The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has grown in strength over the past eight years, largely by pursuing socially exclusive policies and politics, and by allowing its rank and file to incessantly disparage Muslims. Even then, recent reports that the party may possibly have no Muslim member in either House of Parliament are unsettling.
The reports appear plausible because by coincidence, the terms of the only three Muslim Rajya Sabha members of the BJP, including of Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, will end between now and August, and polls have been called for these 57 seats.
Replacement candidates for the three were not from the minority community. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP fielded just five Muslim candidates, but none of them was successful.
The terms of the only three Muslim Rajya Sabha members of the BJP will end soon. Replacement candidates for the three were not from the minority community.
Gujarat was the first state where the BJP unabashedly conveyed to Muslims their irrelevance in electoral politics and discontinued fielding candidates from the community for both Assembly and parliamentary elections.
However, while Muslims are not fielded in assembly or parliamentary polls, the BJP has felt the need for candidates from the community in local body polls.
From the time the Modi-Shah duo has established control over the BJP, the party has made great attempts to broadcast that it is “not seeking” Muslim votes.
What's in Store for Naqvi? Will He Bag a Ticket?
A simple question arises from the denial of nomination to the three Muslim Rajya Sabha members: is the BJP introducing the Gujarat model at a national level now? After all, this was the first state where the BJP unabashedly conveyed to Muslims their irrelevance in electoral politics and discontinued fielding candidates from the community for both Assembly and parliamentary elections, even though they comprised almost 10% of the population.
Before going further, it must be clarified that only after 6 June will it be finally clear whether the BJP is left with no Muslim parliamentary representative. This is the last date of nominations for by-elections to four Lok Sabha seats, including Rampur in Uttar Pradesh.
There are speculations that the BJP may field Naqvi from this seat, which he represented in the twelfth Lok Sabha since 1998 (he lost in elections for the 13th Lok Sabha in 1999). If he does actually bag a BJP ticket, it will be known only on 26 June, when counting for the by-elections is scheduled, whether the BJP will have a Muslim representative in the Lok Sabha.
When Obama Reminded Modi of 'Rights' and Naqvi Was Sent to Ajmer
Although Naqvi has perennially been Minister of Minority Affairs in the Narendra Modi government, it needs to be mentioned that Atal Bihari Vajpayee inducted him into his Council of Ministers as Minister of State in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, with an additional charge of the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.
After being appointed Minister for the first time in the Modi government in November 2014, the first important assignment that came Naqvi’s way was in February 2015.
He carried the proverbial olive branch in the form of a chaadar (a prayer offering) to the Ajmer Dargah, a step that Modi took in response to American President Barack Obama serving a reminder for safeguarding religious freedom during his visit to India.
Obama, it may be recalled, reminded Modi of his constitutional duties in the backdrop of attacks on churches in some parts of India and abusive comments by ministers in the government.
However, in the past eight years as Minority Affairs Minister, Naqvi was hardly used as a person who could build bridges between the BJP and his community. For the BJP, efforts to mollify Muslims could be counterproductive and lead to a loss of support from its core constituency.
While Naqvi had a political background and his profile was the primary reason for his continuance as a Rajya Sabha member in 2016, after the previous term was over, the other two Muslim members who are retiring – BJP spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam and journalist-turned-politician M.J. Akbar – were inducted for other reasons. The former was a professional banker and had reportedly gained proximity to Modi when he was Chief Minister after he arranged a meeting with top bankers in the country once the Modi emerged as a potential Prime Minister candidate. Subsequently, Islam joined the BJP in 2014 and began representing the party in television debates. He was later formally appointed as one of the several spokespersons.
Yet, Islam secured a nomination for a Rajya Sabha seat only in November 2019. It is believed that he was ‘rewarded’ for having ‘facilitated’ Jyotiraditya Scindia’s crossover from the Congress to the BJP earlier in 2020. Clearly, his election to the Rajya Sabha had little to do with his social identity.
