By Hasan Suroor
Nov 11, 2014
In a move that one well-informed BJP source described as a "preview" of the party's plans to expand its base beyond the usual suspects, it is reportedly planning to launch a “massive” nationwide membership drive to recruit Muslim members. And sources insist that it is not a “gimmick”.
The party is said to be so serious that state units are to be ordered to ensure that their membership bears some resemblance to the number of Muslims in their area. There is even talk of setting up targets to make sure that at least 10 percent of the local membership comes from Muslims and other minority groups.
The campaign, it is claimed, is already in “full swing” in Delhi ahead of the assembly elections.
The move is part of a broader effort to change the party's image as a Hindu nationalist organisation (a tag used, especially, by international media to describe it) and to present it as a truly national alternative to the Congress in the wake of its victories in recent state elections.
“First people said we were a party of only north Indian Hindu shopkeepers. We proved them wrong. Now they say we represent only the Hindus. We will prove them wrong again,’’ one party insider boasted.
Well, so far so good. The BJP has been rather a closed shop for too long and it is time it opened up, especially now that it fancies itself as a natural party of governance. Better late than never. Moreover, it is an advance on suggestions as recently as this summer that it could do without Muslim support. Clearly the penny has dropped that excluding a population the size of a mini-state is not such a good idea.
But here’s a warning: if it is expecting Muslims to be queuing up to sign up it will be disappointed. I don't quite see Muslims rushing to embrace it unless the move is backed by a visible change in its attitude towards them. For starters, it should try and reach out to its existing Muslim members who feel excluded.
It is not enough to say "come and join us". Once “in” they must be taken seriously, made to feel welcome, and entrusted with responsibility instead of being treated like a show-piece. What is happening at the moment is that Muslims join the BJP, and then leave after sometime complaining that nobody bothers about them. Even high-profile Muslims struggle to gain acceptability.
When Arif Mohammed Khan, a former Congress and Janata Dal leader, joined the BJP in 2004, he was welcomed with open arms and even rewarded with a party ticket for the Lok Sabha elections. But the honeymoon didn't last long and he quit in 2007 complaining that he was being "ignored ".
More recently Aamir Raza Hussain, the noted theatre personality, went through the same "in" and "out" routine. Even Najma Heptullah was in deep freeze for a long time and the only reason she didn't quit, it is believed, is because she had nowhere else to go.
It is true that many join it out of sheer opportunism when the party is in power, and leave when they don't get rewarded or it loses power. Still, the BJP's Muslim retention rate is abysmally poor. From some of the accounts I've heard it seems there is little effort to retain them.
A group of young men in Lucknow told me they joined the party on the eve of 2004 elections because they admired Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was contesting from the city. Initially, they were enthusiastically welcomed and paraded before journalists to show how local Muslims, disillusioned with "secular" parties, were choosing the BJP. But once the elections were over they were forgotten. Senior party functionaries were not even aware of their existence. Occasionally, they were given an odd assignment-- helping with arrangements for a rally; or receiving a leader at the airport. But most of the time they felt unwanted. Gradually, they drifted away. For, let’s face it, nobody joins a political party to end up making tea or setting up Shamianas.
There are hardly any Muslims in senior organisational positions with the result that when it comes to selecting candidates for assembly or Lok Sabha elections the party is able to claim glibly “but we can’t find enough suitable Muslim candidates’’. The truth is that the party simply doesn’t encourage its Muslim members to move up the food chain.
Not surprisingly, the Muslim political representation in BJP-ruled states is significantly lower compared to those in non-BJP states even after taking into account the relevant demographic differences, as revealed by data recently published in The Hindu.
Senior BJP leaders say they are conscious of the problem. On the eve of the general election Arun Jaitley said that giving tickets to more Muslims was one way of reaching out to the community. But clearly the party is not willing to put its money where its mouth is. In the Maharashtra elections, it fielded only one Muslim; and in Haryana, two.
According to the Hindu data, Muslims barely figure in the nine state assemblies—Maharashtra, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, and Punjab-- controlled by the BJP either on its own or in alliance with its partners.
“These nine States, which account for over a third of India’s population, have only 22 Muslim MLAs out of 1359 legislators that represent them. So while Muslims make up 8 per cent of the population of these states, they account for less than 2 per cent of MLAs,’’ the paper noted.
The argument that there are not enough winnable Muslim candidates is valid only up to a point. The same argument has been used by almost all political parties to deny tickets to women. At some point, the BJP will have to steel itself and field Muslims in some of its safe seats-- constituencies where even the proverbial lamppost is assured of victory in BJP's name. That would send out a signal to BJP voters that it is kosher to vote for a Muslim besides of course convincing Muslims that it is serious about having them on board.
What will, certainly, not help are gaffes such as the party spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi’s reaction when questioned why only one Muslim was fielded in Maharashtra. Asked whether this represented the BJP’s failure to reach out to Muslims, she retorted that her party was not in the business of bending over backwards to reach out to others. "It's for others to reach out to the BJP; not for us to reach out to them," she said.
Coming back to the membership drive, in Delhi, the party is concentrating on more than a dozen Muslim-dominated constituencies where its candidates won Lok Sabha elections with the community’s support.
“It is considered that Muslims are a traditional vote bank of the Congress but that notion doesn’t stand anymore. A number of Muslims, especially the youth, have come out in huge numbers and supported us as we stand for development,’’ claimed Atif Rashid, president of Delhi BJP’s minority cell.
But the question is: how many of them will stay on if, after the polls, they are not made to feel at home? Here’s a chance for the BJP to try something bold if it’s really serious about attracting Muslims. Delhi will be a big test of whether it means business, or the membership campaign is simply another election-eve stunt.