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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Powerless Gang of Four

The Muslim Face of the BJP

Can the BJP hope to become a national, a mainstream party with the help of a powerless gang?

By Syed Shahabuddin

awned on the mind of the strategists of the BJP that the BJP rise in share of votes and number of seats in the Lok Sabha had hit a plateau and while it may form a coalition government with the unprincipled support of regional parties and some fractions of the Janata Dal which had inherited the anti-Congress ethos, it could never obtain a majority and form a government of its own without widening its social base. They realized that the Muslims with 12.5% (now 13.4%) of the population constituted the biggest obstacle in their race for absolute power. They also realized that, rightly or wrongly, the Muslim community, as a community, perceived it as an anti-Muslim and even anti-Islamic party, a hostile, even inimical force, wedded as it was to the ideology of Hindutva and the thoughts of Savarkar and Golwalkar. They adopted the multiple strategy of dividing it or neutralizing it or winning it over, even marginally. The last would pay them a real dividend in terms of attracting a section of the fence-sitting voters of the intelligentsia which was essentially secular. Its plan of social engineering which had already gained it substantial support among the Shudras (the OBC’s) and the Achhuts (SC’s) was amended accordingly in order to seek Muslim and thus other secular votes. 

Since it could not divorce itself from the RSS or disown the Hindutva ideology, it devised a two-level approach. At one level it devised a common agenda to form the National Democratic Alliance which laid aside, for the time being, the staple items like abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution and thus the special status that the State of J&K enjoyed, low priority to the introduction of uniform civil code, central legislations to ban change of religion and to give comprehensive protection to the bovine family (Gau-vansh) and, above all, its core project for the construction of the proposed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on the site of the demolished Babari Masjid.

The other level was to continue the policies and practices for which the BJP, when out of power, had accused the Congress of ‘appeasement’ e.g. the Haj subsidy, the Haj Goodwill Delegation, ever bigger, participation in the Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Ajmer and Delhi respectively, special, though nominal, schemes for the promotion of education in Muslim concentration areas and modernization of Madrasa education, enhancement of funds for National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, national awards for Arabic and Persian scholars.

Lavish Iftars provided an opportunity for the Prime Minister to get photographed with Muslim elite, and through the courtesy of the mass media, to project his Muslim-friendly face and the Muslim alliance with him.

Another plank of the propaganda was aimed at persuading the Muslims to vote for the Muslim candidates of the BJP. The problem lay in the scarcity of willing Muslim candidates and the inner resistance of the party machinery to field them from traditionally pro-BJP constituencies. Thus, in 1996 to 2004, the BJP never fielded more than 4 or 5 Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha out of over 350 to 400 seats which it contested. In 1998, the BJP won Kishanganj (Bihar), a Muslim majority constituency for the first time with Shahnawaz Husain as its candidate. A first timer, with no experience, he was immediately included in the Council of Ministers as MOS and then elevated to the Cabinet to build him up as the Muslim face, the poster by the BJP. The old war-horse Naqvi, who lost from Rampur, was nominated for the Rajya Sabha. Shahnawaz won again in 1999 but lost in 2004. One does not recall that the BJP fielded any Muslim for Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh Assembly. In Rajasthan, however, it had 1 or 2 MLA’s, one of whom was made a Minister. All in all, the BJP achieved no significant breakthrough in its quest for Muslim votes through parliamentary politics.

The BJP essentially banked on the personal appeal of Vajpayee. But Vajpayee, in an impulsive moment, publicly told off the Muslims that he had no need of Muslim votes! His newly appointed President, a SC leader, kept on playing the tune that Muslims were the ‘flesh of our flesh’. But that tune, almost 20 years ago, its ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay had played, without any effect. The BJP was, as ever, blind to the negative aspect of this assertion. Historically that may be true but the Muslims feared, and continue to fear, losing their religious identity in the Hindu embrace. This was reinforced when Murli Manohar Joshi, one of the triumvirates of the BJP, declared that Muslims are but ‘Mohammadi Hindus’, reducing Islam to the position of a sect within the hierarchy of Hindu Dharma! The same Joshi raised the Muslim apprehension by projecting Urdu very lovingly to a ‘style’ of Hindi. What is worse, the Vajpayee Government incessantly dubbed Madrasas as training centres for militants and Masjids as shelter and sanctuary for the terrorists and ISI agents! It tried to saffronise the school syllabus and introduced revised textbooks of history, social sciences and languages, full of inaccuracies and distortions. Some State Governments Hinduised the school culture as an instrument for brainwashing the children, introduced Sanskrit as a compulsory language at the school level, thus banishing Urdu even as second or third language from the school. In one word, the BJP embarked on a programme of cultural and linguistic genocide leading eventually to religious assimilation.

And then came the Gujarat Genocide which opened the eyes of the Muslims and exposed not only the fascist face of Modi but the real face of Vajpayee. Had Vajpayee dismissed the Modi Government, he would have risen sky high in the esteem of the Muslims. But he lost the opportunity.

