Opinion: Can BJP Win Over Muslims, Christians This Election?

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Gone are the days when politicians like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain were few and far between, insofar as the number of minority leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was concerned. The face of Indian politics has changed tremendously since the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre in 2014. The Congress era is seen by many as a period of "minority appeasement", and the BJP has capitalised on that sentiment. The story is no different in states. The question of appeasement vs. polarisation shifts depending on whichever side of the political divide one finds themselves on.

The BJP in the past, even while consolidating the Hindu votes for elections, never made the mistake of seeing Muslims as a homogenous bloc. The party tried to reach out to 'Pasmanda' or OBC and Dalit Muslims in an effort to make them aware of the various schemes started by the government for minorities. Pasmanda Muslims, who make up over 85% of the entire Muslim population in India, are an attractive vote bank for the BJP, and hence the well-calculated moves to court them. The 'Modi Mitr' outreach was one such step to convey the BJP's welfare message to the community.

Welcoming The Minorities

The BJP in recent years has seen an influx of minority leaders. Though these names are not prominent, the symbolism of their entry can nonetheless provide legitimacy to the BJP among those sections of society that see it disfavourably. Reinforcing the BJP's minority outreach in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections, Syed Talef Taji, the 'sajjada nashin' (custodian) of Tajbagh dargah at Nagpur, joined the BJP on March 18. Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, Syed Jaffar, a key aide of former chief minister Kamal Nath, has switched allegiance to the BJP, expressing support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Previously, the BJP in its first list released on March 2, had announced Abdul Salam,  Calicut University's former Vice-Chancellor, as its candidate from Kerala's Malappuram.

"The Muslim community has given a chance to the Congress, the Trinamool, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, and others since independence to improve their lot. But nothing was done to uplift them socially, economically, or educationally. Seeing the development in many spheres during the last decade, Muslims have realised that only the BJP can help them grow," says Jamal Siddiqui, national president of the BJP Minority Morcha.

On December 29 last year, the BJP's effort to rebuild its ties with Christian communities in Kerala ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections received a major boost with 47 Christian families, led by a diocese secretary of the Orthodox church, joining the party. On March 2, Anil Antony, son of former defence minister and veteran Congressman A.K. Antony, was fielded by the BJP from the Pathanamthitta seat in Kerala.

Walking The Talk

This time, the BJP seems to have upped its game in two ways. Firstly, it wants to be seen as a credible party that 'walks the talk'. To justify that, it has fulfilled three major promises from its three-decade-old manifesto - Ram Mandir, the abrogation of Article 370, and CAA. These three actions, though criticised by opposition parties as anti-Muslim, projected the BJP as an outcome-oriented voice that can be trusted.

Secondly, the BJP realises that there are over 65 out of the total 543 Lok Sabha constituencies where Muslims make up over 30% of voters. According to data, the BJP won about 9% of the Muslim vote in the last two Lok Sabha elections (2014 and 2019) and may be targeting around 16% of their vote this time. Instead of seeing the situation as irreversible, the party is aiming to woo those Muslim leaders who are not completely opposed to the BJP and can be swayed in its favour. The party is using its development agenda, pro-women stance and inclusive policies to reach out to them.

"Many communities that traditionally do not vote for the BJP are moving towards it because of the party's policies, prospective benefits, and lack of alternatives - like a diminishing confidence in the opposition, which is engaged more in bashing BJP rather than providing viable alternative policies," says Harish Ramaswamy, a political analyst based in Bengaluru. 

The Concerns Of Christians In Kerala

Similarly, as a gesture of reaching out to the Christian community, PM Modi during Christmas in 2023 hosted Delhi-based Christians of various sects at his home. Though a symbolic gesture, his participation in the festivities sent out a signal to both his detractors and Hindu hardliners that the BJP is keen to include non-Hindus within its fold. The party was ultimately endorsed by two major sects of Orthodox Christians in Kerala.

There is a perception that the Christian community is concerned about the rising demographic and economic prosperity of the Muslim community and sees it as a threat to peaceful coexistence in Kerala. They are also disenchanted with the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the main opposition party. The community may thus not be averse to rooting for the BJP. The BJP's Northeast model is also a case in point.

In the last ten years, while the BJP remained stable at the Centre, it won and lost assembly elections in several states. It has thus seen an influx of leaders from other parties, who are confident of the BJP's return to the Centre. Minority leaders, thus, not wanting to rue over lost chances, are hoping they would be rewarded with plum roles in the BJP if they help it breach the perceived Muslim 'wall'.

Welfare For All

Thinking ahead, the BJP has been trying to reach out to various factions among Muslims. Bohri Muslims have witnessed Modi's governance in Gujarat during his tenure as the state's chief minister. The Pasmandas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and other parts of India, being the less privileged, are interested in the party's welfare schemes. The BJP has also introduced several measures to support the community's development in Uttar Pradesh.

A third section among Muslims that the party is hoping to get the support of are the women, who were happy with the 2017 Supreme Court judgment declaring Triple talaq as unconstitutional. The BJP's promise of reforming discriminatory personal laws, coupled with schemes like Ujjwala and the Ayushman Bharat, might sway a section of Muslim women. Though these steps may not yield huge dividends, the BJP seems to be moving in a calculated manner with a long-term vision. 

"Contrary to the perception created in 2014, PM Modi's government in the last ten years has rolled out several schemes for minorities, and they have benefited Muslims," says Siddiqui.

Consolidating its position among Christians and Muslims and converting them into core and repeat voters might take decades. It's time BJP began to embed its 2019 slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas in its DNA. More representation from all sections of society in legislatures and Parliament will give the BJP legitimacy in the eyes of its critics, within and outside the country.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.