The Indian prime minister's perceived antagonism toward Muslims has actually endeared him to his voters
There has been speculation about why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a proactive speech about the country's Muslim community. (Photo courtesy of Narendra Modi via Wikimedia Commons)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new found love for Muslims has surprised many in the socio-political circles. They wonder if the tender words from the hard-line Hindu nationalist is just a political game, or a policy change of his government toward religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims.
Modi spoke protectively of Muslims on Sept. 25 while addressing the national executive of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in southern state of Kerala.
"Muslims should not be treated as different people…consider them your own," he said.
Modi may not have cherished the image of a 'Muslim hater,' as his critics would often suggest. However, his perceived "antagonism" toward Muslims has actually helped him politically and endeared him to his voters.
The general Indian public have always looked at Modi as a hardliner either romantically or acidly. He built up an image of a Hindu-nationalist champion, an industry friendly catalyst for development and a man who would not compromise with ideologies of his roots — essentially given to antagonism toward Muslims.
Modi's rise to national political prominence came with his hard-line stance. When he was chief minister of Gujarat state in western India, his government and police were accused of tacitly approving and aiding the anti-Muslim riot of 2002, resulting in the death of hundreds of Muslims.
His party's mother organization, the Rastriya Sawemsewak Sangh (RSS), which is the umbrella of Hindu nationalist groups, certainly is not known for sharing his bonhomie with Muslims.
Like anything else in life, success for any politician also comes with hard work, proper planning and playing the cards well. Modi, then, is playing a card hitherto unpopular with his party leadership and cadres.
Therefore, when he waxes eloquence on Muslims — rather in an unprovoked situation like a party leaders meeting, there is certainly more to it. This is especially so considering that Modi's love for Muslims come at a time when the public loves to hear hard words against neighboring Islamic Pakistan. Jingoism against Pakistan fills media discussions after an allegedly Pakistan-aided terrorist attack on an army unit last week killed 17 Indian soldiers.
Some politicians already see a political plot in his scheme of things. Bhartruhari Mahtab, an opposition politician and lawmaker from the eastern state of Odisha, believes Modi is trying to distance himself from the hard-line agenda of Hindu nationalism.
"Maybe he wants to transform. He wants to play a bigger role — an Asian role. I welcome this because this is necessary for a country like India," Mahtab told ucanews.com.
If that is the case, Modi has come a long way from his troubled relations with the Muslims. It indeed is a long way from an outright rejection to wear a Muslim skullcap at a public meeting in in 2012.
However, many see his recent remarks on Muslims aimed toward the ensuing elections in the northern Uttar Pradesh — India's most populous state with sizable Muslim population. Five years back in the state elections, BJP did poorly. A repeat of the same performance — to finish third below two regional parties — will be a big setback to Modi's leadership image.
The BJP's loss of polls in Bihar — another state with a sizable Muslim population in 2015 — had adverse impact on his national image. Maybe Bihar offered a lesson to Modi.
Muslims in India are at crossroads on deciding about their political patrons and hence the pro-Muslim tilt from the protagonist of 2002 Gujarat mayhem could be a deliberate and well-timed political move.
On the other hand, it is vital now to examine Modi's and his ministerial colleagues' approach toward other minorities such Christians. His party cadres hate for Christians is notorious as evident in the several cases of attack on missionary activities reported in the last two years.
Many in his party, including sitting parliamentarians, have time and again spoken about "Ghar Wapsi" or home coming — a popular local term for re-conversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Generally, Modi has been silent on the controversies only to earn rebuke form liberal Hindus and religions minorities.
He spoke in support of Christians publicly just once on Feb. 17, 2015, while addressing a large Christian gathering. He said his government would ensure complete "freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice."
But that promise was not met with action on the ground level, Christian leaders repeatedly said noting that their people, especially in BJP-ruled states, continue to face discrimination, violence and intimidation from hard-line Hindu groups, who work to make India a Hindu-only nation.
Many politicians like K.C. Tyagi of the Janata Dal United party says Modi is not trying to be centrist at all. "Modi remains 100 percent committed to the hard-line Hindu chauvinism," says Tyagi.
The obvious inference is: perhaps Modi is only playing a double game allowing hardliners to pursue their agenda, while he pays only lip service for secularism and religious freedom.
India's Muslims and Christians are surely at political crossroads with no easy choice before them especially since the political policy of the Modi government on religious minorities has become unclear now.
Nirendra Dev is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
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