The Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting last week left many party leaders a tad embarrassed. They were all big leaders. That’s how they made the cut to attend the meeting of the party’s top decision-making body. But when these 300-odd who’s who of the BJP arrived at the venue in the national capital, they were asked to leave their mobile phones outside. Lest they record the proceedings! They may be big leaders in their own right, but evidently they are not trustworthy enough to carry mobile phones in their own party meetings.
After the meeting the next day, they were happy to tell whoever cared to listen how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked them to reach out to Muslim groups of Pasmandas and Bohras, as well as Muslim professionals and elites. He had also asked them to attend church programmes and organise Sufi music nights.
These delegates may have thought it was a good message to spread, given the PM’s “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” slogan and the fact that he had advocated outreach to Pasmandas at the Hyderabad national executive conclave, too. The softening stance towards minorities seems to make sense when Christian-majority Nagaland and Meghalaya are set to go to polls. They were mistaken, obviously.
Cat out of the bag
When TV channels started ‘breaking news’ about how the PM wanted his party colleagues to reach out to sections of Muslims, the ruling party’s media minders got urgent instructions. Till late into the night, they were in a tizzy, making desperate calls to journalists across TV channels, newspapers, and agencies not to report that news.
Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis earlier sought to play it down, saying that the PM spoke about ‘marginalised communities’ in general without taking specific names. But Modi’s message was too categorical for the 300-odd participants to miss. The cat was out of the bag. BJP media managers had very limited success, for once. Most TV channels, websites, and newspapers ran with the story about the PM’s outreach to Muslims.
So, what happened? Why would the BJP not want the media to publish what the Prime Minister himself said?
It goes without saying that the BJP’s media minders never act without instructions from the top. And nobody in the BJP would dare try to stop the publication of any portion of the PM’s speech unless he himself doesn’t want it to be published. So, did he talk about Muslims by mistake and want it blacked out later? Unlikely.
Modi had spoken about Pasmandas at the Hyderabad executive meeting in July last year. It made headlines in the media for weeks and months. The BJP never had any problems with it then. PM Modi was building on in Delhi what he had floated in Hyderabad. Uttar Pradesh deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya was so inspired by the PM’s speech in Hyderabad that he later promised in Lucknow to “serve” Pasmanda Muslims as their “watchman.”
It was quite a change. Shortly after the Uttar Pradesh assembly election results were out in 2017, I was sitting with a senior BJP functionary, a former party president, at his Delhi residence. “Your party leaders say that the BJP might not have fielded a single Muslim candidate but a section of Muslims voted for you! Is that really true?” I asked.
He smiled, and said, “That’s what we have to say. But they never voted for us, never will.” Then he added, “We will have to bring a Muslim minister nonetheless. We will have to bring him through the (Legislative) Council.”
The PM’s remark about Pasmanda Muslims in Hyderabad indicated a change in approach. But the BJP hasn’t been able to make much headway in the past six months, even though it fielded four Pasmanda Muslims in the Delhi municipal elections. Former Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar Ansari of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, told my colleague Abantika Ghosh last week that when the PM spoke in Hyderabad, it was a pleasant surprise.
“I wrote to the Prime Minister saying you have to put an end to mob lynchings, bulldozers, and oppression in the name of ‘love jihad’ to make people believe you. And then, right ahead of the Gujarat elections, they released Bilkis Bano’s rapists. Bano is a Pasmanda Muslim…. How can people trust them then?” he said.
Behind Modi’s minority outreach
In Hyderabad, the PM had also asked the party to organise visits of Christian delegations from the Northeast to Kerala to highlight what the party is doing there in the interest of Christians. Modi built up on that, too, in his Delhi national executive speech when he asked leaders to attend church programmes.
So, why is it that PM Modi is asking his colleagues to reach out to Muslims and Christians? Because he sincerely believes that his welfare schemes have benefited marginalised sections of minorities and the BJP has a good chance of winning them over. That’s what BJP leaders would have us believe. And it also helps build a statesman’s image – at home and abroad.
Then why not go to town with this outreach plan? Why deploy media managers to try to ensure that the people don’t know about it? Because he sincerely believes that the party’s core anti-Muslim votebank may not like it. That’s also what BJP leaders would have us believe, too.
You may be wondering about the perils of following seemingly paradoxixal political strategies and messages. Well, when it comes to Modi, there are no paradoxes in voters’ minds. Look at how the party built on its promise for an amended citizenship law in different contexts in different states to get the same results – electoral victories.
In the 2016 assembly election in Assam, the BJP successfully sold it as a measure to drive out illegal immigrants (read Muslims) from Bangladesh . And in the Tripura assembly election in 2018, the BJP promised the same citizenship law to immigrants from Bangladesh (Bengali Hindus in this case) and managed to dislodge the Left-led government. Look at another instance.
The BJP-led government in Haryana facilitates convicted rapist Ram Rahim’s frequent release from jail on paroles; Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar keeps defending a minister accused of sexually assaulting an athletics coach; and, the BJP maintains a deafening silence when acclaimed women wrestlers accuse party MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual harassment. BJP’s detractors may find these instances paradoxical but voters are known to see things differently. And they have shown it in one election after another.
In the immediate context of the BJP not wanting much focus on what PM Modi said about Muslims in the national executive meeting, it seems the party is doing a re-think about its electoral strategy since the July 2022 Hyderabad meet.
The BJP probably don’t want any confusion in the minds of their core support base by showing a bleeding heart for minorities.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)