP had rented the venue. Advertisements for free saris had appeared in Lucknow's newspapers five days earlier, displaying pictures of Tandon, Vajpayee's long-standing confidante. The party also organised transport for the women who came to receive the saris.
This was despicable, feudal-style patronage, an offence against the election law, and a downright corrupt practice. This must be condemned. The poor cannot be sacrificed in this terrible way, by making them fight and kill one another.
The ghastly character of the episode stands magnified by the 25 deaths. The Election Commission should take the strongest possible action, including countermanding the Lucknow election. The sari stampede is likely to damage the BJP -- and not just in UP. The Opposition must pursue the issue purposively. It should be equally uncompromising on Fernandes who, to win RSS cadres' support for his fraught election campaign, told a Hindi news channel that 'I have very old ties with the RSS.' He thus falsely implicated other Socialist leaders too.
The same Fernandes had given a clean chit to Dara Singh after the gruesome killing of Graham Staines and his children in Orissa. Fernandes' own former Socialist associates say his statement merely confirms what 'we had all along suspected: that he has sold his soul.' They have floated a George Harao Abhiyan to defeat the man they describe as a 'traitor.' They include noted writer Sachidanand Sinha who, ironically, had famously helped Fernandes win the 1977 election, which he fought from jail. One must wish the Abhiyan well.