Another plank of the BJP strategy was to encourage caste divisions in the Muslim community in order to divide Muslim votes and thus reduce their electoral effectiveness. In Muslim concentration constituencies the BJP financed Muslim candidates. This was not a new approach. The Sangh Parivar’s constant objective has been Hindu consolidation and Muslim division. It went to the extent of conspiring with some Muslim leaders and financing them to float Muslim parties so that a part of the Muslim votes could be drained away from its secular rivals in the name of religion to its benefit. Just before general election, the so-called Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Ahmad Bukhari called upon Muslims to give BJP a try.

Yet another approach was to appoint dependable Muslims of its choice at the head of official bodies set up for the welfare of the Muslim community as well as to staff them with Muslim loyalists, whether it was the Haj Committee, the Central Wakf Council, the National Commission for Minorities, the Maulana Azad Education Foundation or the National Minorities Finance and Development Corporation. Few additional Muslim votes, discredited persons like Qari Mohammad Mian Mazhari, Chairman of the NMFDC, or unknown characters like Dr. Usmani, the Vice-Chairman of the NCM, or Tanveer Ahmad, Chairman of the Haj Committee could secure for the BJP.

Yet power is a magnet. Some members of the Muslim elite responded to the PM’s invitation though, one supposes, they had enough intelligence to see through the power game. But why should they be averse to reaping a harvest, by a mere show of loyalty. May be some wanted to purchase an insurance for the future – a Governorship or Ambassadorship. Some did go places. Mohammad. Fazal was transported from Goa to Maharashtra as Governor as a reward for services rendered. He showed his gratitude by performing pooja at the Mumbai Devi Mandir and offer ‘Pind’ to his ‘Hindu ancestors’ and take a dip in the holy Narmada at the Nasik Kumbh. It would not be fair to reveal the names of all those whose expectations and aspirations died a premature death with the unexpected defeat of the BJP in 2004 Election. Indeed the virtual certainty of BJP’s return to power was used as a propaganda tool and political instrument to pressurize Muslim masses to change their attitude . One must admit that the ice began to melt and a small trickle began flowing towards the BJP camp. By timely political counteraction it was stopped in time so that it could never turn into a stream.

Another attempt at penetrating the Muslim community was to convince it that their welfare and social harmony lay in giving up the Babari Masjid. Offers were made through a bunch of Muslim journalists and clerics to sell the idea to the Muslim community. The Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Kanchipeetham was brought in to sell the worn-out VHP ‘solution’ to the leadership of the Babari Masjid Movement which saw through the game. But what foiled the VHP game was the Supreme Court’s firm and repeated rejection of the VHP’s plea, supported by the Government, for diluting its 1994 Judgement, and allowing the government to transfer a part of the acquired land to the VHP/RJ Nyas for commencing the construction of the proposed Mandir, before the title to the disputed area was decided by he Allahabad High Court. 

The Vajpayee Government then claimed and the BJP leadership goes on claiming until today that it had negotiated a ‘settlement’ with Muslim religious figures. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) supported by the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and the Babari Masjid Movement Coordination Committee have effectively debunked the claim and defeated the government plan of obliging the VHP and, at the same time, appearing as a benefactor to the Muslims. 

The fact is that during his 6 years in office, Vajpayee or any member of his Government never invited the AIMPLB for negotiation. Indeed he never held any discussion, formal or informal, on any matter of concern to the Muslim community with any recognized Muslim organization, be it the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat or All India Milli Council. He always had the time to be photographed with non-entities and particularly those with beards and turbans and colourful choghas! And with a few regular courtiers like Qari Mian Mohammad. Mazhari, Javed Habib and Jamil Ilyasi.

Came the election of 2004. The whole country was almost certain that the BJP will win hands down. How could the loyalists remain inactive? After all they had to prove their worth at least by swimming with the current. So when even Vajpayee’s own re-election from Lucknow (a plus 20% Muslim constituency) appeared to be doubtful, a Vajpayee Himayat Committee was formed and a Himayat Caravan was launched by the then BJP President Venkaiah Naidu on 21 April, 2004 to canvass support for the BJP all over UP. This Committee had Maulana Wahiduddin Khan as its Patron, some Khwaja Iftekhar Ahmad as its National Convener and Tanveer Ahmad as its member. Other Muslim dignitaries who were roped in or who voluntarily lent their names to the BJP campaign were Dr. Mahmoodur Rahman, former VC of the AMU (who had been rewarded with the Chairmanship of the Bombay Mercantile Cooperative Bank), Dr. Manzoor Ahmad, IPS (Retd.), former VC, Agra University, Maulana Jamil Ahmad Ilyasi, President of All India Imams Organization, Dewan Zainul Abedin of Dargah Khwaja Saheb, Qazi Obaidur Rahman Hashmi, Head of the Department of Urdu, Jamia Millia Islamia, Prof. Jafar Raza, former Head of the Department of Urdu, Allahabad University. Others who joined the pro-BJP campaign, directly or indirectly, silently or loudly included Dr. Khaliq Anjum, General Secretary, Anjuman Taraqqui-e-Urdu Hind, poets Bashir Badar, Manzar Bhopali and Anwar Sayeed, self-appointed Registrar of Jamia Urdu, Aligarh. Some denied association; some are working full time to penetrate the new establishment. 