MJ Akbar Has Lost Utility
The BJP’s third Muslim Rajya Sabha member, MJ Akbar, dramatically joined the party in March 2014, by when Modi had emerged as the certain winner in the prime ministerial race. Akbar’s move meant junking his past, including a term as a Congress member of the Lok Sabha and as a much-celebrated author; one of his books is, ironically, Nehru: The Making of India, a personal and political biography of India’s first Prime Minister.
His induction into the Council of Ministers was more due to his presence being an irritant to the Congress and not due to his religious identity. In any case, Akbar had crossed swords with conservatives in his community, including Syed Shahabuddin, who he defeated in 1989 from the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat in Bihar. He lost utility in 2018 after allegations of sexual harassment against him and it was just a matter of time until the end of his tenure.
This is not the only episode when the BJP has exhibited complete disdain for Muslims as a community since its emergence as a political hegemon, a position secured by unabashed mobilisation of Hindus, united on the basis of the BJP’s efforts at marginalising Muslims and neutralising their alleged ‘capacity’ to get non-BJP parties to ‘appease’ them.
Amit Shah's 'Blunt' Interview
Earlier in March this year, as the election campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly reached its crescendo, Union Home Minister Amit Shah offered an ingenious argument on why the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in Assembly elections – just one Muslim candidate was put up by an ally, the Apna Dal. In an interview, Shah contended that “winnability” was the prime reason for the party not fielding Muslims. He accused the media of creating a “wedge between the minorities and the BJP, and as it intensifies, there will not be any candidate who can win”.
Shah also said that mediapersons don’t scrutinise whether any government welfare schemes have excluded Muslims, but they ask ‘ticket mila kya?’ (have they got a ticket?). “I am blunt, so I am saying it,” said Shah, thus dismissing queries on why the BJP did not put up Muslim candidates.
From the time the Modi-Shah duo has established control over the BJP, the party has made concerted attempts to broadcast that it is “not seeking” Muslim votes insofar as parliamentary and assembly elections are concerned.
But paradoxically, from 2009 onwards, the BJP in Gujarat strove to – for the first time since 1995, when the party came to power on its own – strike “a historic rapprochement with the Sunni Muslims of Gujarat”.
Actually, while Muslims were not fielded in assembly or parliamentary polls (even Rajya Sabha, as already demonstrated), the BJP has felt the need for candidates from the community in local body polls, because a non-Muslim cannot be appended behind BJP candidates by reverse polarisation tactics.
While the BJP’s tactics in Gujarat may have possibly led to the state’s Sunni Muslims deciding to “mellow down their antipathy towards the BJP”, this is unlikely to be the case elsewhere due to different histories and varying economic profiles of Muslims in other states.
How Long Can BJP's Politics Last?
Sure, the decline of Muslim representation in legislative bodies is not a post-2014 phenomenon, but it has been aided by the rising support for the BJP over the past three-and-a-half decades.
Notably, it is ironic that despite pursuing its politics of exclusion against Muslims, it is not that the community has unanimously voted against the BJP. Various studies and assessments have concluded that though “non-BJP parties and regional coalitions remained the first choice of Muslim voters at the all-India level,” there are some states where the BJP’s vote share among Muslims has risen in recent polls.
The BJP’s constant pursuit of the politics of polarisation would eventually lead to support for BJP among Muslims either plateauing or declining. The party hopes that this will be countered by its programmes of ‘non-discriminatory’ welfare schemes – what Shah referred to in the aforementioned interview.
The BJP is of the view that economic benefits for people – Muslims included – will ensure that they, especially poorer sections, will give up their political aspirations and stop paying heed to the ‘rights’ enshrined under the Constitution and guaranteed under the rule of law. But with the current economic situation, there is no knowing when public anger stages a comeback over livelihood concerns.
The BJP’s politics of pushing Muslims to electoral irrelevance – the party wins seats despite marginal support within the community – can, however, lose steam.
The ‘civilisational’ narrative that the BJP has formulated over the years, including of minimising Muslim legislative representation, runs the grave risk of unravelling overnight. Then, the BJP might be left clutching at straws.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)