x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Can Narendra Modi mobilise the Muslim vote in the election?

Muslims have not forgiven Mr Modi and that is likely to reflect in the results of the coming election, writes Amrit Dhillon

Narendra Modi greets the media at a press conference near Bhagwanpura, Madhya Pradesh, last month. Vivek Prakash / Bloomberg News
Narendra Modi greets the media at a press conference near Bhagwanpura, Madhya Pradesh, last month. Vivek Prakash / Bloomberg News

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As Narendra Modi campaigns to become India’s next prime minister, he finds himself in a Lady Macbeth-like situation, where he appears unable to wipe the stains of blood from his hands for his role in the massacre of about 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. He has been chief minister of the state for 13 years and is regarded by his opponents as the central figure in that terrible tragedy that still casts a long shadow over the country.

Indian Muslims have not forgotten or forgiven him. All the events of the past – the pogroms and persecution – are seared into the collective consciousness.

The stories of suffering – in this case, of women and children in Gujarat being burnt alive by crazed mobs – will be passed from one generation to another.

But times are changing. Young Muslims today are just like other Indian youths: they want education, jobs, nice homes and a peaceful life in their country. They have largely left behind their parents’ obsession with religious identity. But when it comes to Mr Modi, they are unwilling to forgive.

That’s why one of the big questions of next month’s national election is whether any of them will vote for him.

Polls so far suggest that Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will emerge as the largest party in the election but without a majority. Even if the BJP does well, it will have to form a coalition with regional parties.

The Muslim vote will be critical in determining the outcome in about 100 constituencies. Knowing how close the contest is going to be, the BJP has been trying to reach out to the very community it usually demonises.

The Muslims I have spoken to recently have been sharply critical about these efforts. For a start, they are 12 years too late. For another, they are seen as gimmicks to win their votes rather than any genuine expression of regret for their suffering. Mr Modi’s refusal to apologise has hardened their hearts. And Mr Modi seems to be unaware of the power of an apology to dissolve anger. It’s not as though an apology necessarily implies that he is directly responsible for the deaths. It rather would have implied that he felt their pain.

The fact that various courts, including the Supreme Court, have not found Mr Modi guilty makes little difference to many Muslims.

It’s true that some of them believe that it’s best to let go of the past and make peace with him since there is no hard evidence to convict him.

One of them is the cleric Maulana Suhaib Qasmi, of the popular Deoband seminary, who recently declared his support for Mr Modi on the grounds that no court had convicted him of the riots and that Muslims need to be part of the development he offers for India. Others might hate him, but feel helpless at the seeming invincibility of his march to power, with the ruling Congress party finding it tough to woo voters who have come to despise the party.

But these views seem to be confined to a minority of Muslims. For the rest, the lack of a court conviction does not lessen their belief that Mr Modi could have stopped the riots, but chose not to.

They know that courts need evidence and that they cannot convict him on the basis of a nod, a wink, or a tacit agreement, but that’s all it takes in India to start communal riots, as was seen in Gujarat when civil servants and the law-enforcement machinery simply played into the hands of the chief minister and allowed the rioters to do their job undisturbed.

In this regard, India bears a similarity with Russia in the 19th century, when the police quietly left a town the night before a pogrom was to be unleashed. That was the signal that violence can start.

Mr Modi’s change of policy – where he has avoided anti-Muslim rhetoric over the past few years as he nurtured his prime ministerial ambitions – has created confusion among some Muslims who were unable to understand whether it signalled a change in his attitude towards the community or whether this was merely a poll tactic.

The tragedy for Indian Muslims is that, for many decades they have been used by one political party or another during elections. They are dumped soon after the victory of those parties.

This election is unlikely to prove any different in that regard. Even though two new trends have emerged, they are moving in parallel grooves. On one side is the fact that many Muslims have moved on.

No longer are the crowds swayed by rabble rousing mullahs forever proclaiming that Islam is in danger. Young Muslims are proud of their religious identity but also feel part of the Indian mainstream.

On the other side is Mr Modi, who has broken free of the earlier beliefs favoured by Indian politicians. He says he doesn’t care about caste, region or religion and only wants to develop India, all of which makes him sound like a dream candidate. But he is unlikely to get many Muslim votes. It’s as simple as that.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi