Thursday, April 25, 2013

Modi’s counter to “topi” politics: Track-II mission to woo Muslims

Nitish Kumar may have inflicted a topi-tilak conditionality on Narendra Modi to negate his Prime Ministerial ambitions, but the Gujarat Chief Minister is not just sitting in his tent sulking. Close supporters are now working on sections of Bihar's Muslim leadership to convince them of the inclusiveness in his approach. Similar efforts to woo Muslim scholars and institutions in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and other parts of the country are being made by Modi supporters.

The man on this informal goodwill mission, or Track II Sadhbhavna, is Zafar Sareshwala, an Ahmedabad- based businessman and by now a known Modi protagonist.

Sareshwala's critics and leaders in rival political formations often term him as 'Modi Ka Musalman', but he does not seem to mind it much, He admitted to Firstpost that he has been talking to various Muslim organisations in different parts of the country.

"My family has a long association with these scholars and leaders. It is only natural that I have been talking to them on various issues, including on politics. Some people have labelled me and given me names. I am not an agent of Modi or the BJP, I work for Muslims. A transformation is necessary. Since the polity has become bipolar, it (choice for Muslims) has to be between the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA. I am completely disillusioned with the Congress and am opposed to separate identity politics for or of the Muslims. I tell my religious leaders and groups, don't be a political handle of a particular political dispensation. Have Muslims given their vote and support to the Congress in inheritance? Why exclude the BJP? My appeal to them is simple: that if they have issues with Modi they should talk to him."

Narendra Modi. AFP.

Since there is a great deal of sensitivity involved in his track-II Muslim diplomacy, Sareshwala is not willing to reveal the names of these organisations or the religious leaders he has been talking to. "It will create unnecessary complications for all concerned", he said.

Has he been to Patna? "Not yet", he says. He met the top leader of a major Muslim organisation at some other place but is planning to travel to Patna soon to engage in further dialogue.

On Nitish Kumar's implied criticism of Modi on refusing to wear a skull-cap during his Sadhbhavna fast of 2011, he has a counter. Nitish should explain why he did not accept a green chaddar recently. Modi didn't accept a topi but did put on a green chaddar with the kalma inscribed over it. In Islamic tradition, the green chaddar has greater significance as a religious symbol than the skull cap, he claims.

Sareshwala is also not willing to reveal, at this stage, what the response of Muslim social and religious leaders outside Gujarat has been towards Modi.

At the core of Modi's small support in the Muslim community – and they are now spreading out of Gujarat – is a double reality: one is economic; and the other is Modi's actual stance towards Muslims post-2002.

The economic reason is simple: all madrasas are run on zakat, a voluntary donation by the faithful. And almost half the zakat collected in India comes from Gujarat. Due to Gujarat's generous contributions to zakat, most prominent Muslim organisations have a connect with the state in one form or the other.

The second is the growing, if grudging belief, that the work done by Modi over the past few years has been "inclusive in nature", and this shows up in the improving living conditions of members of the minority community in Gujarat. Even more important, justice is being delivered for the perpetrators of 2002.

Modi is fighting a hard, pitched battle for national acceptability, not just among various communities, but also in the political class. His anguish found a reflection in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday where he remarked at the continued existence of political untouchability at the Sivagiri Ashram of social reformer Sri Narayana Guru. Sri Narayana Guru emancipated the Ezhavas, earlier considered untouchables by caste Hindus in Kerala.

While Modi's new non-party supporters have come to terms with him, they have a grievance with his party: they blame the BJP for not reaching out to Muslims in the manner it should have and for not propagating Modi's silent work among the Muslim community. Modi has always talked about "inclusive growth for all six crore Gujaratis", but his own party has not embraced the idea.

Since the time of the Atal Himayat Yatra by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's supporters in 2004, party workers have not taken up any confidence-building measures. LK Advani, in his speech at the BJP National Council in New Delhi last March, spoke of the need to reach out to the minority community and building confidence in them. BJP President Rajnath Singh had earlier asked partymen to go to areas with a minority concentration, but the idea has not been executed with any degree of conviction.

Modi's supporters, in contrast, are working more discreetly, first testing the waters before letting the world know of their plans.

The estimate that Muslims provide the tilting factor in around 150 parliamentary seats is weighing heavily on the minds of Modi supporters. If the next parliamentary elections are fought in presidential style, Modi has to minimise the hostility of community members, if not nullify it or even try and win them over.

Modi's victory speech after he won the Gujarat elections last December was the start of this new effort. At that time he said that the hurt of any Gujarati was his own hurt. Though he did not mention Muslims, it is now being interpreted as that. "Who was he referring to? Obviously, it was the Muslims", Modi partisans say. Modi needs to be more clear and categorical if his message to the community is to be communicated clearly.

From practically zero support in the Muslim community till a few years back, Narendra Modi's supporters now boast of the Salaya experience. Salaya is a municipal township in Jamnagar district where 90 percent of the population is Muslim and they have been traditional Congress supporters. Some say, being a coastal area, this was also a smuggling hub and an area neglected by the state administration. The changes brought about by the Modi government saw a total rout of the Congress in municipal elections held in February this year. The BJP won all 27 out of 27 seats and the party had put up 24 Muslim candidates.

On his part, Modi is adding fresh chapters to his Sadhbhavna mission. He got a significant boost when around 25 minority leaders met him earlier this month, including two well-known Islamic scholars, Maulana Mohmad Ali Maniyar and Mufti Vashad Hanpuri. Modi supporters hope they can count on Maulana Maniyar and Mufti Vashad in future as they are two influential voices within the community. Sareshwala had been instrumental in arranging that meeting.

Can Modi attend a Muslim conclave outside Gujarat? His supporters do not have an answer yet. But they would be happy to see that happening. Some kind educational institution would be the right platform.

Sareshwala and others like him have to make sure that their informal goodwill mission yields some dividends, but they have to work within a very tight timeframe since elections are not far away – maybe less than a year.

Sareshwala's goal is to ensure that Muslims don't waste their votes on fringe players. "Woh mujhe Modi ka musalman kehte hain, par main to Musalman ki baat karta hun aur Musalman ka kam karta hun. I am fighting for justice for Zaibunissa Kazi and took her papers to Justice Markandey Katju so that a mercy petition could be filed for her", he says.

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