Pollsters in India are predicting a big win for the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) in the country’s three-phase general elections that began on Monday. The ruling Congress party, they say, is headed for a free fall.
Entrenched, as it is, in the traditionalist and fundamentalist Hindu base, the BJP has made inroads into progressive-Hindu and even Muslim voters, who had always hated it. The party and its earlier incarnations campaigned to turn secular India into a Hindu theocracy (Hindu rashtra). They demanded that Muslim and Christian cultures be absorbed into a Hinduized national mainstream. They spearheaded bloody anti-Muslim riots.
One of the events that earned the BJP most odium from many Indians and much of the world was the destruction of an historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque, in 1992. The BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups, whose activists razed it to the ground, claim that the 16th century mosque was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. They wanted to build a Ram temple on ruins of the mosque.
Another was the horrifying anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state in 2002. More than 1,000 Muslims were hacked, shot and burned to death by Hindu mobs. Narendra Modi, who is now the BJP candidate for prime minister, was – and remains – the head of the Gujarat government. He’s widely believed to have provoked and then ignored the slaughter of Muslims.
“Even today,” said my nephew Abdun Nur, “my blood boils when I hear the name Narendra Modi.” I was visiting him at his home in the Purahuria village in my native Indian state of Assam.
So what has made the progressive Hindus and even many Muslims vote for Modi and the BJP?
One, the top slogan in the Modi campaign this season was “development.” The country hungers for it and the BJP governments at the center and in the states have impressive records of putting through many economic development programs. The Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Sing, on the other hand, is being blamed for the high inflation (an average of 10.9% through 2013) afflicting the nation. Congress is also blemished by a string of high-profile corruption cases against its politicians. Modi and the BJP leadership in general are untainted by the vice.
Throughout the election campaign, Modi and his party have kept mum on its past anti-Muslim agenda. They realize that Indian society is moving past the era of religious animosity and is throbbing with progressive thinking. The other day I was shocked to notice that the bulletin board of Calcutta University’s history department was splashing six pictures and an admiring profile of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, India’s archenemy.
Under the headline “Repositioning Jinnah,” the white text against dark background highlighted some of Jinnah’s statements promoting secularism in Pakistan, harmony between Muslims and Hindus, equality between the sexes, and so forth. Analyzing his political career, the anonymous author wrote that Jinnah “tried his best to reach a settlement between the Hindus and the Muslims. But all his efforts proved futile. Every time he tried to bring the two communities together, success eluded him.” The narrative suggested that the secular Muslim statesman was compelled to create a separate Muslim state because of the failure of his cherished mission to preserve Muslim rights in an undivided India, although it didn’t say it quite in those words.
Arun Bandopadhyay, who teaches modern Indian history at the university, explained to me that “Jinnah is being reevaluated here as he has been elsewhere.” He said he is more concerned about “ethnic separatism” than religious conflicts. India and Pakistan could split further along ethnic lines in the “next 20, 50 years,” he added.
Indians are engaged in a lively debate about the BJP’s silence on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Many believe it was just an election ploy, intended to lure Muslim voters away from the secular Congress party, their traditional political home.
Among them my friend Kamaluddin Ahmed, retired principal of Karimganj College in Assam. He said the BJP would “surely try to revive its anti-Muslim agenda,” should it come to power in New Delhi. One of the items on that agenda is, as mentioned, building a Ram temple on the Babri Mosque site. Another is banning Muslims’ “family laws,” which govern their inheritance, marriage, divorce, and other events. A third is amending the Indian constitution to abolish the wide autonomy it allows the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. And so on.
Yet many among this group and others say that the Hindu nationalists just can’t implement those Muslim baiting programs without triggering India-wide Hindu-Muslim riots and tearing up Hindu society itself. They point out that most Hindus, especially their younger generation, want to forget about the decades-long nightmare of interfaith bloodletting and animosity.
Muslims, though 13 percent of the Indian population, are going through a “resurgence,” to use Kamaluddin Ahmed’s words. That also has put a damper on right-wing Hindu aggressiveness toward Muslims. During the last three decades Indian Muslims have made significant economic, educational and occupational advances. That has enhanced their assertiveness and resolve to defend their cultural space. I’ve heard many anecdotes of Muslim youths fighting back against Hindu physical or verbal attacks, which they used to endure meekly. And those attacks have become infrequent now.
As important, the BJP itself appears to be evolving. The Gujarat riots were a wake-up call to Modi and his party. The scenes of the ghastly slaughter of Muslim children, women and men badly tarnished Modi’s and Hindu nationalists’ image at home and abroad. The Obama administration banned Modi from visiting the United States, and he became an international pariah of sorts.
Desperate to shed this blackened image, the Gujarat chief minister (and probably the next prime minister) and the BJP have stopped most of their anti-Muslim activism. The state and local governments run by the party have introduced jobs, educational and other programs that benefit Muslims. The party has been on guard against any Hindu-Muslims clashes in jurisdictions under its rule.
Soumen Purkayasthhya, the BJP’s outreach coordinator in New Delhi, challenged me to show “a single [anti-Muslim] riot in any of the six states” that came under BJP rule after the 2009 elections.
The BJP badly needs an image makeover because of many Indians’ yearning for peace and social harmony, and some of the party activists I interviewed in different parts of India are calling for it. Peace and stability have been a pressing concern of India’s business and industrial community, a vital segment of the BJP’s support base.
Hindus and Muslims in India will have their separate communal spaces, as they always did. From that angle, the Hindu nationalists seminal mission to blot out the Muslim social and cultural niches has all but failed. There may be occasional tensions and violence between Hindus and Muslims. But I see the two communities striving for better mutual relations, more than spawning hatred between them. The task is staring at the face of Modi and the BJP.
• Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.