Sajeda Momin in Kolkata, India
For the first time in Indian political history the ruling party of the country will have no Muslim Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha. This statistic gives a very clear indication of the position of Muslims in the new Government which will be formed by the Hindu Nationalist Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. The message is loud and clear – Muslims have no stake in the Government.
The 16th Lok Sabha has the lowest representation of Muslims since 1962. Only 23 Muslims have been elected in a House of 543, giving a group which accounts for around 18 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion population less than 4 per cent representation in the Lok Sabha, India’s version of the House of Commons.
The BJP has ridden to power on what is being described as a ‘Modi wave’ and with 282 seats, has managed to get an overall majority as a single party, though they will be forming the Government along with their pre-poll allies of the National Democratic Alliance.
Modi, the highly controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat, who presided over the killings of 3,000 (figure given by social activists) Muslims in the western state in 2002, was made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate almost a year ago and since then he has spent a lot of time, effort and money on an image make-over.
The darling of corporate India, Modi pitched his campaign on ‘development’ and ‘growth’, promising the electorate that he would make India the superpower of the 21st century. Denouncing the 128-year-old Indian National Congress Party – which under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had thrown off the yolk of imperialism and won independence – as dynastic, corrupt and weak, Modi claimed he would bring ‘strength’ and ‘good governance’ to India.
While Modi did not overtly push the Hindu Nationalist (Hindutva) agenda, he allowed others in his party to openly show that theirs was a party of Hindus and for Hindus. Early on in the campaign, Giriraj Singh, a BJP MP candidate, announced that “anyone who did not vote for Modi could go and live in Pakistan.” This became the sub-text of the election campaign.
Modi in his speeches during his 12 years as Gujarat Chief Minister and particularly after the 2002 pogrom has equated Indian Muslims with Pakistan, incorrectly claiming that they were traitors and owed their allegiance to an ‘enemy country’.
In an atmosphere of religious polarisation, the elections were fought on Hindu versus Muslim lines, with the plethora of secular, socialist parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bhaujan Samaj Party etc aligning themselves with Muslims on an anti-Modi plank. However, with so many different ‘secular’ candidates contesting against one BJP candidate in each constituency, the secular/Muslim vote was split allowing the BJP/NDA candidate to sail through. In an election that virtually became a pro-Modi versus anti-Modi, the fact that the BJP only managed to garner 31 per cent of the votes casts, proves that the majority of the electorate still prefers the idea of a secular India.
Modi or the BJP never expected to get Muslim votes and it was also with this in mind that out of 482 candidates that they fielded only 7 were Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh in north India, which not only is the most populous state in the country but also sends 80 MPs, the largest number of members to Parliament, the BJP did not field a single Muslim. In Bihar, another state with a large Muslim population, the BJP fielded one Muslim candidate – their longstanding token Muslim MP, Shahnawaz Hussein. Ironically when even smaller NDA parties with no base managed to get swept into Parliament on the Modi wave, Shahnawaz who has been the BJP’s only sitting Muslim MP since mid-1990s lost from Bhagalpur, aptly showing exactly how communally-charged and polarized the electorate had become.
With the clear mandate that Modi has received and with his anti-Muslim track record in Gujarat, Indian Muslims are naturally apprehensive of the future. There is a fear that Muslims all over the country at worst will be targeted like in Gujarat and at best marginalized both politically and socially. Modi and the BJP have demonised Indian Muslims, much like Hitler did with the Jews in Germany, and have used them as the punching bag for all of India’s ills.
In Gujarat, polarisation and ghettoisation of Muslims has succeeded in allowing the BJP to rule the state for almost two decades. By engineering riots in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in which Muslims were killed, just before the election and then polarising villages and towns, the BJP pulled off a magnificent win.
The biggest fear that Muslims have is that BJP have tasted blood, found a winning formula, which they will use in the rest of the country every time there is an election and they need to come to power or retain power. Yes the much-touted Gujarat model will be repeated in India, but it may not be the ‘development’ model that is repeated but the Muslim pogrom model.
If Modi has really changed from a divisive dictator to an inclusive statesman then this is his chance to prove it, and the best way to do it is by holding out a hand of friendship to the minorities and including them in the development of the country.
Muslims in India have never wanted meaningless gestures of ‘appeasement’, nor do they want handouts, all they are asking for is a level playing field. They do not want preferential treatment, they want equal treatment. If Modi can do this then he will find that Muslims will be more than happy to join in his slogan of ‘One India, Strong India’.