In early March, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, the Muslim poster boy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was shocked out of his wits to hear that the party might field him from the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat in Bihar. The 45-year-old former civil aviation minister soon discovered that Ashwini Kumar Choubey, another BJP leader from Bihar, had convinced the party leadership that Hussain contesting from the Muslim majority Kishanganj made more electoral sense than making him the party candidate yet again from the predominantly Hindu Bhagalpur.
Hussain, say party insiders, felt insulted. He was aghast that BJP would subject him, the party's only Muslim face in the outgoing Lok Sabha and its sitting MP from Bhagalpur, to exactly the kind of vote bank politics and appeasement of Muslims that it criticises the so-called 'secular' parties for. Hussain's argument appealed to the leadership. The engineer-turned-politician was retained as the Bhagalpur candidate of the party, while Choubey, who had eyed that seat, was asked to contest from Buxar.
But what hurt Hussain, say his confidants, was how none from the senior leadership of the party so much as rebuked Choubey for the bigoted public attack he had launched on the Muslim leader. "Choubey went around telling people how Muslims shouldn't be allowed to take over BJP, and that our (Muslim's) entry in the party should be restricted," says a close aide of Hussain. A couple of senior leaders did, however, sympathise with Hussain and apologised for Choubey's behaviour. "You journalists are quick to describe us as masks but don't try to understand how much we endure," the Hussain aide says.
A couple of weeks later, the other important Muslim face of BJP too landed in a controversy. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi publicly protested against the entry of Janata Dal (United) discard Sabir Ali in the party. "Terrorist Bhatkal friend joins BJP...soon accepting Dawood (Ibrahim)", Naqvi tweeted on March 28 within hours of party president Rajnath Singh accepting Ali in the BJP fold.
Few in the party took notice of Naqvi's tweet. Fewer still could make sense of Naqvi's opposition to Ali becoming a BJP member. None could fathom why Naqvi, a Shia from Uttar Pradesh, should have any problems with the entry of Ali, a leader of the backward and predominantly Sunni Muslim weavers of Bihar? The BJP leadership, including Singh and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had hoped Ali would bolster BJP's electoral chances in Bihar.
Party leaders were alarmed the next morning when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) spokesperson Ram Madhav echoed Naqvi's statement. "Sabir Ali's induction has caused great resentment. Party leadership has been apprised of the strong views of the cadre and people against it," tweeted Madhav. Ali was thrown out of the party within 24-hours of having joined it.
The incident left the leaders, who thought they had won in Ali a valuable electoral trophy, upset with RSS. It was also evident that RSS had wanted a Muslim to oppose the entry of another lest it was, yet again, painted as anti-Muslim.
Both incidents, says a Dalit BJP leader, illustrate the tenuous relationship the Sangh Parivar has with party leaders who represent marginalised communities like the Muslims and Dalits. "Much has changed in the party's approach to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) because of the emergence of leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati and Modi. But the party is still learning to engage with Dalits and Muslims more effectively," says the leader. He admires Modi for having initiated the process of inducting more Muslims and Dalits into the party.
But this lack of trust leads Muslim leaders of the party to constantly feel a need to prove their allegiance to the Sangh Parivar. They feel, confessed a BJP Minority Morcha worker, that their conduct is perennially under the microscope. It further weakens their position within the party that the Muslim community doesn't give the BJP's Muslim leaders the same respect that it would accord to, say, an Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party or a K Rehman Khan of the Congress.
"Both Muslims and Dalits need to continuously engage with the Sangh Parivar as also their own communities to change attitudes and carve out a bigger space for themselves in BJP," says the Dalit leader.
Journalist Shahid Siddiqui agrees with the assessment. "More and more Muslims need to engage with BJP. My community needs to get out of the voting ghetto that it has become for the so-called secular parties," he says. Siddiqui, who edits Urdu weekly Nai Duniya, says it was likely BJP will give representation to more Muslims if the community were to join it in larger numbers. Until now, the party has just two Muslim MPs, Naqvi and Congress discard Najma Heptullah, in the ranks of its 46 Rajya Sabha members.
Hussain was the lone Muslim among BJP's 116 MPs in the outgoing Lok Sabha. He is likely to remain the party's only MP in the next Lok Sabha as well despite the party having fielded as many as five Muslims this time. The other four are contesting from Anantnag and Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tamluk and Ghatal in West Bengal - seats the party has never won and is unlikely to win this time either.
Such is the party's lack of confidence in its ability to attract Muslim voters to its side that it didn't field a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, where many of the 80 Lok Sabha seats have a Muslim population sizeable enough to determine the result.
Over the years, both BJP and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, have struggled to find credible Muslim faces that they could accommodate in their frontline leadership. Journalists M J Akbar and Aijaz Ilmi, inducted in BJP in mid-March, are the latest entrants to the very small club of the party's Muslim leaders.
