Muslim votes could prove decisive for Modi campaign

Muslim votes could prove decisive for Modi campaign

His efforts to make the party friendlier toward Muslims could pay dividends with young voters.

Salim Shah was cooking egg and chicken rolls on a dusty side street in Lucknow when India’s most controversial national politician flew to a nearby park in a red helicopter and addressed hundreds of thousands of screaming supporters. Shah said that he and his 12-year-old son, who sliced boiled eggs by Shah’s side, were too busy to attend the rally. But when asked how he intended to vote in what many observers believe is the most consequential Indian election since 1977, Shah gave a brief shrug.

Shah is a Muslim; the nearby candidate was Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose
relationship with Muslims has been fraught; and India is a country long riven by religious divisions. “I’m inclined to support Modi,” Shah said quietly. “It looks like he’s going to win, and why waste your vote by voting for someone who is not going to win?”

Shah’s simple question could help determine whether India has a government divided among myriad regional power brokers or one dominated by Modi and the BJP. Polls show that Modi is the nation’s most popular politician, but that may not be enough for him to win because political power in India is split among a vast collection of regional parties.

If Modi’s party can win here in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, he will be likely to have the mandate he needs to become prime minister and undertake the wrenching economic overhauls he has said India must undergo to return to the fast economic growth that at one point poised the country as a democratic rival to China. He has already visited the state eight times, and he installed his closest aide to oversee his operation here.

There is an old political saying in India that the way to Delhi goes through Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. From an American point of view, Uttar Pradesh has it all: the electoral heft of a California-Ohio-Michigan combination, the uncertainty of a Florida recount, the political tricks of a South Carolina primary and the stark community divisions of Mississippi.

Disgust with the present government and disappointment with the Gandhi political dynasty are so widespread that Modi comes to the election with a huge advantage. But the scale of his success depends in part on whether he can persuade Muslims like Shah to support his candidacy, a difficult challenge. Muslims make up about 14 per cent of the country’s population, and they have been a crucial part of the support base of the governing party, the Congress, for years.

Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat State in 2002 when riots broke out after a Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing 58. Hindu mobs then attacked Muslim neighborhoods over several days. More than 1,000 people died, mostly Muslims, and women were raped and children burned alive as the police stood by. Modi was never charged in connection with the riots, but some of his close associates were convicted of inciting violence.

He has been linked with a police assassination squad that mostly targeted Muslims. And he spent much of his career rising through the ranks of the RSS an organisation tied to deadly attacks on Muslims. Given this history, many Muslim leaders in India say they will neither forgive nor forget Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Shakeel Ahmad, chairman of the Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat, said that Modi’s political success resulted from demonising Muslims. “Modi survives on hatred,” Ahmad said in an interview last year. “This is an election tactic,” Afsar said. “Everyone knows he’s not secular.”

Electoral tactics

But Modi has presided over an economy in Gujarat that is among the strongest in India, and he has promised to bring to the rest of the country his economic expertise. Few political observers believe he will win over many Muslims, but his outreach could persuade vital regional leaders, who themselves have large Muslim constituencies, that he is an acceptable partner.

“Modi’s campaign has been strikingly devoid of anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of international studies at Brown University, wrote in an emailed response to questions. “Whether that is a sign of ideological evolution remains unclear, but at the very least it is part of a considered strategic decision.”

Top BJP officials have even suggested that the party could apologise to Muslims for past actions. In one of his recent speeches, Modi pointed out that Gujarati Muslims are so much more prosperous than those in Uttar Pradesh that a far greater share in Gujarat apply to undertake the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, an important tenet of the Islamic faith. “For the BJP,” Modi said of his party, “secularism is an article of faith. It is to unite people and bring development.”

Modi has become so confident about his overall prospects that he all but ignored his chief national rival, Rahul Gandhi. Instead, he looked out upon a sea of mostly male party enthusiasts clad in orange, a color associated with Hinduism, at a park here. He slyly mocked Mulayam Singh Yadav, a local political leader who has long been a favorite of Muslims. “Neta Ji,” he said in a teasing, singsong voice, using a widely used nickname for Yadav. “Where is your state’s electricity, or its desperately needed jobs?”

Mohammad Jaffar Ali, a 27-year-old stockbroker who lives in a Muslim enclave in Lucknow, acknowledged hours after the rally that Modi seemed to be a good leader. “But I think being a good human being is far more important than being a good leader,” Ali said. “I’m not voting for him.”

A crowd soon gathered around Ali, a common occurrence when politics are discussed here. Among the young men was Karim Jafar, a 25-year-old medical product wholesaler and Muslim, who made a point of saying that he was a “an Indian first and a Muslim second.” Jafar said: “I’m young. I don’t know much about the past, but I’m hopeful for a good future and I think Modi could help bring that. No leader is perfect. I’m going to vote for Modi and see.”

Two-thirds of India’s population is under 35, and half is younger than 25. Modi’s efforts to remake his party into one friendlier toward Muslims could pay dividends with young voters, many of whom were children when the Bharatiya Janata Party undertook some of its most religiously divisive actions. Modi’s call for a more business-friendly government could also lure younger voters, many of whom are leaving school with few job prospects. India’s economy must create more than 115 million additional jobs over the next 10 years to accommodate the country’s youthful flood, a rate of growth its economy is far from achieving.

Mohammad Shakeel, 44, said he remembered the past too well to support Modi. He said that he voted in the past for Congress, but this time would vote for a regional party. “There’s some concern, even some fear, about what Modi will do to Muslims if he becomes prime minister,” Shakeel said. “We don’t forget.”

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