By Swapan Dasgupta
There are not too many certitudes in this election--the 'obvious' is invariably a post-facto discovery. However, amid all the chatter about the youth vote, the aspirational classes and the relative importance or unimportance of caste, there is near-unanimity on one count: the Muslim community, with some exceptions, will not be voting for Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister of India.
This is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone but the most obtuse. So strong and sustained has been the political assault on Modi since the post-Godhra riots of 2002 that an average Muslim citizen of India would understandably believe that a Modi-led India would an intolerant, even murderous, majoritarian state. In the 2004 election, for example, gory videos of the Gujarat riots were widely shown in nearly all the Muslim-dominated localities of India and helped reinforce the image of Modi as an ogre. Of course, this imagery was further bolstered by a section of the English-speaking commentariat that were blinded to the other tangible achievements of the Modi government in Gujarat.
It is, however, a mistake to believe that the visceral antipathy of a large section of the Muslim community was to Modi alone, and didn't extend to the rest of the BJP. In recent times, Atal Behari Vajpayee has been painted as an enlightened BJP leader whose large-heatedness ensured that he was acceptable to all Indians, regardless of faith. This image certainly helped Vajpayee during his term as Prime Minister. What is curious, however, is that Vajpayee's image as an 'inclusive', pan-Indian leader never helped the BJP secure any meaningful share of the Muslim vote. In 2004, when Vajpayee was at the height of his personal popularity, he failed to secure Muslim support in the Lucknow parliamentary seat that he represented. Indeed, disaggregated data of the voting pattern in Muslim-dominated mohullas of Lucknow suggested that he was the choice of not more than 750 Muslim voters.
The experience of many other BJP chief ministers who are presented in the media as having a 'secular' image is broadly similar. In Madhya Pradesh, the Muslims have no particular issue with Shivraj Singh Chauhan who, unlike Modi, has taken care to get himself photographed in a skull cap. Yet, nowhere has this been reflected in Muslim support for BJP in elections. Indeed, apart from Goa's Manohar Parikkar, no BJP leader has succeeded in securing the support of any non-Sikh minority.
An understanding of what Jaswant Singh once described to me as the "etymological block" facing the BJP is important in view of the contrived assertion by the pundits that Modi has deprived the BJP of any Muslim and, indeed, has ensured aggressive anti-BJP voting by Muslims. In a sense, this flaunting of the BJP's lack of Muslim support is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media, in particular, has made a fetish of reducing constituency and regional assessments of the electoral battles to the simple question: which way are the Muslims voting? Predictably, the answers prop up the belief that the BJP is an anti-secular force.
That the BJP is unlikely to emerge from the 2014 general election with any worthwhile Muslim support is obvious. However, acknowledging the obvious is one thing. To extrapolate from this gap in the BJP's social profile that the 2014 election has been communalised is quite another matter altogether. What is striking about this election is not so much that historical faultlines have been re-exposed but that Muslims are viewing the contest in a very different way from their neighbours, most of whom happen to be Hindus.
For most Indians, this election is about the future of themselves, their family, their community and India. There is an expasperation with the non-performance of the UPA, its inability to tap India's potential, its scams and its economic mismanagement. The election is also about the quality of leadership needed to bring about the transformation of the country and a yearning for decisiveness, especially when contrasted with the lacklustre style of the incumbent. In this battle, Modi has emerged as the centrepiece of the drama, with politicians taking sides in his favour or in opposition.
The Muslim perspective of these elections seem a little different. It is not that the community has been insulated from the economic turbulence India has witnessed. But some of these bread and butter concerns have been overshadowed by a parallel concern for security, especially in the wake of the riots in Kokrajhar and Muzaffarnagar. The BJP didn't trigger these riots and nor did they happen in states where the BJP is in power. On the contrary, much of the anger was directed at the governments of Tarun Gogoi and Akhilesh Yadav for their failure to protect lives and property. The irony is that this sense of insecurity was deftly manipulated by secularist community leaders into a fear of a Modi government. This deflection of real anger could well explain why the Muslim perception of this election is different from that of the rest. This despite Modi carefully steering his campaign away from identity issues and even extending his hand of cooperation to the Muslim community.
In electoral terms, this election may demonstrate that Muslim voters don't exercise a final veto. However, for the future, the next Prime Minister has to ensure that this emotional gulf is narrowed, if not totally bridged. Otherwise India could well encounter needless roadblocks when it comes to governance.
Asian Age, May 2, 2014