Come election and India turns into a land of the bizarre. Even then nothing can quite surpass the spectacle of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bringing to its rallies people sporting the skullcap and the burqa and shepherding them into an enclosure reserved for them, as it happened for the first time in Jaipur earlier this month, when its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was the star-speaker. Other state units of the BJP, too, have promptly taken the cue from Jaipur.
Call it the politics of sartorial symbolism, designed to appeal and lure people to its fold, as also to communicate a message to those viewing the rallies on their TV or reading about it in newspapers. But really, for whom was the BJP seeking to create the sight of an enclosure brimming with skullcaps and burqas? Conventional wisdom tells us: Muslims, obviously.
Yet this answer raises a pertinent question: why ask Muslims to sport these markers of identity, to become readily recognizable at a public rally, as they are anyway seemingly flocking voluntarily to the rally? The BJP harps on the presence of Muslims as evidence of the community rethinking its opposition to the saffron brigade and Modi.
What the BJP has not delved into the possible impulses behind the change in the community’s thinking. Is it because of a grand gesture of reconciliation the saffron brigade has made towards Muslims, in the process overcoming their decades of antipathy towards it? Or is it that the possibility of Modi becoming the prime minister has filled Muslims with such dread that they have decided to appease him through their participation in his rallies?
Obviously, BJP leaders will tell you that Muslims, like other social groups, are enamoured of Modi’s governance model and the supposedly dazzling development he has ushered in Gujarat. Since the model of development will soon be replicated countrywide under Modi’s prime ministership and Muslims will benefit from it too, they have decided to forgive and forget his role in the grisly Gujarat riots, also described as pogrom.
But this explanation is ahistorical, for it wasn’t the Gujarat riots which overnight alienated the Muslims from the BJP. Indeed, the relationship between the BJP and Muslims has been fraught with bitterness for decades, dating back to 1925, the year in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – which is to the saffron brigade what Sonia Gandhi is to the Congress – was established in Pune. The RSS aims to build a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians, to quote RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar, “must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.”
This idea influenced the RSS cadres to perceive the Muslim as the foreigner, the other, who must be compelled to eschew their Islamic culture and amalgamated into the Hindu society. This is why the Sangh’s pet political projects – the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the anti-cow slaughter, the demand for a Uniform Civil Code – have been directed against Muslims, reflecting their deep distrust of and hostility to them. This hostility underlies the periodic outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence, a conclusion several commissions of inquiry probing riots reached in the past.
Obversely, the Muslims are acutely aware of the ideological thrust of the BJP – that it seeks to consolidate Hindus and build a Hindu rashtra, where they would be relegated to second-class citizens summarily deprived of the rights guaranteed in the Indian constitution. They have experienced the trauma of macabre riots, most recently in Muzaffarnagar, in west Uttar Pradesh, killed at random or expelled from their lands. This is why Muslims have always tended to rally behind a political party best placed to trounce the BJP – or its earlier avatar the Jan Sangh, which too was the political wing of the RSS – deeply apprehensive of their future if the party were to ever secure a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own.
In recent months, the BJP hasn’t undertaken any reconciliatory measures to overcome the historical aversion of Muslims towards it, thereby deepening the mystery over the suggestions that there is a rethink in the community about Modi. The BJP hasn’t disavowed the RSS ideology, nor has the party or Modi expressed regret about the Gujarat riots. On a few occasions though, its president, Rajnath Singh, has voiced his amazement at people repeatedly harping on the Gujarat riots, but forgetting those which occurred on Congress watch. You can’t call this an apology, can you? No doubt, riots have taken place under the Congress governments too. But, unlike the BJP, communalism, riots, and anti-minorityism don’t constitute the ideology of the Congress.
We can explain the presence of Muslims at BJP rallies through the realities of Indian politics. For one, a thousand or two or three of Muslims rooting for the BJP can’t be extrapolated to portray a sweeping shift in the community’s position. Two, they could have been there because of the crucial role the patronage system plays in Indian politics, best described through this adage: Give me benefit, take my vote. Considering two Muslim MLAs were elected on the BJP ticket in the last assembly election in Rajasthan, their followers, in their gratitude to what the representative may have done for them, could have been cajoled or persuaded to participate in the Jaipur rally. Three, it is commonly known that major political parties bus people to attend rallies in towns and cities. At Jaipur, there was the additional lure, apart from a free ride to the city, of securing skullcaps and burqas free.
For whom then has the BJP mounted the spectacle of skullcaps and burqas? The answer: the secular, liberal or Leftist Hindus, as also the religious Hindu who are appalled by the party’s propensity to exploit religion for political ends, Hindu women who find its gender views restricting and stifling, and the many lower castes which have deep suspicions and reservations about its Brahminical worldview. They recoil from the BJP because of its exclusivist political policies, its tendency to keep the social tension simmering, and its brazen display of Hindu chauvinism. It is for them the BJP has mounted the show of skullcaps and burqa.
Indeed, through these sartorial symbols the BJP is telling them: Look, the Muslim have forgiven us, they are joining us in spite of Modi, why do you still have reservations about him? Alas, to borrow from Shakespeare, the BJP “doth protests too much.” This is why we know its overtures to Muslims are patently insincere.
Image Source: Jaipur BJP Rally