Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha address on Tuesday was sarcastic, punchy as well as inclusive and conciliatory, but it may be remembered more as an inflection point when the prime minister sought to bust the Congress’ “secular” credentials on the floor of the House and expose the party before its purported vote-bank — the Muslims. Modi’s reference to a comment by a senior Congress leader during the Shah Bano case — when Muslims were portrayed by the Congress leader in unflattering terms during the Rajiv Gandhi regime — drew a sharp response from the Opposition benches. It would have cut deep.
The argument isn’t new, but Modi’s method was interesting. He took recourse to no symbolism in narrating the Congress mindset to show how the grand old party had repeatedly betrayed Muslims and, in the process, ended up betraying India as well. Before we come to Modi’s actual comments during the debate on the Motion of Thanks for President Ram Nath Kovind’s address, it is worth recollecting the electoral strategy of the BJP based on the results of the last two Lok Sabha polls.
It is evident, at least from the 2019 results and post-poll surveys, that the BJP has been able to achieve a larger consolidation of Hindu votes based on a caste reconciliation. The fault lines that earlier allowed parties dependent on social coalitions (such as the SP, BSP or the RJD) to thrive still remain, but these cracks cannot by themselves sustain caste and identity-based coalitions.
With Modi as the prime minister, the BJP has been able to fashion itself as an umbrella party of the Hindu sections of the society. This has made it possible for the party to bag over 50 percent vote share in several states. As an analysis of the 2019 results in The Hindu suggests, “The BJP is on the road to becoming a party of upper and backward Hindu communities propped up by critical support from Dalits and Adivasis. But despite these fine points, the big story is in the Hindu consolidation that has been achieved through the outcomes of 2014 and 2019.”
The analysis sees a polarisation and consolidation of votes along religious lines. The BJP, say the authors, has been able to build a “broad Hindu coalition” while the Muslim votes have consolidated behind the Congress. This context is important as we try to understand the significance of Modi’s address.
It is evident that the BJP, having built a “broad coalition” of Hindu votes including SC/STs and tribals, now sees the time ripe to break the cycle of mistrust that exists between the party and India’s nearly 200 million Muslim citizens. To break the cycle of mistrust and create a bond of trust with the community — whose relevance as an electoral veto power has diminished as a consequence of counter-consolidation of Hindu votes — Modi thought it relevant to expose how so-called “secular” parties have betrayed the Muslims in the guise of serving them and have taken them for granted.
Congress, particularly, has remained secure in a notion that Muslims have no option but to vote for it. As the 2019 election campaign showed, Congress dropped all pretence of being a “secular” party and tried to dispel its “pro-minority” image. The party was not seen appealing to imams and muezzins before elections — a common practice even a decade ago — and the Congress president rushed to temples, flaunted his sacred thread and gave tickets to only 32 Muslims among 423 candidates in the fray.
During his address in the Lok Sabha, Modi was essentially telling the Muslims not to keep supporting a party that has repeatedly breached their trust and used them for electoral gains without ever addressing the issues that concern their socio-economic uplift. Modi leveled an allegation that during the Shah Bano episode, a Congress leader in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet had said, “We are not a party of social reformers. If the Muslims want to remain in the gutter, let them be.”
Modi’s allegations were based on an interview by Arif Mohammad Khan, a former four-time MP who resigned from his post in 1986 as a minister of state in the Rajiv Gandhi government protesting its stand on the Shah Bano case.
According to Khan, quoted by The Indian Express in a report, the “senior Congress leader” who made the disparaging remark about Muslims was Narasimha Rao, who later went on to become prime minister. Khan lauded Modi for highlighting the issue and exposing the “intention behind all those actions, which were basically meant to divide the society”. Rao, who was then a Union minister in Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, told Khan who had made up his mind to put in his papers over Congress’ bowing down before Muslim fundamentalists, that he was "being foolhardy.” Khan recalled that Rao “was not being rough or crude with me, he was very gentle. But then, he told me, ‘Try to understand. We are not a party of social reformers. If the Muslims want to remain in the gutter, let them be. Why you should resign?”
The weight of Modi’s allegation, that drew a sharp response from Congress MPs, was evident. It has long been the BJP’s charge that the Congress practices what it calls "pseudo-secularism", where Muslims are ghettoised and driven by a "majoritarian fear factor" into taking electoral decisions instead of casting their ballots as free, independent agents who enjoy the rights of adult suffrage. It has been argued that this "vote bank" politics has actually worked against the Muslims in keeping them outside the loop of India’s story of growth.
A March 2007 article based on a symposium on the Sachar Committee Report in Economic and Political Weekly points out the dismal state of the social, economic and educational conditions of Muslims, and suggests community-specific policy prescriptions. The findings are depressing.
If Congress had always kept the interests of minorities in mind, what explains the state of this community in India that remains almost at the bottom of the development index? As the article in the Economic and Political Weekly points out, “primary education and higher secondary attainment levels are also among the lowest for Muslims and inter-SRC differences arise at the school leaving stage. This contributes to large deficits in higher education; graduate attainment rates (GARs) are also among the lowest and not converging with the average.”
In this context, Modi raised a bipartisan appeal to Opposition members to back the bill against triple talaq that his government has championed. Modi cited the Uniform Civil Code, Shah Bano case and the Congress’ stance on triple talaq to claim that since 1951, the Congress has been continually letting down Muslims and has done nothing for women’s empowerment. “Jawaharlal Nehru government missed the opportunity to implement Uniform Civil Code, promoted the Hindu code and fueled its electoral car,” said Modi.
“Thirty-five years later, they got another opportunity — in the Shah Bano case. The Supreme Court helped them fully and even the situation in the country was pro-gender equality. But they once again missed the opportunity… Once again, 35 years after the last time, they have another chance. We have come up with a bill to safeguard the rights of women. This does not need to be conflated with any religious community," Modi told Parliament.
Modi’s attempt here, as noted above, is to show the Muslims how the Congress has exploited them for electoral gains. But this exploitation has always been masked in secular terms and a binary has been created between the "minority" and "majority" to deflect criticism.
In his article titled "Congress’ secularism is a myth," lawyer Ram Jethmalani wrote in The Sunday Guardian, “I have always maintained that India needs an inclusive 'national secularism' agenda, which in any case forms the fulcrum of our Constitution, as against the 'communal secularism', practiced by the Congress, and its satellites. What is polarising the nation today is not BJP or Narendra Modi, but the Congress party's own divisive, communal vote bank politics, to which it gives a fake label of 'secularism'. This distortion is then marketed by the Congress spin doctors to the media and the public, and the myth of Congress secularism and BJP communalism is perpetuated through the usual Goebellesian techniques.”
It was this agenda that Modi was trying to expose, and unscrew the nuts and bolts of an ecosystem that had long peddled this fake secularism in exchange for a quid pro quo relationship with the Congress. The reference to “gutter” is striking, but that is meant to have a shock effect on Muslims who may finally see the truth about “secularism” as practiced by the Congress and its clones in India. If that misplaced trust is gone, the community may expand its horizons and consider the BJP as an option.
It may seem improbable that the BJP is now seeking to create a bond of trust with Muslims, but a larger Hindu consolidation was similarly thought of as an impossible project.
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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2019 17:00:04 IST