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The 'minority' card is a dud

March 15, 2004

The Bharatiya Janata Party has rightly been called a political chameleon which constantly changes its colours and complexion to suit the exigencies of the moment.

What is less often noticed is that the BJP routinely appropriates those very platforms and tactics for the use of which it condemns its opponents. For instance, the BJP has always made a big fuss about 'unprincipled' and 'opportunist' alliances between ideologically dissimilar parties. But it has had no compunctions about entering into breathtakingly opportunist alliances with groups like the Bahujan Samaj Party which reserves the choicest abuse for it. The BJP once deplored defections. But its own ranks are full of defectors. The D P Yadav episode shows that left to itself, the BJP would be happy to recruit individuals with dubious records.

Similarly, the BJP reaped much middle class sympathy by condemning the Congress' 'vote-bank politics' based on the cultivation of groups like Muslims and Adivasis. The BJP's campaign on the Shah Bano issue and (the myth of) 'minority appeasement' was centred on this claim. It fuelled its rapid political rise in the 1980s.

Today, the BJP shamelessly practises that very politics. Last month, it went out of its way to attract Muslims by holding the Rashtriya Muslim Vikas Mahasammelan, where Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ostentatiously wearing a green turban, strained to assure a hired audience that the BJP has nothing against the minorities. The strategy was to woo Muslims by underscoring the peace process with Pakistan and pointing to the resumption of cricket matches. The assumption was that Indian Muslims have a special affinity for Pakistan -- a questionable and tendentious proposition, which is part of Hindu-communal dogma.

Vajpayee said the Indian Muslims' best bet is to befriend and support the BJP. Most Muslims would see this appeal as akin to the menacing statement issued by the RSS from Bangalore exactly two years ago, after the Gujarat massacre: 'Let Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority. Muslims will be safe... provided they win the goodwill of the majority community.'

Nothing in the BJP's ideology, its basic instincts, its policies and its actual practice can reassure the 180 million people who constitute India's non-Hindu citizens (or, for that matter, the vast majority of Hindus, who are secular) that the party has executed even a minor shift in its majoritarian orientation, its Islamophobia and its hatred of non-Hindus.

The BJP-led government's concessions to Muslims have all been tokenist: the Haj subsidy, a Muslim President, iftar parties... Had the BJP even had a scintilla of concern for Muslims, it would have acknowledged the seriousness of the problems afflicting them: a literacy rate of under 40 percent (national average 62), landlessness (51 percent), unemployment or underemployment (a horrific 62 percent for males). It has done nothing to address their real needs -- health, education and employment -- or to increase their representation in government jobs (2 to 4 percent), work participation (10 percent) or legislatures (less than half their ratio in the population). On the contrary, the BJP chides and taunts the Muslims for their backwardness and poverty -- as if they willed it!

However unconvincing (and even repulsive) the BJP's appeal to the Muslim masses, it has drawn in a handful of leaders like Arif Mohammed Khan. Najma Heptullah is also likely to join the party. These individuals have no base or standing amongst Muslims. Their decision to defect is led by narrow, personal calculations. Heptullah won't even get elected to a municipality on her own. She has nothing to show for herself except her lineage from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad -- which wholly excludes his intellectual or political legacy. She was lucky to have been elected to the Rajya Sabha four times. The first time she got a ticket was when she prostrated herself before Indira Gandhi and wouldn't let go of her feet. So much for the 'dignity' that the lady now wants to gain by joining the BJP!

As for Khan, he is a maverick politician who used the Shah Bano issue to build a pedestal for himself. He has been through numerous parties, including the BSP and Congress. After the Bofors story broke out, he joined V P Singh's Jan Morcha, but betrayed its cardinal principle and source of appeal: probity in public life. The worst instance of this was his grounding in 1990 of Indian Airlines' entire Airbus A-320 fleet as civil aviation minister for 9 months.

