Indian Express
New Delhi, 7th April, 1995
4. BJP looks for Muslim plank
to move towards Delhi
by Ashwini Kumar

NEW DELHI - The Goa session of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive might be seen as a minor milestone in what the party describes as its “onward march to Delhi”. The party sent out a signal to its cadres to reach out to the Muslims, and acknowledged the community’s “very valuable contribution” to its recent success at the polls.

For the record, the BJP has always said it did not discriminate between Hindus and others. It was the sole practitioner of “Secularism” as the Constitution meant it; the other political parties merely “appeased” the minorities in the name of secularism. And after the 1993 debacle, the party has also began softening its Hindutva appeal.

But going soft on Hindutva and making a formal reach-out-to-the-minorities appeal to its cadres are two different things.

The message from Goa was more categorical than the BJP has put out in recent years. In his opening remarks at the meeting, the party president, Mr. L.K. Advani stressed the importance of reaching out to “all sections of the people” And asked his partymen to dispel the “misapprehensions” about the BJP among the minorities.

The closing address, delivered by Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, reinforced the same message. He said the party need not compromise on Hindutva, and there would be issues on which the BJP and sections among the Muslims will differ. But the BJP must assure the Muslims that their lives, property and dignity were not under threat if the BJP came to power.

The woo-Muslims-but-don’t-make-compromises directive was almost inevitable at this stage, when the BJP is keen to cast itself in the mould of a conventional alternative to the Congress. Mr. Advani, in fact, projected his party as occupying a even higher moral ground.

“The task before us is not merely victory in elections; the task is to keep the nation together,” he told the national executive.

Besides, the Hindutva wave has been waning for quite some time - after taking the BJP to heights of electoral success. Following the debacle in the 1993 Assembly elections, when the BJP failed even to retain Uttar Pradesh, the party began on a gradual campaign to rub off the one-issue label which had stuck badly during its Ram Mandir phase.

The last two rounds of the Assembly elections were fought on a broadened campaign plank, which included corruption and criminalisation of politics. Hindutva or “cultural nationalism” was left deliberately understated, but it remained on the agenda.

During the campaign in the two rounds, the BJP raised topics like illegal migration from Bangladesh, Hubli flag-raising and the government’s ‘soft-pedalling’ on Kashmir. The issues went down well with the BJP’s old Hindutva constituency, but the party deliberately labelled them under other omnibus heads - as matters which affected the “security” of the country and exposed the “vote-bank politics” played by other parties.

The BJP strategy worked in Maharashtra and Gujarat where a section of the Congress-voting Muslims appear to have switched sides. It was not altogether a positive vote.  Going by conventional analysis, many Muslims voted as they did because they felt “betrayed” by the Congress, and “impressed” by the BJP trait of being open about its ideology.

By playing the Goa message to minorities, the BJP - according to one party leader - was responding to the confidence reposed in it by the Muslims in the two states. He said no national executive [members?] opposed Mr. Advani or Mr. Vajpayee during the Goa meeting on the approach to minorities suggested by them. But privately, a few hardcore members have questioned the need of making what they felt was too overt a gesture to Muslims.

In any case, the BJP will have to convince the minorities that it is serious about seeking their vote through its actions.

At his Goa press conference, for instance, Mr. Advani said all the “right” things. Illegal migration by the Bangladeshi Muslims was being dealt with by the BJP governments in the states, but the issue was not the “top priority”, which were education, health and developing infrastructure.

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