The Gujarat riots may have receded from national memory, and governance may be the winning mantra of the hour. But none of these happy developments will allow Narendra Modi to duck the big question: Can you become the prime minister of a nation without the support of its largest minority?
More so, now that leaders of that community are gearing up to launch a united campaign to ensure his defeat. A recent story in Tehelka penned by Ajit Sahi reports:
If conversations, events and initiatives of the past four weeks are an indicator, Muslim social and political organisations as well as prominent Muslims have evolved a one-point agenda: to deny the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongman Narendra Modi a shot at becoming India’s prime minister after the 16th General Election that is due in a year. Their tactic: defeat the BJP and its potential allies in every Lok Sabha constituency where the Muslim vote can sway the result.
The Muslim vote can be decisive in up to 218 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Until now, that electoral muscle has been diffused by fragmented voting in Muslim strongholds, points out Sahi, where the vote is often split among multiple Muslim candidates. "The challenge before the Muslim community is to make sure it votes as a block for a single candidate even if multiple Muslim candidates are in the fray on a given seat," poll expert Yashwant Deshmukh tells Sahi.
A nationwide voting advisory aimed at consolidating the vote would target not just the BJP but also—given the inevitability of a coalition government—regional parties who could be potential BJP allies, demanding "unequivocal" promises that they will never join a Modi-led NDA.
Sahi doesn't offer any assessment as to whether such a national Muslims vs Modi campaign is feasible, let alone successful. But ironically, Modi is the one man who possesses the stature and reputation to galvanise such an unprecedented mobilisation of the Muslim vote. And his ascension has reenergised the BJP's right wing flank hell-bent on making its presence felt. Modi is free to talk development and good governance, but not—as the composition of the BJP national committee reminds him—to the exclusion of his Hindutva credentials. A demand that will inevitably stoke the anti-Modi sentiments amongst Muslim voters. Modi's true albatross is not Godhra but the RSS.
Modi's own feelings on the matter are, as with all else Modi, a matter of surmise and hearsay. Madhu Kishwar's praiseful series of articles on the strongman include some surprising details, such as this insider report on a conversation between Gujarati Muslim and one time anti-Modi activist, Zafar Sareshwala. In 2002, the one time anti-Modi activist along with Maulana Isa Mansuri met with Modi in London, where they confronted him with riot-related allegations:
I told Modi, "Look, no one can deny that a 1,000 plus Muslims were killed. I only ask you, whatever happens between Palamapur and Vapi, between Bharuch and Jamnagar—good or bad—the buck will stop with you. You are our chief minister. Whenever there is a problem, whoever is in put in trouble—whether Hindu or Muslim- it is your responsibility. We will always have the right to ask you: why did this happen under your charge?
"To this Modi replied: Yes, this blot happened during my tenure and I have to wash it off.(‘Haan ye mere kaal ka kalank hai, aur mujhe usko dhona hai’).
Sareshwala presents a different Modi: introspective, reconciliatory, almost apologetic as he cites inexperience as one reason for the failures of his administration. But he also makes it clear that he cannot be any of the above in public view: "The Maulana then said, 'If this is all true, then why don’t you say it openly?' Modi said , 'You will not see me fail you in action. But don’t ask me to say it openly. VHP types will wipe me out. Elections are right round the corner.'"
Is this is the real Modi?
A book excerpt of a Modi biography offer equally counter evidence, including this quote from a conversation with its author Nilanjan Roy which affirms India as a quintessentially Hindu nation:
People can have different forms of puja and rituals can also be different—but that does not mean that the country, the traditions of the land can become different. Look at it this way—who is a Hindu? Those who believe in God are called Hindus and even those who do not believe in God. People also consider those who believe in idol worship as Hindus and even those who campaign against idol worship. Those who deify nature are termed Hindus and those who do not do so are also called Hindus. The truth is that Hindus do not have any real concern with the manner and processes of paying obeisance to God. Hindus have no problems if someone performs the namaz or goes to a church and reads the Bible to reach God. Hindus have no problem with this. We have no problems with the religious practices of people. We have no problems if anyone wants to retain religious identity—but the country, the traditions.
The RSS-textbook definition of secularism is unlikely to play well in most minority quarters.
Irrespective of Modi's personal beliefs, the fact remains that Gujarat's unique demographics have allowed him to play both Hindu Hriday Samrat and Vikaas Purush. While he's ready to downplay one in favour of the latter on his path to Delhi, he has thus far postponed jettisoning the Hindutva card entirely. But it is unclear how long can he continue to maintain his phlegmatic machismo -- especially if faced with an increasingly unified, and active Muslim electorate. Modi may have won reelection over and again without openly courting the Muslim vote, but as Sahi points out, most potential NDA partners cannot afford to do so. In the months to come, Modi may find he has to submit to a different kind of dharma -- of the coalition kind.