Khan knows he has no following in his former constituency, Bahraich, and not much of a political future. He is just cashing in on his identity. He cannot garner Muslim votes for the BJP anywhere. But he can cause some damage in Gujarat by campaigning for Narendra Modi. In 2002, Khan spent time in Gujarat, apparently helping the victims. He can now punish the Congress while rewarding the party that overlooked the massacre. That way, Khan can become 'even-handed.'

In doing so, Khan would only be following the perverse logic that drove him into the BJP: nobody is secular in India (not even the Left, Mr Khan?); therefore, one may as well go with the worst of hardcore anti-secularists! This is as astoundingly irrational as the argument that in an unfair world, you must not promote balance, but yet more unfairness! Khan can further humiliate lakhs of Muslims in Gujarat, who still live in fear and insecurity, who daily face intimidation, who suffer an economic boycott, and confront different forms of violence. But his apology for the massacre won't whitewash that crime against humanity.

The BJP's calculation in recruiting Khan and his ilk is downright cynical. There are about 100 Lok Sabha constituencies, where the Muslim vote is sizable, about 15 to 20 percent, or more. But the BJP probably won't gain any Muslim votes because of its latest 'catch.' Few Muslims will be taken in by its 'poster-boy' tokenism. But will the BJP gain any Hindu votes? That too seems unlikely. The party's hardcore supporters will vote for its Muslim candidates holding their noses -- because they are pro-Hindutva anyway.

As for the more neutral, uncommitted or floating Hindu vote, this kind of tokenism won't work. It's just too crude. Ordinary Indians, with their robust native intelligence, know how to distinguish between genuine gestures of goodwill and contrived or dishonest ones. That's why Mulayam Singh Yadav had to withdraw his ill-advised move to close Uttar Pradesh schools at mid-day on Fridays to enable Muslim children to offer namaz. The most vociferous protests came from the Muslims themselves. The Muslims clearly saw the measure as an electoral ploy. It didn't arise from the community's needs, in which education for boys and girls scores higher than prayers. The partisan move would have eventually harmed Muslims.

The BJP, then, is unlikely to gain votes or respectability by inducting a handful of opportunist and discredited Muslims out to make a fast buck as small-time apparatchiks or Quislings (named after a renegade Norwegian officer who collaborated, like Marshall Petain in France, with the Nazis). But will the Quislings themselves do well? They are likely to see their own comeuppance soon. There's little space in the BJP for non-Hindus. It had just one Muslim MP in the last Lok Sabha. He was its only Muslim minister. The other token figure, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, isn't even an MP, only a fourth-rank spokesman. The BJP's original 'poster-boy' Sikander Bakht just died as Kerala's governor. Despite his loyalty, he never rose high in the BJP. What the BJP wants is not leaders, only mannequins. Mannequins are dispensable; they are usually discarded --unceremoniously.

Hindutva's new mannequins won't persuade anyone that the BJP is becoming a 'normal, mainstream' party, which accepts India's plural, multicultural, multi-religious character. To this day, it hasn't given up its Ram Janambhoomi obsession, leave alone apologised for the Babri demolition. Its supporters and affiliates continue to occupy Muslim prayer grounds, graveyards and shrines like Baba Budangiri in Karnataka and Kamal Maula Masjid in Madhya Pradesh. They lay claim to 30,000 monuments, including the Dargah Sharif at Ajmer.

The BJP doggedly refuses to cut its umbilical cord with the RSS or the core-ideology of creating a Hindu supremacist society in the name of 'cultural nationalism.' It is India's only party, partially barring the Shiv Sena, which remains committed to radically altering the very character of Indian society by destroying its plurality, and by dangerously mixing religion with politics. Only a tenth to a quarter of the population (at peak, 26 percent) votes for the BJP. Some BJP voters are frankly communal. Some are upper class people who nurture the hope that its elitist policies will help them. The Quislings won't affect their choices in any way. Put simply, the BJP's 'minority card' is a dud!

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