The Congress is seen as a pro-Muslim party and the BJP as an anti-Muslim one.
In this election year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and several other leaders will be attacking the Congress mercilessly over any reference to Muslims. The Congress has no option but to defend itself, hit back and decide on how it wants to state its position. There will be many non-BJP, non-Congress partisans who will be speaking out on the issue as well. And there will be Muslims who will have their own say, and there are many voices among Muslims as well. It is then unfair to reduce the whole issue as that of as being pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim. The Congress is seen as a pro-Muslim party and the BJP as an anti-Muslim one.
The irony is that the Congress doesn’t want to be seen only as a pro-Muslim party, and it’s the belligerent BJP that has pushed the Congress into this corner. And while the BJP wants to be an anti-Muslim party, it is willing like any other political party to woo Muslims too. The BJP already proclaims itself as the defender of the rights of Muslim women, especially on the question of triple talaq. Mr Modi attacked the Congress for being a party for “Muslim men”, and by default declaring the BJP to be a “pro-Muslim women” party, which of course he couldn’t dare say, as he would then lose the votes of communal Hindus, which is the core constituency of the Hindutva party. It is also the case that Mr Modi has been scrupulously avoiding the “Hindutva” word even as avoids the “Muslim” word.
The strategy of the Congress has been to take the leadership of the Muslim community, including reactionary ones. The BJP is trying to break the Congress stranglehold and it is devising stratagems to get a part of the Muslim vote for itself. It negotiates with the Shias and with Sufi shrines, and pits itself against the majority Sunni orthodoxy, which claims to be puritanical. As an illiberal party, the BJP has also no hesitation in arguing the case that the majority must prevail, and the majority being Hindus, the Hindu view should hold sway. The BJP has been trying to unite Hindus, cutting across language and caste lines, but much to the frustration of the party’s Hindutva ideologues, Hindu unity is proving to be both elusive and illusive.
Liberal Muslims and orthodox Sunnis are opposed to the BJP, each for their own reason. The liberals see it as a reactionary party, and by the same criterion the liberal Muslims also hate the mullahs and the politics of parties like the All Indian Majlis Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM).
The Sunni orthodoxy is not so sure about its opposition to the BJP. If the BJP were to leave them alone, then they would not have a problem with the politics of the BJP. In the case of liberal Muslims, it is an ideological battle with the BJP, and for the Sunni orthodoxy it is a tussle over accommodation. The poorer Muslims are quite open-minded about the issue, though in the lynching incidents of the past four years, the victims were all poor Muslims and the perpetrators were all poor Hindus.
And there is nothing new about this division — though the Communists and secularists have tried to drive home the point that the common enemy of the poor Hindu and the poor Muslim is the rich capitalist, whether he or she be a Hindu or a Muslim. The poor Muslims have always been sceptical about the materialistic interpretation of history.
In the arena of political rhetoric, things are less complicated, and the BJP has no hesitation in painting the Congress as a pro-Muslim party, even if this is not the case. Truth and accuracy of facts do not count for much when you are trying to win over people with words, and not work.
There was a time when the Congress managed to keep the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and its mutation, the BJP, at bay by painting them as anti-Muslim. The BJP turned the rhetoric on the head and painted the Congress as being anti-Hindu. The shoe in on the other foot, and the Congress is now forced to defend itself by saying that it is not anti-Hindu.
At last year’s India Today Conclave, the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi told Aroon Purie, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, that the BJP had created this impression that the Congress was an anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim party, and that this wasn’t true. Mrs Gandhi was clearly on the defensive, and she had to because in the political battle perceptions matter more than anything else.
Then followed the Gujarat and Karnataka Assembly elections, where party president Rahul Gandhi was seen visiting temple after temple, and though contrary to facts, it seemed that he was indeed trying to correct the wrong impression held by many people that the Congress is anti-Hindu.
The other irony that is embedded in the history of the 1947 Partition is that the Muslim League had labelled the Congress as the party of Hindus, and the Congress could only mumble that it was the party of all Indians — that is of Hindus, Muslims and all others. But the Muslim League’s politics prevailed.
The BJP is now labelling the Congress as being anti-Hindu, and it seems to be almost succeeding as did the Hindu Mahasabha then.
The politics of religious identity has its importance and it would be foolish to dismiss it as of no consequence. Jawaharlal Nehru had wanted to combat it by ignoring it.
As India grows more prosperous, religious politics will gain in importance, and ways will have to be found to keep toxic politics at bay.
The BJP too is well aware of the dangers involved in this, but it just cannot resist the temptation of playing dirty.