Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Modi has no option but to woo the Muslims…..and why he could take the BJP down with him

Here’s the big problem that faces the BJP. With every attempt that Modi makes to go beyond Gujarat, BJP’s problems will only rise. No matter what Modi does in terms of his Sadbhavana fast, it will be extremely difficult for him to shrug off the tag of being a Muslim baiter. To cleanse the stigma of the 2002 Godhra riots, Modi and the BJP will have to go very very far to please the Muslims. Can the BJP and Modi do that? If they do indeed do that, can they still hold on to their core Hindu following? In my humble opinion, No.

Modi has succeeded in Gujarat on a strong anti-muslim platform. He came to power in October 2001 and soon thereafter thanked his core constituency by playing the role he did during the Godhra riots in 2002. What happened then was the biggest attack on the Muslim community in India in the last ten years. Modi succeeded with his strategy in Gujarat because of the small presence of Muslims in that state – just about 9% of the total. Taking a stand against this small population helped him unite the large Hindu population. This was good political strategy and Modi got the desired results. Three consecutive terms as Chief Minister.

But now, as he looks to spread his wings outside Gujarat, let’s look at why Modi has no options but to woo the Muslims.

It’s not surprising that BJP’s most stable governments have come in states where the Muslim population is small. Take Madhya Pradesh for instance where the BJP has been ruling continuously for the last 8 years. The % of Muslims in MP is just 6.4%. Take Rajasthan where the BJP has ruled for 12.5 years out of the last 20. It has a Muslim population of just 8.5%. Take Chhatisgarh where the BJP has ruled for 8 out of its 11 years of existence. The Muslim population in Chhatisgarh is only 1%. Again in Punjab, the BJP has not had any direct presence of its own, but alongwith its alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, they have been in power twice out of the last three times. Any surprise then considering that the Muslim population in Punjab is less than 2%?

If you take states where the Muslim population starts to touch the national average of 13-14%, the BJP’s performance starts to flag. Take Jharkhand where the Muslim population is just about 14% of the population. The BJP has ruled only four and a half years out of the last 11 years of the state’s existence. Take Karnataka where the Muslim population is about 12% and the BJP has come to power only once – currently. And the way it is going, it is unlikely to retain the state in the next elections (though not for reasons of faith). Take Andhra Pradesh with a Muslim population of about 14% and the BJP has never ruled in AP.

Of course in states where the Muslim population is higher, the BJP has had almost no success. The most glaring example of this is UP where the Muslim population is 18.5%. In the long history of UP, the BJP has only managed to rule the state for 5 years 1997 and 2002. And of course how can we forget that one and a half years of Kalyan Singh rule in 1991 which ended up in the disastrous demolition of the Babri Masjid. Even this much has been possible because UP was the “karma-bhumi” where the Babri Masjid was demolished. Going by current trends, the BJP has no hopes of regaining power in UP in the near future. Take Bihar as another example of a state with a strong Muslim population of 16.5%. The BJP has never ruled in Bihar. It’s only presence now is in a minority (how strange the choice of this word!) role in the JD (United) government. And everyone knows Nitish Kumar’s distaste for Modi. Nitish insisted during the last state elections that Modi would not come anywhere close to Bihar. Even today, Nitish is keeping his distance from Modi’s fast. Take West Bengal, where the Muslim population is 25% and the BJP doesn’t even have the beginning of a presence. Take Assam where the Muslim population is 31% and again, the BJP managed just 5 seats out of 126 in the assembly. Again in Kerala (25%), the BJP has failed to open its account.

