Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for treating Muslims as ‘our own’ at the BJP national council meeting in Kozhikode, Kerala, has left both his admirers and critics stunned.
“Do not rebuke Muslims… They need not be rewarded. Empower them. They are not items of vote market, nor are they substance of hate. Treat them as your own,” he said.
Modi sounded protective about Muslims — a rarest of the rare event in his life as all these years since 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots, Modi is perceived as “hostile” towards Muslims.
Over the years, Modi has never displayed any inclination to move closer to Muslims or woo them — even remotely or indirectly. Instead, he built up an image of a Hindu-nationalist champion, a protagonist for development and a man who would not compromise with RSS ideologies.
Reactions to Modi’s Sunday remarks have been mixed. While generally, the refrain is skeptical and that he is seen only paying “lip-service” by touting Muslims “as our own”, some opposition leaders see the Prime Minister’s statement as an attempt to play up a centrist image.
Biju Janata Dal leader B. Mahtab welcomed the statement and even maintained that such a standpoint from the Prime Minister is quite relevant.
“I see the remark as an attempt by Modi to play a centrist role. Significantly, it is an attempt to distance himself from the core agenda of the Sangh Parivar. He is trying to give an effect to playing the centrist role henceforth. I welcome this,” said Mahtab, a lawmaker from Odisha, where Modi’s hardcore Hindu chauvinism and development cards have so far made little headway in breaking the hegemony of the regional party.
A Muslim MP belonging to Trinamool Congress – on the condition of anonymity – dismissed the statement and said Modi was simply playing politics. “We do not trust him. He is making statements only with political motives,” he says.
Meanwhile, a Samajwadi Party leader Dharmendra Yadav saw Modi’s statement as aimed at the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. “By making such a statement, Modi is eyeing the elections in Uttar Pradesh, but he will not gain anything,” said Yadav.
In the run up to the polls in 2014, Arun Jaitley, a key member of the Team Modi, during the height of election campaign, had said, “the efforts of opponents to create a scare about Narendra Modi (among minorities especially Muslims) are not working”.
The BJP also got some Muslim votes in the Lok Sabha polls and, thus, could pick up 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh. “This feat was not possible without Muslim voters’ endorsement,” said MJ Akbar, now Union MoS for External Affairs.
But Bihar elections left some bitter lessons.
Will the Bihar fate get repeated in Uttar Pradesh against Modi where, like Nitish Kumar (in Bihar), Mulayam Singh Yadav is a strong leader with a history of magnetism towards Muslims and Mayawati is a renowned Dalit leader?
A sitting BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh has suggested that “Modi’s speech on Muslims seemed to have been well thoughtout and well crafted. There is a new message in it definitely”.