During an NDTV India debate last week (it was actually a debate, sane and orderly, moderated by Naghma) on ‘Modi and Muslims’, I was asked whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed or the Muslims have changed since the BJP stormed to power last summer. The question followed an eloquent and elliptical testimonial for Modi by an Imam with a flowing beard and in flowing robes who had recently led a delegation to Race Course Road. I had a one sentence answer: Neither Modi has changed, nor have the Muslims changed.
If I were to say that Modi has changed, it would be tantamount to admitting that Modi’s critics and foes were right all along: he was an ogre who presided over the 2002 riots. It would also mean validating their claim that Modi is now trying to don a new persona and recast his image. Neither the charge nor the claim is true. Modi remains what he was, the only change is that he is now Prime Minister of India.
As for Muslims, it would be silly to posit that the community as a whole has changed its perception of Modi, BJP and the RSS. Yes, there are Muslims representing the whole social spectrum of the Muslim community who have made bold to tentatively reach out and support the BJP. If the BJP’s Minority Morcha is being truthful when it says 30 lakh Muslims have joined the party, then the point about increasing acceptance is validated.
It is also true that Muslims who were force-fed a diet of fear by self-appointed keepers of secularism, or the pseudo-seculars as L K Advani would call them, have begun to realise that the advent of Modi as Prime Minister has not worked to their disadvantage. Not only the ‘rivers-of-blood-shall-flow’ kind of bunk has proved untrue, the past year has shown this Government does not discriminate on grounds of religion. If India prospers, so shall India’s Muslims.
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that ‘Muslims have changed’. Yes, Muslims can and will change, but that is going to take time. Decades of propaganda, revivalist zealotry and crass opportunist politics of those who pose as protectors of Muslims, fanning manufactured grievance and misplaced fears, have corroded the spirit of the community. Reigniting that spirit and mobilising the entire community towards participatory nation-building will neither be easy nor quick.
It’s a long haul and Modi, more than anybody else, knows it. For the moment, the focus should be on rozi-roti, as Modi says, and there should be a moratorium on all socially divisive issues, as he declared on Independence Day last year. In a country as vast and divergent as India where democracy is often seen as a licence for anything goes, there will always be discordant, even disturbing, and at times distressing, voices. So long those voices emanate from individuals and organisations that do not matter, none should be distracted.
Which brings me back to the NDTV India debate and its peg: Modi and Muslims. Frankly I am not particularly enthused, and I said so during the debate, by Modi’s meetings with the Muslim clergy. He met a group of Shia clerics earlier. This time round, it was a group of Sunni clerics with a sprinkling of laity. The question that comes to mind is whether the clergy represents a community, irrespective of the community’s faith.
I would argue, as I did, that the clergy at best qualifies as the religious leadership of a community, but it is not a substitute for political or social leadership. To vest the clergy with political power is akin to paving the path to disaster. Men and women of god are keepers of faith; social change, economic progress and political empowerment are best left to politicians, preferably the godless.
Bihar’s Chief Minister and BJP’s friend-turned-foe Nitish Kumar, who could never accept Modi’s rise to power and soaring popularity, had famously said that a politician must be willing to wear a topi and sport a tilak. It was a barb aimed at Modi for refusing to wear a topi proffered by a mullah. That was before last year’s election. Modi proved Nitish wrong: A politician can do without sporting a tilak or wearing a topi. Let him not disprove himself a year later.
Modi does not need the Muslim clergy to reach out to the Muslim masses. He can do so himself. He has to simply wade into the crowds, listen to their problems and their aspirations, and talk to them directly. If he were to eschew that option, he would be treading the path on which his predecessors walked and faded into the sunset. Surely that is not the legacy he aspires for?
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta