Narendra Modi accompanying Shinzo Abe to Sidi Saiyyed mosque is an exercise in image makeover for PM

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to accompany his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, to the 16th century Sidi Saiyyed mosque in Ahmedabad marks an important turn in his political evolution. Famed globally for its exquisite stone lattice work or jalis, the mosque is not just an architectural marvel, but also the symbolic icon of Ahmedabad city.

File image of Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Reuters

File image of Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Reuters

The mosque is evidence of historical fruition of Gujarat's multiculturalism, a testimony to Hindu and Muslim cultures coming together in the past to create structures of ever-lasting beauty and significance. The famed 'tree of life' lattice window is not just omnipresent in tourism publicity material, but also provided inspiration for the logo of the National Institute of Design. The 'tree' fuses Hindu and Islamic spiritualism by the depicting the Kalpavruksh, the Hindu element, while the date palm is symbolic of Muslim heritage and its vibrant cultural stamp on contemporary Ahmedabad and several other parts of Gujarat.

In July this year, UNESCO declared Ahmedabad as India's first World Heritage City. It marked the successful culmination of efforts initiated in 2010 by Modi in his capacity as Gujarat's chief minister. In congratulations that poured in at that time, Ahmedabad's Jain, Vaishnav and Mahajan traditions were lauded by BJP leaders but there was silence on the city's Islamic past and its syncretic inheritance.

Insofar as the composite character of the state's legacy is concerned, Modi has been in denial mode. Significantly, this is his first ever visit to the mosque which he now considers worthy of unprecedented recognition that the Abe visit will confer. In the years when he was chief minister and even after becoming prime minister, Modi has not acknowledged or promoted Gujarat's composite cultural and spiritual heritage. With this visit alongside Abe, Modi seeks to reverse this.

It is apt to recall that in September 2011 when Modi tentatively began his outreach programme, Sadbhavna, to promote social harmony, he ran into controversy when a Sufi cleric, Syed Imam Shahi Sayed, offered a skull cap to Modi which he refused. Modi was subsequently taunted by political opponents, including Nitish Kumar. Vijay Rupani, then a mere party spokesman clarified that Modi's "policy is not of appeasement of a section of society unlike other parties, but our approach is development for all and treating everyone as equal".

The Bihar chief minister had then taken a jibe at Modi arguing that in the diverse country like India, all "symbols must be respected. In order to maintain harmony with everyone, sometimes one has to wear a cap and sometimes one needs to sport a tilak.". Sometime later, noted social scientist, Ashis Nandy, who had called Modi a "textbook fascist" very early in his career, stated that he must "go to a dargah. Go to Ajmer Sharif and apologise. The Khwaja is supposed to be benevolent and very forgiving."

Modi is not visiting the Sidi Saiyyed mosque to either seek pardon, or deliverance but only taking Abe to display a personality facet for which he is not known, either internationally or domestically. Yet, the decision is indicative of ginger steps that Modi is taking to be accepted as a more inclusive leader. Though this might not be backed by adequate efforts to rein in fringe forces, but the choice of this destination, when he could have opted for any other that showcased Ahmedabad's historicity, has to be seen in conjunction with the statements of Mohan Bhagwat on trolls and Rajnath Singh recent comedown on the issue of Article 35A of the Constitution.

Bhagwat's assertion in an interaction, most significantly with diplomats of the foreign missions, provides an indication that the Sangh Parivar realises that hyperactivity of the fringe elements inspired by the idea of Hindutva, has potential to damage Modi's image internationally. Significantly, Bhagwat made a sweeping declaration that "Hinduness" does not give anyone the right to sit in judgment on other people's choice of food or clothes, provided this does not violate laws of the land. This is not the first time that the RSS sarsanghchalak has spoken the language of restraint and caution.

It must be kept in mind that Modi takes no decision without a clear intention. Coming as it does in a year when Gujarat goes in for assembly election that is crucial for Modi to retain his electoral might in the country, the choice of the Sidi Saiyyed mosque for his evening tête-à-tête is intriguing.

Significantly, Modi is literally going to enact the role of 'Raju Guide' for Abe not just for the road show but also during the time they spend together in the famed mosque. Reports mention that Modi had to take a crash course on the salient points of the mosque's architecture and history because he opted to do the talking himself and not with the help of either custodian of the shrine or members of the Sunni Waqf Board.

It is not that Modi is repositioning himself dramatically and is on way to becoming a neo-secularist because doing so would risk his core Hindu vote. He is merely visiting a monument and not reaching out to people from a community that feels beleaguered. Yet, his visit to this mosque for the first time — he is known to have visited Sarkhej Roza mosque and tomb complex on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in 2010 — is not an ordinary event and poles apart from his visit to Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque or gifting a gold-plated replica of Kerala's Cheraman Juma Masjid to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Modi's future trajectory insofar as engaging with religious minorities, especially Muslims, will have to be closely tracked henceforth.

Updated Date: Sep 13, 2017 15:42 PM

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