Even as Narendra Modi greeted rows of Muslims in skull caps in Ahmedabad as they sought reconciliation with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party’s fiery leader, Uma Bharati, who was portrayed in 1992 gleefully watching the demolition of the Babri Masjid, was standing shoulder to shoulder with the BJP legislators in Uttar Pradesh who were accused of instigating the recent Muzaffarnagar riots.
But for the violent outbreak, which saw a return to the venomous, anti-Muslim rhetoric of the 1990s by the BJP, the party might have been able to evolve a coherent line on its attitude towards the minorities. The communal conflagration, however, seems to have queered the pitch for it.
When the riots took place, they were expected by the BJP to consolidate the Hindu votes in the state in its favour as previous riots, notably in Gujarat in 2002, have done. Since the BJP has been on a weak wicket in the state ever since the attack on the Babri Masjid, cynics even saw a sinister conspiracy in tandem with the Samajwadi Party behind the outbreak.
As Uma Bharati’s pugnacity shows, it may take time for the communal temperatures to cool, especially since the Akhilesh Yadav government has proved singularly incapable of handling the situation. But the gulf between the BJP’s aggressive postures in Uttar Pradesh and its efforts to reach out to the Muslims elsewhere is obvious.
It is not surprising that Modi is behind the friendly initiatives. He is evidently engaged in a makeover bid to bury his anti-Muslim image linked to the 2002 riots. The projection of a gentler, kinder personality is indispensable for his prime ministerial ambition. In the process, he may be overplaying his hand.
For instance, the party’s advice to Muslims to attend Modi’s rallies in skull caps and burqas (veils) is not only odd but also unprecedented. Never before has a party asked its potential supporters to visit its shows dressed in the distinctive attire of their communities. The BJP has reportedly even handed out skull caps and burqas for the purpose.
If the intention is to show Modi’s “popularity” among Muslims to television audiences, the ploy is unlikely to succeed in the present age of instant and widespread communication since it will be known that the Muslims are only following the BJP’s advice to look like Muslims and not doing so on their own volition.
Besides, the insistence on particular items of dress will tend to stereotype Muslims as “backward” since skull caps and burqas are not worn by members of the community belonging to the more progressive sections of the community.
Whatever the pros and cons of these PR gimmicks, they at least show that Modi is aiming at bridging the decades-old gap between the BJP and the minorities. But can he make any headway if a tragedy like the one in Muzaffarnagar is seen to reveal the party’s real face ?
It is not without reason that Modi has remained silent about the incident. Both he and his party have been taking pride for the decade of peace in Gujarat since 2002. They will be uneasy, therefore, if Muzaffarnagar serves as a reminder that nothing has changed in the BJP.
True, the BJP is not the only guilty party in Uttar Pradesh. As the arrest warrants against the suspects have shown, the ruling Samajwadi Party, as also the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress, too, were involved. But it is Modi’s efforts to refurbish his image which will suffer the most.
Intriguingly, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh will be hamstrung if its functionaries at the lower levels have to distance themselves from the riots in the near future to accommodate Modi’s new line. Will it be possible for Uma Bharati to tone down her rhetoric along with another preacher, Sadhvi Prachi, who has come to the fore after the riots?
Even as Modi goes barnstorming across the country to showcase his talent for solving the country’s problems, the question will be asked if he is in control of his own party. It is not only dissenters at the top like L.K. Advani who pose a problem, but the Uma Bharatis and Prachis lower down who have been reared in the belief that India is of, by and for Hindus and that Muslims are aliens, having invaded the country in the medieval ages.
Since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological head of the Hindu nationalist groups, propounds this thesis, it will not be easy for Modi to steer the BJP in a new direction, which is unfamiliar to most of its grassroots cadres and supporters.
Modi has been banking till now on the anti-Congress mood in the country and his own reputation as a development-oriented, decisive leader. By extending a friendly hand to the Muslims, he has also sought to underline his suitability for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country like Indiaz.
But his real challenge will be to douse the long-prevalent, intensely anti-Muslim sentiments not only in the BJP but also in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal among other saffron political affiliates.