There are some states where the Muslim population is small and yet the BJP has not been able to make any mark. These are perhaps because of other reasons like the lack of a strong organization or infighting. Take Haryana where the Muslim population is about 5%. The BJP has never ruled the state. Take Maharashtra where the Muslim population is around 10% and strangely, the BJP has never ruled in Maharashtra. Its alliance partner Shiv Sena did rule once, but only once for five years (and that too as long ago as 1995-99). Again in Tamil Nadu, where the % of Muslims is about 5%, the BJP must see an opportunity. Unfortunately, the politics of TN is driven more by regional factors than religious ones and the BJP has thus not found much resonance there. But the low Muslim population explains why the AIADMK and the DMK both don’t find anything amiss in tying up with the BJP. Jayalalitha has no qualms in aligning with Modi as seen recently by her sending emissaries to support Modi’s fast. Likewise in Orissa, where the Muslim population is under 5%, the BJP has never ruled on its own, but its alliance partner, the Biju Janata Dal has no qualms in joining hands with the BJP.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the biggest states with respect to population and therefore the seats in Parliament are those where the Muslim population is significant. These states include four of the biggest five states: UP, Bihar, WB and Andhra Pradesh (the only exception is Maharashtra). That’s why it is extremely difficult for the BJP to form a government at the center on its own. Even making a stable alliance is a problem. The only time it was able to do so was when it was able to unite the larger Hindu community by stroking the very primeval religious instincts of humans after the Babri demolition. The party has only declined in stature since then. The problem for the BJP is that even if it scores major victories in Maharashtra (likely) and Tamil Nadu (highly unlikely); it is unlikely to be able to offset its losses in the muslim-heavy states.

This backdrop explains Modi’s strong compulsion to extend an olive branch to the Muslims. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Two of the biggest anti-muslim pogroms in the last 20 years are directly attributable to the BJP – the Ayodhya issue in 1992 and the Godhra riots in 2002. Even today, the BJP has chosen Uma Bharati – the firebrand and vitriol-spewing zealot – to head its UP election strategy. Even today, the RSS dominates the BJP think-tank. The RSS’s attitude towards the Muslims is well known. Even today, its alliance partner in Maharashtra is Shiv Sena, whose anti-muslim stance is well known. Even today, the VHP continues to occupy a strong presence in the BJP’s scheme of things though it has been getting increasingly disenchanted with the BJP’s conciliatory moves towards the Muslims.

While Modi is trying to woo the Muslims, he is also a smart strategic thinker. He understands that it will be impossible to win the Muslims over with one fast. The un-declared BJP ideologue Swapan Dasgupta has said as much when he said that these are only the first steps that Modi has taken and the journey ahead is quite long. That is why Modi is trying to pitch his economic record as the selling story for his PM campaign. My post of yesterday specifically shows that Gujarat’s economic progress cannot be attributed to Modi. Gujarat was always prosperous – it always had good roads, industrialists always love it, it never had a power problem. Modi wants to claim credit for Gujarat, but the truth will come out sooner or later.

Whether Modi does become PM or not will depend on how he can handle these two factors: his ability to sell his growth record and his ability to woo the Muslims. Generally speaking, religion (and caste) still play an important role in deciding the fortunes of political parties. That is why Modi will find the going tough. That is why the BJP is in a bind. The more Modi tries his hand outside the safe state of Gujarat (and a few other states), the more the risk for the BJP. The little chance it has of getting the support of the Muslims on grounds of its flimsy anti-corruption stance will vanish the moment Modi is seen as its PM candidate. In “Marketing” jargon, the BJP is a well defined brand. Its core is Hindutva and a definitive opposition to Muslims. Strong brand imagery gives it support amongst the more extreme Hindu followers, but makes it lose support amongst the Muslims and the moderate Hindus. Any dilution of this imagery will only harm it….

The real truth is that while Modi is very good news for the BJP in Gujarat, he is very bad news outside the state. Modi himself recognizes this. Hence he is trying both –  to woo the Muslims and to pitch his economic record. I doubt if he will succeed. If he doesn’t, he could take the BJP down with him. In my opinion, the BJP must try and find a moderate candidate – someone like Vajpayee was. Vajpayee was the right kind of leader for the BJP. But now, it’s a tough task for the BJP really. Maybe Arun Jaitley fits the bill better than any other leader I can think of…..but Jaitley is not a mass leader. Who else is there????

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