By YP Rajesh NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Nafis Ansari, a school principal who is Muslim, was enlisted this year by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a “Modi Mitr”, or friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The resident of the central state of Madhya Pradesh promotes the party to neighbours and […]
India’s Hindu nationalist BJP seeks Muslim ‘friends’ for 2024 election
By YP Rajesh
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Nafis Ansari, a school principal who is Muslim, was enlisted this year by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a “Modi Mitr”, or friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The resident of the central state of Madhya Pradesh promotes the party to neighbours and relatives at events such as weddings and tea sessions at friends’ homes. He speaks about how the BJP’s welfare policies benefit all communities, and talks up India’s status as a rising global power under Modi.
Ansari is one of more than 25,000 Muslims who is volunteering to help Modi win a third term in elections due by May, BJP officials told Reuters. The party looks for community leaders like educators, entrepreneurs, clerics and retired government employees willing to “objectively” assess Modi, said Jamal Siddiqui, head of the BJP’s minorities unit.
Reuters interviewed five Modi Mitrs and six BJP officials responsible for election strategy, who said the party hopes to use its economic record and its plans to introduce religion-agnostic laws on inheritance and gender rights to win over underprivileged Muslim voters, including women, in 65 key seats.
Specifics of the BJP’s Muslim outreach strategy, such as the messaging it is using to target voters in these seats, have not been previously reported.
The campaign is part of a larger push to woo India’s 200 million Muslims, with whom the BJP and Modi have a long and fraught history.
Muslims and rights groups allege some BJP members and affiliates have promoted anti-Islamic hate speech and violent vigilantism, targeted non-profits run by other religions with regulatory action, and demolished Muslim-owned properties.
Modi denies religious discrimination exists in India. Violence between Muslims and the Hindu majority is “deep-rooted” but only makes headlines now because political rivals use it to target the party when it holds power, said senior BJP leader Syed Zafar Islam, who is Muslim.
The prime minister leads in the polls, but a newly unified opposition alliance and a recent loss in a key state election have left party leaders worried about an anti-incumbent vote and fearful the BJP has maximised support in its Hindu nationalist base, analysts and opposition leaders said.
“Until you know us, you won’t recognise us. Until you recognise us, (we) won’t become friends,” said Siddiqui of the party’s Muslim outreach.
ECONOMY-FIRST AND MUSLIM VOTERS
The BJP’s website states that secularism in India has become “minority appeasement … at the cost of majority”. Some analysts say the party has politicised faultlines between Hindus and Muslims to such an extent that Modi’s cabinet doesn’t have a single Muslim minister.
The party sporadically sought Muslim support in past regional polls, but this national campaign is the first and most widespread of its kind, according to Siddiqui and Hilal Ahmed, an expert on Muslim politics at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based think tank.
The BJP, which won about 9% of the Muslim vote in the past two national elections, is targeting between 16% and 17% next year, said Yasser Jilani, spokesperson for its minorities unit.
Two officials told Reuters the BJP is focused on 65 seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament that have a Muslim voter population of at least 30%, roughly double their share of the national population. They shared details of internal party strategy on condition of anonymity.
The BJP currently holds about two dozen of the seats, according to party officials, who declined to provide specific details on the exact seats being targeted.
Modi Mitr outreach focuses on spreading the BJP’s economic message especially to “Pasmanda” Muslims, an Urdu term for marginalised members that make up a majority of that religious community.
Ansari, who is Pasmanda, talks to Muslim friends and neighbours at gatherings about new programmes such as a 1,250 rupee ($15) monthly handout for underprivileged women from BJP-run state authorities and a 150,000 rupee housing subsidy launched by the central government.
“BJP’s welfare schemes are helping everyone, including Muslims,” he said.
Ujir Hossain, a Modi Mitr businessman in West Bengal, also spreads an economy-focused message when he visits his neighbour Mohammed Qasim’s grocery shop. Hossain said he was attracted to the BJP because there is a “sky and earth difference” between Modi’s accomplishments and those of the previous centre-left government.
“Of course, Muslims don’t like Modi’s party but Hossain Dada tells us at least we should listen to what BJP has to offer too,” said Qasim, using a Bengali honorific for “elder brother”.
“The BJP has never respected and addressed the concerns of this section of society and instead marginalized them systematically,” said K.C. Venugopal, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Congress party that held power immediately before Modi.
Asked about the allegations of minority appeasement, he said that Congress doesn’t pursue a strategy of divide and rule: “Elections should be fought on economic and development issues not on the basis of religion and identity.”
BJP leaders such as Islam, a former India head of Deutsche bank, said the opposition has taken Muslim votes for granted and neglected their welfare.
“We have a long way to go, the gap is too steep but it’s getting bridged,” he said.
Among Muslim women, the BJP promotes its pledge to reform personal laws. Supporters of the plan, including some Muslim women’s rights groups, say it will end religious practices on marriage age, polygamy and inheritance that are discriminatory toward women.
“You can criticise BJP for a lot of other things but I don’t think anyone apart from this government has the willingness to reform personal laws,” said Amana Begam Ansari, a female Pasmanda writer and political analyst, who is not related to Nafis Ansari.
Violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims have become less frequent since the BJP took power, according to government data, but tensions remain high. In government, the BJP has frequently used enforcement powers to try and prevent inter-communal tensions from spilling into outright violence due to concerns about its law-and-order message and India’s international reputation, some analysts say.
Many Muslims say they live in fear of Hindu activists emboldened by the BJP’s politics of cultural nationalism, according to community leaders and foreign researchers. Critics consider such nationalism a euphemism for Hindu supremacy.
Opposition leaders and analysts such as Ahmed, the politics expert, said the BJP is likely to make gains with Muslims next year unless it is countered by the opposition.
The BJP has a dual strategy of “demonising Muslims” for its hardline base and wooing sections of the Muslim population, said Ahmed.
“The demonisation of Muslim men will continue but a soft corner will be shown to Muslim women,” he said. “Similarly … (there will be) some positivity shown to Pasmandas.”
Ghanshyam Tiwari, spokesperson of the opposition Samajwadi Party, which has a large Muslim base, said the BJP’s position as the ruling party gives it the ability to make policies that can win over some Muslims.
“But no matter what BJP does, it doesn’t change its core colours, core elements, which remain an anti-Muslim, anti-minority approach,” Tiwari said.
Ansari, the Modi Mitr educator, said the BJP should control extremist activists who “ruin” its image but still backs the party.
“There are extremists everywhere,” he said.
($1 = 83.2014 Indian rupees)
(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain; Editing by Katerina Ang)