He prefers the name Laden, as in Osama bin Laden, because 'nobody will remember my real name.' The other reason why Maulana Meraj Khalid Noor has opted for this nom de guerre is because he looks like Osama bin Laden. Obviously, this preacher of Islam from Narpat Ganj in Bihar is infatuated by either the physical features or the ideology of the world's most recognised face of terror, if not both.
And, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, who is locked in a bitter, no-holds-barred fight over Bihar with Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, his colleague in the United Progressive Alliance government, finds it politically expedient to take 'Laden' along with him every time he ventures forth into a Muslim-dominated area. After all, as he recently told a newspaper reporter, 'Osama does have some following among Muslim youth.'
Not to be outdone by his rival, Mr Yadav has come up with a cockamamie report that absolves the Muslim mob which set fire to a railway coach full of Hindus at Godhra of all guilt, promised communal reservation in jobs and educational institutions (a promise also made by Mr Paswan and his Lok Jana Shakti Party) and pledged to make Urdu a compulsory subject for all school students.
For good measure, Mr Yadav has also secured the public endorsement of a motley group of ulemas, led by Tauqeer Raza Khan of the All India Millat Council. For good measure, just in case all this has not driven home the point that Muslims, who constitute anything between 16 and 18 per cent of Bihar's electorate -- perhaps higher if you factor in unabated waves of illegal immigration from Bangladesh between the conclusion of the Census of India survey and this month's assembly election -- are best looked after by Mr Yadav, his Rashtriya Janata Dal has been putting up posters with visuals of the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
It is another matter that despite his blatant communal campaign, Mr Yadav's days as 'Mussalman ka massiah' may be numbered, if voter turnout in Muslim-dominated constituencies during the first round of polling and subsequent exit polls are any indication. But that, for the moment, can at best be a matter of conjecture; the reality will be known only after the votes are counted and speculation over what may happen need not deflect attention from the nauseating and cynical manipulation of Muslim sentiments by Mr Paswan and Mr Yadav, which is happening in Bihar at the moment.
In Bihar, silence is golden
Mr Paswan and Mr Yadav, of course, are 'secular' politicians who are key allies in the true-blue 'secular' Congress-led 'secular' UPA dispensation that today rules India. So, their pandering to the lowest common denominator of base, communal politics, is nothing less than a shining example of how 'secularism' must be upheld in India; it is a weapon forged by India's 'secular consensus' to defeat the 'communal' Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Election Commission of India, which sees itself as an all-empowered authority and whose members are accountable to none, has had no hesitation in choosing sides in this despicable game of competitive appeasement: it is with both Mr Yadav and Mr Paswan. Had that not been the case, the Election Commission would have acted by now and carried out its laughable threat against those appealing for votes in the name of religion to its logical conclusion.
Long years ago, when the BJP was yet to taste power, such loathsome pandering to minority communalism was known as 'minorityism,' a word made fashionable by Mr L K Advani in his fight against pseudo-secularism. The pathetic manner in which Rajiv Gandhi caved in to India's mullah brigade and used the Congress' parliamentary majority to undo the Supreme Court's judgment ordering maintenance for Shah Bano, a destitute Muslim woman thrown out by her husband, marked the high point of minorityism.
Other examples were the Congress seeking Muslim votes through fatwas issued by Syed Abdullah Bukhari, then Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, and the offer to pay imams from public funds, an offer which Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao believed would serve as absolution for his perceived role in facilitating the destruction of the disputed Babri Masjid structure by enraged Hindus. Since minorityism necessarily implied repudiation of India's Hindu majority sentiments and rejection of Hindu aspirations, the Ayodhya movement was declared both illegitimate and beyond the pale of secular politics.
The intervening years since the annulment of the Supreme Court's judgment aimed at providing justice to an indigent Muslim woman saw the gradual eclipse of the politics of minorityism as practised by the Congress. The BJP, in the mistaken belief of garnering incremental support, did desperately try to 'secularise' its identity during last year's Lok Sabha election campaign by borrowing more than one example set by the Congress, but ended up looking silly.
Witness the BJP's absurd promise of creating jobs for two crore Urdu teachers, a number later scaled down to two lakh by a red-faced PMO, its pledge of setting up more madarssas and the hilarious Himayat Yatra, which featured garishly painted buses plastered with portraits of General Pervez Musharraf and Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee being driven around Muslim areas.
It was a comical sight to see BJP leaders posing for photographers and news channel cameramen sporting bright red tikkas, saffron angavastrams and skullcaps; some other standard bearers of Hindutva had themselves photographed sporting a chequered kafiyah. And, amazingly so, the BJP even secured an endorsement from Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who has replaced Syed Abdullah Bukhari as the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid. All this and more, however, did not wash with Muslims who voted with double their usual enthusiasm to defeat the BJP's candidates.
It has been suggested, and forcibly so, that the BJP lost in 2004 because of the riots in Gujarat in 2002. That may be partly true, but if riots are so overwhelmingly instrumental in deciding popular vote, then the Congress would have never won an election in Assam after the Nellie massacre of March 1983 when 3,300 Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered in a single day or come to power in Punjab after the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 which witnessed more than 4,000 innocent people being butchered. Nor, for that matter, would Mr Yadav have won repeatedly in Bihar since 1990 on the strength of Muslim and Yadav votes after the October 1989 riots in Bhagalpur during which more than a thousand Muslims were killed by Yadav mobs.
There is something perverse about popular Muslim response to the political perversity called minorityism: so long as the pandering is done by leaders of the Congress or other parties who wear their 'secular' credentials on their sleeves, Muslim voters are willing to be swayed. This could be entirely because given the track record of these parties that claim to protect Muslim interests even while doing enormous damage to the community -- in Bihar, Muslims are at the bottom of the pile, living in wretched impoverishment -- of taking recourse to regressive and retrograde measures that appease those who are drawn by Osama bin Laden and flock to see Mr Paswan's 'Laden', who in turn influence voter preference. In short, the communal card played by 'secular' parties carries greater conviction than the BJP turning a trick or two.
In a sense, increasing Haj concessions and subsidies on the eve of the assembly election in Maharashtra and the blatant pandering to crass communal sentiments during this month's assembly election in Bihar mark the return of minorityism to Indian politics. We are back to witnessing election campaigns shorn of all pretences of following the Representation of the People Act and unrestrained by an Election Commission which is patently partisan and, therefore, lacks the legitimacy to conduct free and fair elections.
Mr Advani and his team, floundering for a winning strategy, could construe this as good news and the BJP may yet rediscover merit in steering an ideological course and revive its political battle against minorityism which, in the 1980s and 1990s, fetched it the support of Hindus across India's social classes tired of pseudo-secularism. Of course, the BJP could end up discovering greater merit in joining the raucous clamour of appeasement and discard the Indian angavastram for the Arabic kafiyah and skullcap.