03/17/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

The Muslim Factor

In the 65 years of Indian independence, no election in the world's largest democracy has been fought without strong religious connotations. The 2014 general election has generated much hype, owing to the two main candidates vying for the reins of the country. The ruling UPA coalition led by the Congress and its hesitant unannounced PM candidate Rahul Gandhi, and Narendra Modi, the nominee from the conservative opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The much awaited general elections will see a two-time incumbent government, the United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of 12 national and regional parties trying its best to make a third attempt, which looks like a bleak possibility. With serious charges of corruption against its senior ministers and allies that emerged during its 10 year old term, the UPA finds itself on shaky ground. For the Congress synonymous with the Gandhi surname, trouble also came in the form of the Aam Aadmi party whose reason d' etre was its fight against corruption. The party which started as a movement against corruption called "India against corruption" led by social leader Anna Hazare culminated into a mainstream political outfit, catching the imagination of a nation which was entrapped in a vicious circle of corruption at various levels.

With most opinion polls in the country projecting the BJP way ahead of the Congress, the conservative party is in no mood to have any factor stall its victory at the last minute. And to this end, it is leaving no stone unturned in reaching out and consolidating every possible vote. No wonder, then, that the Muslim vote will play a very significant role. That which has many other manipulative suitors in tow.

The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is seen as a pariah by a majority of Muslims in the country for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which more than 800 Muslims were killed. While the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team has given Modi a clean chit, his role in the pogrom and his reluctance to apologize to the Muslim community despite suggestions by his own party has made him a persona non grata for the community.

The BJP however realizes that to survive a five year term, it will have to shed its hardline image and be seen as an inclusive party whose focus will be on good governance for all. This would be more of a compulsion for the party which will fall short of an absolute majority and will need the help of allies. Allies like the TMC, AIADMK, DMK, TRS and other regional outfits which would not want to disturb its Muslim calculation. In effect the BJP will have to tread cautiously so as to be seen as acceptable and win the trust of the minorities in the country

It was perhaps keeping this in mind that the president of the BJP, Rajnath Singh took the country by surprise when at a public rally late last month he offered to apologize to the Muslims of the country for any mistakes committed in the past. The statement, while seen as contradictory to the party's image and decisions taken in the run up to the elections, does suggest the anxiety that it faces on the secular front. In fact, beginning this week the BJP plans to initiate a convention in North India titled "Muslim for Modi, Modi for PM," in an apparent bid to change the party's anti-Muslim, anti-minority image.

But will the party that came to power in 1992, with its pro-Hindutva agenda post the demolition of the Babri mosque, tilt the significant 15 percent Muslim vote in Narendra Modi's favor, will he finally be seen by the minorities in the country as an inclusive leader? Going by his track record upon being chosen as the PM candidate of the BJP, the odds certainly do not seem to be in Mr. Modi's favor. He evoked criticism and outrage from a cross-section of liberal masses last year when in a Reuters interview, he used the puppy as an analogy to compare those killed in the Gujarat riots. But his embarrassed party spokespersons suggested that the statement was taken out of context. His chief lieutenant Amit Shah who was also his Home Minister in the Gujarat government had been arrested earlier for his role in carrying out fake encounters of innocent Muslims, including a 19-year-old girl, who were bumped off after being labelled as terrorists.

The BJP also has other elements to tackle its anti-Muslim image. Late last year the party inducted radical leader Subramanian Swamy, an ex-minister who almost wanted to disenfranchise Muslims who denied their Hindu ancestry. Besides the party is backed by the RSS, a right-wing ideological outfit whose image is seen as bigoted and radical.

In a situation like this, will the politically disillusioned Muslim population of the country turn its attention towards the BJP. The possibility of this seems very dim. Scholars who have studied the Muslim voting pattern and the issues that have plagued the community since independence believe that if Muslims do vote for Modi, it would be in the face of utter helplessness or to teach the Congress party a lesson.

As writer of the recent book on Muslims and faculty at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, Mohammad Sajjad pointed out in an interview to a news portal recently:

"If at all there is really such a situation whereby out of so-called pragmatism, a section of Muslims would be willing to accept Narendra Modi, then, to the best of my understanding, it could be only because of ominous limiting/shrinking of alternatives. In short, it could only be an outcome of utter helplessness in the face of feeble resistance against the majoritarian communalism. Such a high degree of political marginalisation would be fraught with implications."