But foolishly, the Caravan tried to sell the Pakistan angle to the Muslims. This repelled the Muslim masses because it implied that the BJP continues to look at Muslim Indians as Pakistan-patriots.

But their big political catch was Najma Heptullah, the Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, who has made a career out of claiming to be a granddaughter of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Six times nominated by the Congress to the Rajya Sabha and twice made the Vice-Chairperson, she was pretty certain of not being renominated. For her defection she has been rewarded by the BJP with another term in the Rajya Sabha and nominated as a special invitee to its National Executive. But Arif Mohammad. Khan, another big catch, was given the BJP ticket from his old constituency but lost. But who has also been nominated as Special Invitee in the National Executive, to keep him politically alive.

Many of those neo-converts to the BJP cause, having lost the gamble, are now anxious to get closer to the INC and the new government, hoping that their tainted past will be forgotten.

After the election, on 13 November, 2004, Vajpayee, threw an Iftar party and invited even those Muslims he had ceased to recognize in the days of his Prime Ministership. No list of invitees who attended is available but the press did not name any known Muslim figures, apart from Shahnawaz Husain, the even-obliging salesman of the party, the major domo of the event. It is said that Vajpayee held this Iftar, against the wishes of the Sangh Parivar, and to show his liberal, Muslim-friendly face. But, in politics, the Ayodhya episode should have cautioned him, you cannot play the same card, again.

So let us look more closely at the Muslim Face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP has always been plagued by the scarcity of Muslims in its ranks. Among the members and special invitees to the National Executive and the Central Office-bearers the BJP has been unable to recruit new faces from year to year or even from decade to decade.

Out of scores of office bearers, namely President, Vice-President, General Secretaries, Secretaries and Treasurer, of late one finds only two Muslim names: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, once a General Secretary and now a Vice President and Shahnawaz Husain, a Secretary. Since General Secretaries are key office bearers Naqvi in fact stands demoted. Shahnawaz is too much of a new comer to count, and could not be anything higher.

Apart from 50 or so Members of the National Executive, including the office bearers, all BJP Chief Ministers, leaders of BJP in various State and legislatures are Permanent Invitees. Naturally no Muslim figures among them. Then there are Special Invitees. A few Muslim names are introduced and then they vanish. For example, in Naidu regime, Rafiq Sadiq, son of late G.M. Sadiq once C.M. of J&K, if you cannot place him, was brought in and then dropped. At present, there are two: Najma Heptullah and Arif Mohammad. Khan in this National Executive as a whole, out of 100 or so, there are only 4 Muslims. The BJP is simply short of known players who bear Muslim names. Sad innings for a national party, after 25 years.

But this is a 100% rise from the 80’s, when the BJP had to do with the Sikander Bakht-Arif Beg duo.

The Parliamentary Party has 2 Muslims: Naqvi who was reelected to the Rajya Sabha and now Najma Heptullah who was also only recently re-elected to Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan on the BJP ticket. With the defeat of Shahnawaz Husain, the BJP has no Muslim Member in the Lok Sabha. Naturally, the parliamentary party has no Muslim office-bearers.

There are half a dozen National Morchas. The Minorities Morcha was headed by a Muslim but he was someone totally unknown, Tanveer Haider Usmani. Advani has dropped him.

The Parliamentary Board, the core decision-making body, has 10 members. Naturally no one is a Muslim.

The Central Election Committee has 16 members. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi figures in it, perhaps to advise the party, if, despite the rebuff it received in 2004, it decides to play the Muslim card again.

So, at the highest level, the party under Advani has only 4 faces: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Shahnawaz Husain, plus recent recruits Arif Mohammad Khan and Najma Heptullah. 

Today, the old war-horse Naqvi and the young ebullient Shahnawaz Husain, an increasingly vocal champion of Hindutva, constitute the Muslim face of the BJP. Even Najma Heptullah who once hoped to make it to the Vice-Presidency (and then, if luck favoured her, to the Presidency of the Republic) is not in the limelight despite her double qualification of being a Muslim and a woman. Nor is Arif Mohammad Khan who is perhaps regarded as unworthy of trust, because of his frequent party-jumping.

Incidentally both Naqvi and Husain have Hindu wives. So had Sikander Bakht, an ample evidence of their ‘secular’ credentials.

Can the BJP hope to become a national, a mainstream party with the help of this powerless Gang of Four? «

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