Incidentally, Ilmi is the brother-in-law of Arif Mohammed Khan, a well-known Muslim leader whose entry into BJP in 2004 was considered a coup of sorts for the party. Arif's stay in the party was shortlived and is instructive of how the saffron party treats its Muslim leaders differently when in power and when out of it.
Arif Mohammad Khan, with an impeccable image of a progressive Muslim who had quit the Rajiv Gandhi government on the issue of the latter's handling of the Shah Bano case and the decision to open the gates of Ram Janmabhoomi in 1986, had joined BJP when most expected the party to return to power on the strength of its 'India Shining' campaign.
Explaining his decision to join BJP, Khan had cited Muslim social activist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who had come to the conclusion in 1857 that it was not possible for the Muslims to fight the British because they were much superior in all aspects. "Therefore, Sir Syed said instead of fighting, befriend them, learn, overcome your drawbacks, and then see if you can create goodwill. Likewise, today I feel the same thing after having spent so much time in Gujarat," Arif Mohammad Khan had said. He argued that the Muslims should also increase their engagement with a BJP that was growing politically stronger by the day. But BJP failed to make it to Delhi, and three years later in 2007 Arif Mohammad Khan quit the party complaining that BJP had ignored him.
Khan was possibly the tallest Muslim leader to join BJP after Sikander Bakht and Arif Baig. Bakht, a founding member of BJP when it was launched in its new avatar in April 1980 and somebody happier to stay in the shadows of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, passed away in 2002. He was the party's pre-eminent leader in Delhi, was a cabinet minister in both the 13-day government of 1996 and then in the 1998 and 1999 governments before becoming a governor. Meanwhile, Baig had quit the socialists to join the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1973. He famously defeated Shankar Dayal Sharma as the Janata Party candidate in 1977 and was a BJP MP from Betul in 1989. When he quit the party in 1996, Baig told the media that the party was "unwilling to accept any Muslims" and only wanted people with Muslim sounding names. Baig returned to BJP in 2003 but couldn't convince his Muslim supporters to vote for the party. He was the only Muslim BJP candidate in the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections of 2013 but lost to the Congress' Arif Aqueel.
Apart from these two, the Jana Sangh had several Muslim leaders in Delhi. Urdu litterateur Imdad Sabri represented it in Delhi Metropolitan Council and became Delhi's mayor. Other local level leaders were cleric Maulana Ikhlaq Hussain Qasmi, Anwar Ali Dehelvi, Begum Khurshid Kidwai and Md Ismail. All of them represented the party from Muslim majority areas.
BJP has continued the trend of giving Muslims representation at the municipal level. Currently, there are 100 Muslims representing the party in urban bodies across Madhya Pradesh. There are four Muslim MLAs in Rajasthan. In Gujarat, between 2009 and 2013, the party nominated 297 Muslims for local body elections, of whom 142 (48 per cent) won. Surprisingly, the party denied tickets to Muslims in the assembly elections of 2012.
Many, like party's in-house psephologist GVL Narasimha Rao, have argued in the past that BJP shouldn't bother with the Muslims. In 2012, Rao pointed out how the party bagged 52 of Uttar Pradesh's 85 seats in 1996 and 57 seats in 1998 on the strength of a consolidated Hindu vote. He claimed the party won despite the vehement opposition from the Muslims and their tactical voting against the party. But a year later, the party's tally dipped to 29 seats in the 1999 elections, exposing the limits of its vote catching abilities in times of religious calm.
Muslims like Nai Duniya editor Siddiqui believe it is in times of such calm that more and more of his co-religionists should engage with BJP. He says neither the party nor the Muslims should wait for the other to make the first move. "It is like a chicken and egg situation. BJP feels why give tickets to Muslims when the community doesn't vote for the party. The Muslims think they would rather not give their votes to a party that doesn't represent them or talk of their interests," says Siddiqui. "Muslims engaging with BJP will be healthy for a secular democracy." BJP, he adds, also needs to take a few more steps to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims.
Mumbai-based social activist Pheroze Mithiborewalla, however, disagrees with both Siddiqui and Khan. He says Muslims continue to suffer in Gujarat and are denied democratic freedoms like holding public rallies. "These Muslim BJP leaders and that party's outreach to the community aren't to get Muslim votes, but to fool centrist and secular Hindus into believing that BJP has changed. Unfortunately, it cannot change its anti-Muslim core," he avers, adding that BJP's Muslim faces were mostly seen as opportunists within the community.
Zafar-ul-Islam Khan, editor of the Milli Gazette, says the Muslims would be willing to support the saffron party and its Muslim faces if only it showed sensitivity to Muslim concerns. He cites how the Gujarat government is yet to give compensation to the victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the absence of a minority commission in that state and the Gujarat government's refusal to allow scholarship scheme for minorities as examples that BJP remained unchanged in its stance. "Our community," says Khan, "is not their enemy. Let them show us that that they have our interest at heart."