In 2002, during the election campaign that followed the Gujarat violence, Narendra Modi made at least one controversial speech targeting Muslims. On September 9, in Mehsana district, he described the relief camps where riot victims had been given shelter as "children producing centres" where the governing philosophy was "hum paanch, humare pachees". Eleven years later, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate has adopted a different tone. He is making overtures to this minority, which represents a significant proportion of the population in key states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This change in tone is evident, throughout the Hindi belt, from symbolic gestures like the distribution of free skullcaps and burqas for the Muslims attending his public meetings, as seen in Jaipur and Bhopal a few weeks ago. In August, the Modi government told the Supreme Court that it was willing to pay for the repair of the 535 mosques and dargahs, which had been damaged in 2002.
In fact, this new dispensation has been obvious in Gujarat for at least two years now. Modi first established a channel of communication with the Dawoodi Bohras. He has paid their leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, a courtesy visit and inaugurated the community's trade exposition in Ahmedabad. Then, he tried to reach out to the Sunnis through his Sadbhavana Mission, which he launched in September 2011, on his 61st birthday. The aim of the mission was to promote social harmony beyond caste, class and religious divisions. In order to solemnly commit himself to this objective, Modi travelled throughout Gujarat and undertook fasts in various places. His last Sadbhavana fast was in February 2012.
Muslims attended these functions in somewhat large numbers. In Ahmedabad, an imam offered Modi a skullcap, which he refused to wear. In Navsari, a few days later, one of his Muslim supporters offered him a keffiyeh, a scarf, which he refused again. One may remember that in December 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had hosted an Eid milan at his residence, and an iftar party the year before.
At the end of the Sadbhavana Mission, Modi's ability to reach out to Muslims was doubtful. Indeed, according to a CSDS survey conducted after the 2012 state elections, 20 per cent of the Muslim voters had chosen the BJP, against 22 per cent in 2007. While a substantial proportion of Muslims was voting for Modi, it seemed to have reached a plateau.
Naturally, the memories of 2002 have played a role. But other explanations need to be factored in. Like the Dalits and Adivasis, the Muslims have not benefited from Gujarat's development as much as other groups either. The Sachar Committee report has shown that Gujarati Muslims lag behind in terms of poverty and education. But it was based on data that had been collected in the early- and mid-2000s, only a few years after Modi came to power. To take stock of the impact of his policies on Muslims, one needs to look at up-to-date data. The 66th round of the NSS of 2009-10 can help us in this endeavour. It shows that the share of urban Muslims who are salaried employees remains much lower than the corresponding figure for Hindus: 34.9 per cent against 44.8 per cent, whereas the proportion of Muslims who are self-employed is much greater, 49.2 per cent against 36.6 per cent. This over representation of Gujarati Muslims in the informal sector continues to be related to their low level of educational attainment. In the age group of 5-14-year-olds, 78.7 per cent of Muslims go to school. There is no improvement over the 2004-05 NSS round, for which the corresponding figure was 78.9 per cent and was almost at par with the statistic for Hindus. But when Muslims turn 15, the dropout rate is such that in the age group of 15-19-year-olds, they lag behind the Hindus by 10 percentage points, with only 32 per cent still in school.
The Muslims of Gujarat continue to be poorer than the Hindus — and poorer than in most other Indian states. The Planning Commission, on the basis of data collected in 2009-10, pointed out in 2012 that in urban areas the percentage of Gujarati Muslims living below the poverty line was 42.4 per cent. Not only is this higher than the national average — by 10 percentage points — but it is also higher than the comparable figures for West Bengal (34.9 per cent) and Rajasthan (29.5 per cent). The percentage of Muslims living below the poverty line in the rural areas in Gujarat is not very different from West Bengal: 31.4 per cent compared to 34.4 per cent. In the villages of Gujarat, the poverty of Muslims is largely due to the fact that they own little land — 70 per cent of rural Muslims own less than 0.4 hectare, against 55.5 per cent of Hindus.
In spite of the poor educational attainment of Muslims, the Modi government abstained from distributing scholarships that the Centre had designed for them in the wake of the Sachar Committee report. Only Muslim students who had secured 50 per cent marks in their annual exams and whose family had an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh were eligible for this pre-matriculation scholarship. The amount of the scholarship was between Rs 800 and 1,000 per year. In Gujarat, 55,000 students were eligible. The Centre's contribution was supposed to amount to approximately Rs 3.75 crore and that of the state to about Rs 1.25 crore. The Modi government refused to pay on the grounds that the scheme was discriminatory vis-à-vis other poor students. The matter went to the Gujarat High Court, where a division bench of three judges ruled in favour of the scheme. Later, another bench overruled the earlier judgment. Finally, it went to a full bench of five judges, which ruled in favour of the scheme. In response, the Modi government appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the final decision of the Gujarat High Court in May 2013, five years after the scheme had been initiated.
There is another reason why Gujarati Muslims did not significantly shift towards the BJP in 2012: the party did not nominate a single Muslim candidate. This was one of the reasons why the Muslim leader of the BJP minority cell resigned during the election campaign. But when the BJP did give tickets to Muslim candidates during local elections, the party failed to attract voters in Muslim majority constituencies. This is evident from what happened in Junagadh in 2009 — when the BJP lost the local elections. In such constituencies, the Muslim voters turned to the Congress — and the BJP sometimes alienated its Hindu voters. Modi may face the same dilemma during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: either he tries to woo Muslim voters (who may not support him eventually) and risk losing some Hindu supporters, or he follows the polarisation strategy till its logical conclusion.
PS: The BJP is distributing burqas to Muslims even though Modi criticised the Congress for its "burqa of secularism". His remark projects burqas, which the Sangh Parivar has in any case always judged as being alienating for women, in a rather negative light. If Muslims were considered anonymous citizens, the Indian nation might surmount its divisions more effectively.