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Modi's Remarks on Muslims Swing Between Raw Religiosity and Pluralist Ideals

After his speeches targeting Muslims, Modi declared recently that he did not mean what he was reported to have said.

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If the story of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decade in power is scripted like a movie, there could be three versions depicting different facets of his intriguing personality.

In the first, he unveils his vision for India's young minority Muslims with his catchy slogan, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas (Everybody's support, everybody's development, everybody's trust). "I want you to have the Koran on one hand a computer on the other," he had declared to Muslims towards the end of his first five-year term in power.

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In another screenplay, Modi can be shown targetting Muslims in a negative light. Towards the end of his second term as prime minister, Modi has made so many election speeches with direct or indirect references to Muslims that it is difficult not to see a method in it.

Apart from dropping shibboleths on Mughals or meat-eating that often symbolise Muslims or their culture as alien to conservative Hinduism or history, Modi declared often that the Congress party's welfare-loaded election manifesto reminded him of the Muslim League's agenda in pre-Independence India.

In another speech, he rued about job quotas being snatched from Hindu backward castes and being given to Muslims. And then there is the Modi clincher about a much-denied inheritance tax proposal or a planned survey of wealthy people. In one speech, he spoke of the Mangalsutra (marital gold chain) being snatched from Hindu women for redistribution amongst Muslims. In another, he said that the Congress would take away wealth and give it to ghuspait (infiltrators) and "those who have many children."

Journalists who covered the latter speech reported that he was targetting Muslims, something denied by Modi in what would be a third, grey version of the leader in this movie.

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In the last version, filmed in the picturesque backdrop of a flowing Ganga in his constituency, the holy town of Varanasi, Modi declares that he did not mean what he was reported to have said.

"Even Hindus have many children," he told an interviewer adding that he would be unfit to hold a public office in India if he was targetting Muslims. But the fact that he spoke of "infiltrators" in the same breath as mentioning Congress leader and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talking of the need for underprivileged sections including minorities, especially Muslims, to enjoy the benefits of development, provided enough of a backdrop for the allusion to Muslims.

Is Modi a Bundle of Contradictions or is he in Damage-control Mode?

Indeed, it looks in hindsight as though Modi was proportionately retaliating 18 years later for a faux-pas that Dr Singh made in 2006 when he clumsily worded a speech in which he clubbed references to scheduled castes, tribal people, and Muslim minorities in a manner open to a tit-for-tat interpretation. Singh's office had issued a statement to clarify the matter but that is not part of Modi's reference.

In fact, just one day after his interview in which he said straight-faced that he was not fit to hold office if he was anti-Muslim, he declared the Congress party wanted to spend 15 percent of the budget on Muslims and that the party had a "divisive" budget agenda.

It is evident that Modi is countering the Congress party's claims that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to overhaul India's Constitution with a counterclaim that the Opposition party wants to subvert the principle of equality between religions. The nuanced fact is that the Constitution provides quotas for "other backward classes" (OBCs) and that includes sections of the Muslim community though it is commonly misunderstood that C stands for "castes" and not "classes".

Both the Congress and the BJP do not emphasize this, leaving room open to misinterpretation and political sparring that often raises the spectre of ugly bigotry. Modi exploits the vulnerability evident in the Congress which does not clarify hard and often enough that it refers only to underprivileged Muslims as a small sub-section of the OBCs. You must be a clever, quibbling lawyer to read between the lines that Modi utters to create an image of one kind while remaining technically in line with what he clarifies.

Questions loom large. Is Modi a bundle of contradictions?  Or is his clarification a damage-control exercise to counter criticism that emerged over the past three weeks after his controversial campaign rallies? Or, is he a bigot who is polarising Indians through dog-whistling speeches that target Muslims?

The answer depends on who you are talking to. We need to examine each question in its proper context and detail to get the drift and import of Modispeak.

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Apologists and cult followers of the leader are bound to say he has been misunderstood by interlocutors and reporters, taking his statesmanlike claims at face value. But we need to look beyond the face value. While Modi is at best vague, BJP cadres and even senior leaders including party-appointed state governors have left little to the imagination.

BJP supporters and right-wing affiliates in social and digital media clearly target Muslims or their religious practices and more. The BJP itself gives election tickets to rabble-rousers who use insinuation, innuendo, and worse to target the Muslim community's historical affiliations or contemporary leaders. 

The party does not have a single member from the Muslim community in the legislature that it controls in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state. Modi's parliamentary election nomination to contest from Varanasi was supported by Dalits and backward castes this year, but a Muslim was conspicuously absent. In frequent speeches, BJP leaders target Muslim "appeasement" by the Congress party in reference to what in contemporary social justice glossary would be seen as a policy of "inclusion" or "affirmative action."

Does that leave India with a prime minister and a ruling party that sidesteps a religious community whose population is 14 percent of the total, based on the data of the last census? The BJP says it does not divide Indians on religious lines, though it is happy to acknowledge caste or gender divides in developmental policies. It simply refuses to recognise the underprivileged among Muslims. This is what analysts describe as polarisation politics.

This does worry liberal thinkers and diplomats of Western democracies sworn to pluralism, but the BJP seems to operate in a way best described by an aphorism: "Those who mind, do not matter. Those who matter, do not mind." Modi's ideological gambit is also an electoral gamble that plays on the disconnect between raw religious sentiment and pluralist ideals in the Hindi heartland.

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The opposition is fragmented and often ends up in trouble while defending the minorities — and frequently plays into the hands of the BJP's shrill campaigners. Religious sentiments are often articulated in historical and cultural terms by the BJP through oblique references to Mughal history or the destruction of temples, blurring the divide between the medieval, the ancient, and the modern.

That does bring up a question: Won't this hurt Modi as a global leader who takes part in global summits with a tag that says Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is a family)? 

The cynical answer to that would be that in a world where the US supports Israel bombing civilians in Gaza and Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces target civilian buildings in Ukraine, some doublespeak by an Indian premier hardly matters in terms of priority or moral authority.

The BJP's strident Hindu nationalists who see Modi as a cult leader describe modern liberals not as rival ideologues of autonomous thought within a long civilisational history but as foreign agents dancing to Western tunes.

Modi, in a way, is sitting pretty in the Game of Thrones. If he wins a third term, the detergent called political power may help him wash off the sins of electoral jingoism. If he loses, he will trade the magnificence of political power for the magnificence of cult glory. 

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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