Narendra Modi has an opportunity to rid India of vote-bank politics, close trust deficit with BJP by going big on educational uplift of Muslims

In his first speech as prime minister after retaining power with a thumping mandate, Narendra Modi had tweaked his original slogan ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ to include ‘sabka vishwas’. This emphasis on trust during his second term as prime minister is significant. It indicated that the NDA government led by him would try to earn the trust of that segment of the electorate that had traditionally never considered BJP as an option.

 Narendra Modi has an opportunity to rid India of vote-bank politics, close trust deficit with BJP by going big on educational uplift of Muslims

Narendra Modi with Muslim supporters. AFP.

Though the BJP increased its vote share to 37.4 percent from 31.1 percent in 2014, its share of Muslim votes remained constant at 8 percent. This indicates that despite earning an incremental vote share in the five years since he moved to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, Modi had failed to earn the backing of a key social group — Muslims.

It is a little churlish to suggest that Modi government’s move to introduce a slew of measures aimed at socio-economic upliftment of Muslims is essentially a vote-catching ploy. Yet jockeying for support from different social groups by addressing their concerns and mitigating their issues is not an immoral or illegitimate step. Democracy allows such affirmative action. It is even healthy for the body of polity, provided — and this is crucial — the attempt is sincere, the planning is proper and execution seamless.

One of the cardinal sins committed by the Congress party, that was in power for the lion’s share of the decades since Independence, was that it sought to encash India’s religious and communal fault lines for electoral gains. Nehruvian ‘secularism’ was built on an idea that India’s composite culture must be preserved, religious polarisation must be avoided, and disparate communities must be allowed to thrive under a homogenous ‘Idea of India’.

The problem with Nehruvian concept of ‘secularism’ — that differed from the European form of the term involving state’s measured non-involvement with, and equidistance from any religion — is that it does not that believe politics and religion should be separate. In fact, it quite often resulted in the state interfering in religious affairs — for instance, the Nehru government reformed Hindu personal laws, banned animal sacrifices, etc.

This still would not have been a problem had the state’s interference with religion been homogenous and consistent, cutting across all faiths. However, there were inconsistencies in this approach. To take just one example, while Hindu personal laws were reformed in a progressive step, Muslim Sharia law was left untouched.

This created space for manipulation. This application of different yardsticks for different communities eventually degenerated Nehruvian ‘secularism’ into a cynical appeasement policy — and that project flourished under the Congress party since the 1980s.

As a political analyst, Christophe Jaffrelot writes in a piece for Washington DC-based Carnegie Endowment, under Indira Gandhi, the “Congress… began opportunistically pandering to one religious community after another more overtly, and Indian secularism was deeply damaged as a result.” Jaffrelot accuses Rajiv Gandhi of furthering this cynical strategy that ironically created space for BJP to grow.

“Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, added more fuel to the fire when he became prime minister following his mother’s death in 1984. In the course of handling the divisive Shah Bano case, he sought to invoke sharia as the template for Muslim communal law in India as a way to mollify Indian Muslims. This political strategy enabled Hindu nationalists to claim that the Congress Party was indulging in pseudo-secularism—a pejorative term that connotes minority appeasement.”

The Congress template for Muslims eventually came to settle around a cynical idea that the community can be turned into a ‘vote bank’ if two essential conditions are met. One, if Muslims aren’t allowed to be assimilated into the mainstream and their socio-economic growth remains stunted, then the community would remain vulnerable to easy political manipulation. This would allow the second condition to be met — ghettoisation of the Muslims driven by a majoritarian fear psychosis which can be done by stoking divisive issues of religious and social identity.

This ‘vote bank politics’, that according to Modi had eaten away the country like termites, prevented Muslims — among other things — from accessing formal education or vocational training, resulting in a condition that this community lagged behind other social groups in terms of social, economic and educational status.

In a symposium based on the Sachar Committee Report written for Economic and Political Weekly, Rakesh Basant highlights the poor condition of Muslims.

“Primary education and higher secondary attainment levels are also among the lowest for Muslims and inter-SRC differences rise at the school leaving stage,” he writes. “This contributes to large deficits in higher education; graduate attainment rates (GARs) are also among the lowest and not converging with the average. The major problem appears to lie at the school level; once that hurdle of eligibility is crossed, differences in GARs across SRCs narrow down substantially. As with other areas of education, participation of Muslims in technical and engineering education is also among the lowest.”

It is evident, therefore, that lack of “mainstream” education is primarily responsible for the stunting of the community’s fortunes and poor socio-economic status. The Congress and regional outfits that adopted the Congress model of governance, found it politically convenient to maintain the status quo. The more Muslims remain under-represented, under-developed and ‘otherized’, the easier it would be for politicians to manipulate them through a few levers.

Just to provide some context to the argument that Muslims remain under-represented in BJP in politics, the party that now has hegemonic control over national politics, let it be pointed out that Congress, which claims to be the flagbearer of ‘secularism’ and still enjoys disproportionate support from this social group, is no better. In 2014, as Jaffrelot has noted, Congress “nominated only 27 Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, a paltry 5.6 percent of its total candidates” and in state elections for “critical states” such as Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu, the number of Muslim candidates fielded by Congress remained very low.

Modi has a great opportunity in reversing this trend and initiating key steps that may gradually lift Muslims from this morass. The NDA’s move to announce scholarships for minority students to the tune of Rs 5 crore with special emphasis towards girl children is a step in the right direction. Equally commendable is the move to reform the Madrassa curriculum and bring it up to modern standards by imparting training to teachers in key ‘mainstream’ subjects such as Hindi, English, Mathematics, Science and Computer Science and make available “bridge courses” that help students get formal secondary or higher secondary degrees from reputed institutions.

According to Union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Madrassas will be asked to identify the teachers for the upgradation of skill and the 30-day course programme will start from next month. “In the first phase, we will try to train at least 200 teachers from all over the country.”

Another report quotes the minister, as saying, that “The 'Padho-Badho' awareness campaign will be launched across the country to encourage education, especially among girls from minority communities” that may include “Nukkad Natak' (street plays), short films and cultural programmes. The campaign will be launched in 60 minority concentrated districts of the country in the first phase.”

The biggest task for Modi is to prevent ‘otherization’ of Muslims, end their isolation and make them equal partners in the progress of the nation. If this can be done with sincerity and earnestness of intent, the BJP may find that the trust deficit between the party and Muslims has significantly lessened.

In a letter written to the prime minister, a group of eminent personalities and leaders from the minority community have promised their “utmost cooperation in the fulfilment of the above goals” and have offered their “profound services to enable your honour to take the community into confidence for suitable measures you may propose to take on above suggestions.”

If Modi stands by his commitment, the nation may finally break free of the curse of vote bank politics.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 15:14:55 IST