BJP’s Muslim members set off internal debate on Hindutva

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

An idea of the seriousness of the crisis faced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) following its electoral setback can be gauged from the stirrings among its Muslim members.

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Normally, they remain very much in the background, so much so that their presence in the party is often derisively described as an example of its tokenism towards the country’s multicultural ethos.

The fact that Muslim members like Sikandar Bakht earlier, and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain in recent years, remained in the BJP when the Babri Masjid was demolished or the Gujarat riots took place underlined an acquiescence which was at variance with the community’s customary antipathetic attitude towards the party.

However, for the first time, both Naqvi and Hussain are known to have sought clarifications during the BJP’s recent national executive meeting on what its reassertion of the ideology of Hindutva means for India’s largest minority group. It was Varun Gandhi’s diatribes against Muslims during the election campaign which evidently provoked them, leading to a sharp exchange of words between them and Varun’s mother, Maneka Gandhi, at the meeting.

What was worth noting, however, was the support which Naqvi and Hussain received from influential leaders like Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde.

Of the three, Chouhan made the telling point that Muslim women voted for the BJP despite their husbands’ objections because of the state’s development agenda. Therefore, “Muslims must not go off the party’s radar,” he said.

It is rare for leaders in such positions to openly favour courting Muslims in view of the BJP’s widely perceived anti-minority world-view, which goes back to its pre-1977 days as the Jana Sangh. Although the party always formally claimed that it was not against Muslims, it was never articulated in so forthright a manner as Chouhan, Modi and Munde did. Instead, it was always a formal observation which carried little conviction because of the words and deeds of some of the party’s members and affiliates.

For instance, the anti-Muslim comments of Varun Gandhi, B.L. Sharma “Prem” and Ashok Sahu (of Kandhamal) during the electioneering reaffirmed the party’s communal outlook. Similarly, the burning of churches in Kandhamal in Orissa, which made the BJP’s ally in the state, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), part company with it, served the same negative purpose.

In addition, the anti-Muslim utterances of the BJP’s allies like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Shiv Sena have made the minorities keep the party at an arm’s length. It was this attitude which made Naqvi and Hussain tell the BJP meeting that Varun, rather than Rahul Gandhi, won votes for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh by antagonising Muslims.

There is little doubt that the second successive defeat in a general election has made the BJP realise that it can no longer bank on support only from the Hindus and from an apolitical middle class to come to power at the centre. Even after its defeat in 2004, the party was more or less sure that it would be able to return to power. A string of victories in state assembly elections in the intervening period confirmed this view.

But the reverses which started last November, when the BJP lost the Delhi and Rajasthan assembly polls, and which were again evident in the April-May general elections have robbed the party of its earlier self-confidence. Although it has reiterated its commitment to Hindutva, L.K. Advani has had to say after the national executive meeting that it should not be interpreted as a narrow, anti-minority theory.

However, given the stranglehold of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on the BJP, it is unclear to what extent it would be able to reassure the minorities that it pursues a “tolerant, inclusive” policy, as Advani has said. But it is worth noting how the views of people like Chouhan and Sushil Kumar Modi have assumed importance because of their experience in power.

In view of the BJP’s status as a ruling party in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, the two men have realised that political success depends on reaching out to all sections of people. A segmented, illiberal approach not only alienates the minorities, but puts off even others because of its mean-mindedness.

The BJP may witness, therefore, a struggle not only between the old-fashioned RSS-inspired hardliners like Rajnath Singh and doubters like Jaswant Singh who sought clarifications on Hindutva, but the party’s Muslim members and their supporters like Chouhan are also likely to enter the fray.

If the BJP did not experience any ideological ferment of this nature earlier, the reason was that it was cocksure that it had found a magic mantra in Hindutva, which had brought it from the margins of politics (two Lok Sabha seats in 1984) to centrestage in the 1990s. But now the roadblocks of the defeats in 2004 and 2009 seem to have induced second thoughts. It remains to be seen whether the internal debates will refashion its outlook or the party will continue to be its old crusty self, as favoured by the RSS.

(27-06-2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])