Notwithstanding the debate on the exact motive and the people behind the Indian Prime Minister’s a little over two hour stopover in Lahore and its likely impact on India-Pakistan relations, the surprising move by Narendra Modi has been fruitful in a sense that it has helped him earn the applause of Indian Muslims - for the first time after the 2002 Gujarat riots.
According to a rough estimate, over 2,500 Muslims were killed, thousands were left injured and scores of families were rendered homeless and without livelihood. The carnage saw worst kind of cruelty on the streets of Gujarat where Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister. Majority of people still believe that Modi orchestrated the riots to consolidate support ahead of the state election.
Riding on the consequent anti-Muslim wave Modi led the BJP to victory in the state where its chances were on decline. Totally ignoring that a Chief Minister represents the entire state, Modi with each passing day was fiercer in his anti-Muslim rhetoric with terms like ‘Miya Musharraf’ and references of ‘Pakistan’ cunningly used to taunt and mock the Indian Muslims. The tactic successfully worked for him and he went on to win the successive elections in Gujarat.
It was when he decided to jump to national politics that Modi realized that the anti-Muslim rhetoric which helped him to rule Gujarat for three terms will be disastrous, and hence he started hobnobbing with the community by backdoor efforts. But, the first publicly highlighted effort by Modi to reach out to Muslims was when he went on a 3-day ‘Sadhbhavana’ fast in 2011. It was clearly organized keeping in mind his intention to contest the 2014 general elections. The show however ended in a controversy following his refusal to wear the skull cap offered to him by a Muslim.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Modi avoided the anti-Muslim references he notoriously used in Gujarat to win polls. Instead, he adhered to his ‘development’ talks which after the elections ended as mere ‘Jumlas’, in the words of his own party chief Amit Shah. Efforts were on to somehow bring the Muslims, if not the majority at least a reasonable number, under the saffron flag so as to demonstrate to the world that Modi represented all sections of the society. His lieutenants also managed to show good number of ‘Burqas’ and ‘Skull Caps’ in Modi’s election rallies. But, it became evident after the results were out that Muslims were the only people in the country whom Modi could not impress by his ‘Jumlas’, though he was able to switch people from all sections and parties to his side.
He became Prime Minister. But, somewhere the feeling that none of the known Muslim leaders or NGOs has so far endorsed him remained a cause of worry. Like in Gujarat, he again embarked on backdoor efforts to woo the top Muslim leadership. This is to fulfill this aim Zafar Sareshwala, his close aide, met All India Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) Chief Syed Rabey Hasani Nadvi. It is learnt that Syed Rabey had almost surrendered to the proposal of Sareshwala, and for an endorsement he suggested Sareshwala to come to board’s Jaipur meet. In Jaipur however Zafar Sareshwala’s presence created ruckus with many senior members including AIMIM Chief Asaduddin Owaisi walking out of the session.
Failing to persuade AIMPLB members agree to Zafar Sareshwala’s proposal to meet Modi, the PMO then searched and found some little known ‘Dastars’, ‘Jubba’ and ‘Skull Caps’ and called them for photo ops with Modi. In one such session, the PMO was embarrassed when Ajmer Dargah Chief denied meeting Modi and cautioned against using his name and designation.
It is against this backdrop that Modi landed in Lahore for a brief stopover – sudden and unscheduled. But, later the debate started that the stopover was not sudden but it was well-planned to surprise his critics back home and the man behind the entire show was Sajjan Jindal –the Indian steel magnate close to Nawaz Sharif and his family. The opposition also accused the prime minister of following a personal agenda to please his business friends. Amid this claim, some foreign observers said Modi’s brief visit to Pakistan was actually aimed at lobbying for India’s claim for permanent membership of UNSC.
Besides the debate on the people behind the visit and its effectiveness vis-à-vis improving the relations between the two neighbors, Congress and Left expressed doubt if the visit will have any positive impact on the bilateral relation of the two countries. A charged Sitaram Yechuri in fact said at Left’s annual convention held in Kolkata that ‘superficial talks useless against Akhand Bharat call, ban on Pakistan artistes’.
Nonetheless, the visit has at least achieved one goal for sure. The Indian Muslim leaders and NGOs who so far remained cautious and kept distance from Modi and PMO despite open and covert invitations lined up to praise and laud the prime minister for taking what they called is a ‘bold’ and ‘courageous’ decision.
The praise however is not unconditional, as Syed Zafar Mehmood, who was Officer on Special Duty at PMO for Sachar Committee, while lauding 'Narendra Modi's stopover in Lahore to greet Nawaz Sharief's family as a diplomatic gesture displaying high form of statesmanship' said, “Prime Minister Modi will have to simultaneously create a mirror image at home too restoring the lost rights to Muslims as a whole, unlike the Congress which has usually been mentoring a few Muslim individuals and families. The community will closely watch Modi's policies regarding itself. His famous remark of July 2015 'Indian Muslims will live for and die for India' is reassuring but now they expect him to come down to brass tacks.”
[Aleem Faizee is founder editor of ummid.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]