And Sajjads views are not misplaced, while the Muslims in the country might be willing to teach a lesson and could have looked up to the BJP as a viable alternative, its choice of the Prime Ministerial candidate has rendered it helpless. The party has not just refused to make any attempts to distance itself of the Hindutva baggage, but has, on the contrary, been sending ominous signs of returning to the Hindutva fold. For instance when the party decreed that it would be contesting the elections on the development plank, the PM candidate of the party Narendra Modi has decided to contest elections from Benares, one of the birth places of Hinduism.

Another tactical approach taken by the BJP to be seen as going soft on its earlier hardline avatar is to speak about its development plank and talk of it being an anathema to vote bank politics. 'Vote bank politics' in the Indian context stands for catering to minorities interests. In effect, the conservative national party has mocked the policy of protecting the minorities and given it the cloak of minority appeasement which it believes does not go hand in hand with development. In the process it has not just appealed to its cadres who owe affiliation to the right-wing, but also tried to continue the charade of not appeasing any particular community.

A classic example of the same would be the felicitation of two accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots case( a North Indian province) by senior BJP leaders close to Narendra Modi. The Muzaffarnagar riots, which took 47 Muslim lives, has been one of the most disturbing events of communal incidents in recent times. While Narendra Modi distanced himself from the felicitation, he made sure that the subtle yet provocative message reached out to his cadres in the party, cadres who have galvanized themselves with great intensity to leave no stone unturned in getting Modi to reach the top position. It is this kind of soft communalism being peddled by the BJP and its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi that the Muslim community finds difficult to deal with.

In a recent article in the national weekly Outlook, political scientist Saroj Giri points out:

"The trick: keep communal polarisation low profile or low intensity and keep chanting the mantra of development and governance... Modi wants to sound like a good governance expert or a management guru, 'moderating his rhetoric,' so the other BJP other leaders in the Parivar can carry on the traditional communal bluster, fomenting riots and so on."

The ruling national party, the Congress on the other hand, is well aware of the distrust the Muslim voter bear towards it especially in the last two decades. The representation of Muslims in the mainstream as projected in the last census has been rather despicable. In fact their presence in the government sector has been miniscule enough for various committees in the past to make some drastic recommendations.

The Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh since coming to power in 2004 appointed the Rajinder Sachar committee to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational condition of Muslims in the country. Despite being in power for 10 years, the recommendations made by the committee have been placed on the back burner.

Majority of the Muslim population also holds the Congress responsible for a vicious game of "pseudo secularism" the party has played in using the Muslim voter. Muslim religious leaders in the country have dared the Congress to stop playing games with the community, inducing fear in them that should they not come into power, the community will be perished. However, the disenchanted Muslim has now begun asking questions of the Congress on the absolute apathy that riot victims have faced. While Modi faces flak over his handling of the Gujarat riots, Congress, which was in power during the infamous 1993 Mumbai riots, has yet to take action against the perpetrators. There is also an acute sense of victimization that the community feels with hundreds of its youth detained and released in fake terror charges, especially in Congress-ruled states. Just earlier this week, about 80 Muslim men were detained by the police of the Congress-run state of Maharashtra. The charge on which the 80 men were detained was as trivial as a chain snatching case.

The community which has always been taken for a vote bank and has developed deep distrust towards parties it voted to power could end up making tough choices in 2014. And one of the viable alternatives that it is looking at is the Aam Aadmi Party, especially in the urban belts of the country like Delhi and Mumbai. The Aam Aadmi Party or the AAP seems to have made strong inroads within the community after it openly took on the BJP's PM candidate Narendra Modi and also the business houses whose backing he has alleged to have received. In 2012, in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has the maximum percentage of Muslims in the country, the Congress received one of its worse setbacks when the community voted en masse for the Samajwadi Party, which has a socialist history.

However, the killing of at least 47 Muslims in the Muzaffarnagar riots in North India under their rule and the subsequent government apathy has ensured that the Samajwadi Party too will be at the receiving end of the wrath of the community.

Which way then will the community swing, will the voting be on the basis of sermonizing by Muslim religious leaders and heads of various sects who have shrewdly used them for their own political ambitions, or will the Indian Muslim rise up to leverage its presence in the political scenario?

In circumstances that prevail, 2014 could well give a window in the mind of a community which is looking to rise up the ladder of socioeconomic empowerment and break itself from the shackles of parties and leaders who have held them to ransom in the name of justice.