Modi winning India vote, losing agenda

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.

Is Hindu nationalism mellowing?

NEW DELHI – India’s Hindu nationalists gloated as Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, went to meet Norendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of their Bharatya Janata Party.  Indian media described the meeting as America’s “cave-in” and “about face” to the chief minister of Gujarat state. 

Nine years ago Modi was banned from visiting the United States for his widely reported complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  More than 1, 000 Muslims there were beaten, hacked and burned to death by Hindu rioters.

Asked about the Modi-Powell meeting, an American diplomat in the Indian capital told me, on condition of anonymity, that Modi’s political positions have been “evolving,” warranting the new American gesture. I would normally have dismissed his comment as pure diplomatic hogwash, but I see a large grain of truth in it.

Of course the United States had to mend fences with the man who, polls show, could become the next prime minister of India.  But then Modi and the BJP also are trying hard to shed their image as Hindu fanatics, reinforced by their alleged connivance at the Gujarat riot and the destruction of the historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque.

For the last half-dozen years, the BJP has been trying seriously – its critics say “shamelessly” – to court Muslims. And many Muslims are reciprocating.  On Feb. 22, I found it hard to believe my eyes as I watched on TV a sprinkling of Muslim caps in Modi’s rally in Silchar town in my native Assam state.  During a 2007 visit to Silchar I saw Muslims fuming over his widely believed abetment to the Gujarat massacre.  A Muslim tailor in Silchar told me that he wanted some “young man with a [suicide] belt” to do away with him.  

So what’s changing many Muslim minds about the BJP? Indian Muslims are “more self-confident” than they used to be, Bushra Alvi, a Muslim writer in New Delhi, told me last week.  They no longer fear, she added, that Hindu nationalists would be able to erode Muslim culture in India, which they tried to do for decades.  Spread of education and heightened conscious about identity and self-worth appear to have helped stimulate their self-confidence, as it has among people in many other countries.

The BJP’s outreach to Muslims shows a reassessment of its ideology.  The party’s manifesto stipulates, among other things, three highly controversial projects to assimilate Indian Muslims into a Hinduized social mainstream.  One, Islamic tenets enjoining Muslims to follow the Islamic code in marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc., would be outlawed. Secondly, a temple would be built to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the gutted Babri Mosque.  Thirdly, an article in the Indian constitution that provides wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir would be scrapped.

Yet in January BJP president Rajnath Singh infuriated Hindu nationalist diehards by  announcing that his party wouldn’t, after all, seek to end Kashmir’s special status.  And on the campaign trail Modi and his associates have been mysteriously silent on the Ram temple and Muslim canon law issues.

Soumen Purkhayasthha, the BJP’s “good governance” strategist, insisted to me that his party doesn’t plan to pursue those anti-Muslim projects.  The BJP, he said, wouldn’t tolerate any Muslim-bashing. “There has not been a single Hindu-Muslim riot in the five states that came under BJP rule” since the Gujarat, he added.

I think the party has learned its lesson of Gujarat, which turned it into an international pariah. The American blacklisting of Modi, an NGO operative told me, “was too much for them to take.”

At any rate, many Indian Muslims are opening up to BJP overtures for a host of reasons.

For decades they voted blindly for the ruling Congress party, which took their votes for granted and turned a blind eye to their causes and interests.  Assured in their minds that they’ve all but stonewalled the BJP’s Hinduization drive, many of them are attracted by the party’s record and promises of good governance and good economic management.

Modi has earned nationwide acclaim for fostering impressive economic growth in his state.  “We want faster economic growth,” said Sohael Razzack, a Muslim community leader and food industry executive.  “Muslims will benefit from it as anybody else.”

Muslims also realize that the BJP could come to power in the general elections scheduled for April. They think it would be foolish to alienate it.

It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that once in power, the Hindu nationalists may revive their anti-Muslim agenda.   For some Muslims, including the writer Alvi, that would have a bright side as well. Hindu hostility would bolster Muslim solidarity and Islamic revival, as it has in the past.

Today, most politicians and political strategists in India recognize Muslims’ electoral clout and growing willpower, even though they make up only about 15 percent of the Indian population of more than 1 billion.  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim policy is a case in point.

Banerjee is reviled in neighboring Bangladesh as an anti-Muslim bigot.  She has blocked an agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi that would allow an increased flow of river water to lower riparian Bangladesh, and the mostly Muslim Bangladeshis attribute it to her hatred of Muslims.

Inside West Bengal, however, Banerjee is denounced as virulently by right-wing Hindus for her “rampant appeasement” of Muslims.  She has facilitated job opportunities for Muslims; promoted Muslim girls’ education; given aid to madrasahs, or Islamic schools; and adopted other programs that benefit Muslims. Once clue, Muslims make up about 30 percent of West Bengal voters.

The BJP appears to have given up on healing Indian society from the cultural “virus” or “parasites” as Hindus chauvinists still Muslims. But, as the American diplomat noted, Modi’s and his party’s attitudes toward them are “evolving” and softening.Nancy Powell’s visit with the Hindu nationalist candidate for prime minister signaled that America’s policy toward them is evolving, too.

Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’  is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.