The BJP's panicky return to basic-instinct majoritarianism in Bihar has pushed Muslims back into the 'secular' basement, says Shekhar Gupta.
Bihar has brought the minority (Muslim) vote back in the political debate. Before joining it, a remarkable fact needs to be noted: not since Mohammed Ali Jinnah went to Pakistan have Indian Muslims trusted a fellow Muslim as their leader. They have always preferred a Hindu, and not necessarily of one party.
For nearly four decades it was the Gandhi family. Then, with Rajiv Gandhi's serial missteps, from Shah Bano to shilanyas, Muslims of the heartland shifted to V P Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad. Subsequently in Uttar Pradesh Mayawati widened their choices.
Elsewhere, in Andhra, Maharashtra, Kerala, Rajasthan, Assam and so on, Muslims stayed with an essentially Hindu-led Congress. But where choices emerged, as with the Left and later Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, they shifted. But again, they placed their trust in Hindu leaders.
Almost all these, except maybe the Left, were practising, believing Hindus. Yadav, who is mocked by the Bharatiya Janata Party/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as ‘Maulana Mulayam’, proudly says that he is a Hanuman bhakt.
He built a quaint little Hanuman temple in the Krishna Menon Road house he occupied as Raksha Mantri (in the United Front government, 1996-98), and its current occupant, Arun Jaitley, lovingly looks after it. Prasad also tells you how he, suffering in jail, prayed to his favourite deity, Shiva, and bartered meat-eating with freedom.
The Congress party has been often berated for not building Muslim leaders. The fact is, it has tried, from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Ahmed Patel and Salman Khurshid, with Dr Zakir Husain and Rakhruddin Ali Ahmed rising to Rashtrapati Bhavan under its watch. None, including Azad, was seen by Indian Muslims as their leader.
We can stretch this further. The BJP found its own "mainstream" Muslim hero in A P J Abdul Kalam. He rose to be our most popular President, but remained very much a Hindu icon, rather than an inspirational figure for the Muslims. Right-wing commentators and internet trolls both noted with dismay (or glee?) the fact that almost no mosque held a special prayer on his passing away.
For a vast majority he was a great Indian leader, a nationalist ("despite being a Muslim") who played the veena, recited Sanskrit shlokas, said all the right things to children and made them repeat after him. But not for Indian Muslims.
Indian Muslims' rejection of an Azad, Kalam or, even at the other extreme end of the ideological/religious spectrum, a Zakir Naik (the Mumbai-based medical doctor-turned-tele-evangelist has among the largest followings in the world), is a unique feature of our politics. The BJP will blame it on the politics of "appeasement." But this does not stand the test of facts.
As the Sachar Committee showed -- not that this evidence was needed -- Muslims continue to be economically and educationally backward almost to the same extent as Dalits. Politically, bureaucratically and even economically, they are even less empowered. They are victims of leaders like the late Arjun Singh who pretended to be their patrons but exploited them and pushed them further into obscurantism.
The Congress, Yadav, Prasad, Left and Banerjee have done nothing to change this. Yet they haven't looked for a leader of their own. Everybody's friend, and former V P Singh aide, Wasim Ahmad, reminds me that in the mid-’60s a party called Muslim Majlis was set up in Uttar Pradesh. Initially, with the post-Nehru/Shastri decline of the Congress, it got some votes and joined the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal government in 1967, but was soon rejected and was subsumed by socialist forces.
Two new phenomena have now risen to challenge this: Asaduddin Owaisi with his MIM out of Hyderabad and Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF in Assam. Not much note was taken of them as long as they remained confined to their geographical or ethnic backwaters. But Owaisi winning two seats in the Maharashtra assembly indicated a change of trend.
As did the stellar performance of Ajmal in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when Assam's very large Muslim electorate was seen to have voted for him, and thereby enabled the BJP to notch up a surprising tally of seven out of 14 and devastate the Congress, reduced to three.
Were Indian Muslims now changing a six-decade-old trend and searching for leaders of their "own"? Were they, finally, waking up to the fact that "secular" parties had done nothing for them but play on their fears, you vote for me and I will try to protect you from the BJP/RSS? Could it be that the Muslims were now breaking out of the minimalistic politics of mere physical survival?
This was, in a way, Narendra Modi's message to them: is your fight with Hindus or with poverty and deprivation? They were not willing to vote for the BJP yet, but they were dumping the parties taking them for granted. Both Owaisi and, to an extent, Ajmal spoke a more modern language, of jobs and empowerment, going beyond mere survival. Muslim voters were shifting from fear to empowerment. The Congress was the first victim of this change.
It is on this presumption that the BJP believes Assam is a ripe fruit, swaying teasingly at the stalk. The formula will be to polarise Assam, let Ajmal collect the large minority vote, demolishing the Congress. The BJP's cynical, basic-instinct campaign in Bihar may have contributed to reversing these winds.
While Modi did repeat his "who is your bigger enemy" line, the campaign was fearfully majoritarian. Indian Muslims detest being linked to Pakistan but that insinuation featured often, from one voice telling beef-eaters to go there and the other pronouncing that Shah Rukh Khan's heart was in Pakistan. This was, of course, topped by Amit Shah's desperate warning that if the BJP lost Bihar, it would be celebrated with crackers in Pakistan.
This took you right back to obsessing with survival. Rhetorically now, the threat was to send them "back" to Pakistan; suspicion of their loyalties was real, and they could no longer see this poll as an opportunity to improve their fate economically. They were back in the basement in fear -- and surfaced in strength to vote for whoever they saw as defeating the BJP and thereby protecting them.
Owaisi was wiped out, deposits and all.
It is perilous to make a nuanced point in these times and I brace for the opprobrium I shall draw for "suggesting" that Messrs Owaisi and Ajmal could be forces of modernity. But they are definitely indicators of change in the Muslim mind, persuading Muslims to break out and build their own political elites.
The BJP's missteps in Bihar have broken this momentum. The new script on the BJP's relations with Muslims that Modi tried writing in the 2014 campaign is now pulped, and Muslims are moving back to embrace their "secular" and Hindu protectors.
Image: A polling booth in Varanasi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.