Measuring a government’s achievements in its first year has to be inherently speculative. But some things can be put down to Narendra Modi’s account with a degree of certainty. He has in his first year as prime minister, never worn a Muslim cap although it is difficult to identify a cap of that denominational description.
Time was when a dopalli topi or a white muslin cap was standard headgear among Hindus and Muslims alike. In winters, muslin gave way to wool. A variety of headgear was on exhibition at prime ministerial Iftar parties, a standard Congress fare, but which mushroomed in direct proportion to Congress decline.
Mulayam Singh Yadav, an equally eager Muslim vote hunter, went on an Iftar feeding spree too, wearing funny hats. But he also struck a high cultural note to accentuate his secular identity. So far political leaders had mobilized the clergy from Deoband, Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid and sundry Mullahs as potential vote gatherers. Mulayam Singh was persuaded that Muslims along with a religious identity, also had a cultural dimension. They were, in other words, amicable to charms of Urdu poetry as well.
It turns out that in UP there is an Urdu poet buried behind every culvert. In the contemporary era there have been some very famous poets. Someone mentioned the name of Josh Malihabadi. But he had blotted his copy by going over to Pakistan where Faiz Ahmad Faiz beat him hollow in the popularity stakes. Next in status would have been Firaq Gorakhpuri. But his full name was Raghupati Sahai. Mulayam asked shrewdly: how would that affect voters?
Jigar Moradabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni, Ali Sardar Jafri (Balrampur) and, the greatest of them all, Majaz Lucknowi, were all within hailing distance of Mulayam Singh. But they all suffered from one handicap: they had no lobbies to promote their candidature.
In this respect, Kaifi Azmi was doubly blessed. His daughter, the distinguished actor, Shabana Azmi and lyricist and poet, Javed Akhtar, worked on Mulayam’s aesthetic aspirations with great diligence. There is no Indian poet in any language who has a railway train named after him: Kaifi does. There is a Kaifiat Express to Azamgarh where in Mijwan village, a girl’s school and haveli have been resurrected in his name. This is not all. All India Kaifi Azmi Academy has been opened in Lucknow in service of Urdu, with generous cash replenishments from the state.
Mulayam Singh’s single minded patronage of Kaifi Azmi does serve the cause of Urdu, which must be welcome. But it surely cannot be anybody’s case that in Lucknow, the city of Urdu’s greatest masters, all iconography must be focused on Kaifi Azmi alone, a remarkable poet though he was.
Excepting a flair for sartorial colour combinations, Modi has in his first year not demonstrated a sensitivity to aesthetics. Muslims associated with him, Najma Heptullah, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Zafar Sareshwala, have all been assigned to maintain some kind of paddocks for Muslims. Heptullah and Naqvi are senior and junior ministers for Minority Affairs and Sareshwala a newly appointed Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.
Modi is giving out two signals: in my generous, “genuine” secularism I have three outlets for minorities. There is a second and more important message: away from the mainstream, there are separate watering holes for Muslims. Does it not smack of apartheid? A ministry for minorities is in any case a retrogressive idea in a secular state. And if you must have such a ministry, it would seem more wholesome in enlightened Hindu hands. That would have been more integrationist.
The conceptual framework in which Modi sees Muslims became clear in his very first speech in parliament after being sworn in as prime minister: he talked of “1,200 years of ghulami” or servitude. In other words he sees the entire Muslim period as one of “ghulami”. This is direct, blunt and possibly hurtful but at a wide variance from the Nehruvian construct about only 200 years of British rule being foreign. The professional secularist ofcourse glosses over this one in tactful silence, which is another way of telling a lie. This is one of the unsettled questions of the Indian condition after Partition.
How this appraisal of history plays on Modi’s neighbourhood policy has yet to be seen. His very hectic foreign itinerary has some very revealing gaps.
For a prime minister who has undertaken more foreign travel than any in his first year, Modi probably holds an unnoticed record: he has not yet visited a Muslim country. He even refused to attend the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference on April 22 attended by statesmen like China’s Xi Jinping. Indonesian President Joko Widodo tried to contact Modi on the phone but could not. Whether he was avoiding Jakarta, capital of world’s largest Muslim country or discarding a Nehru trail remains unclear.
An outstanding success story for India in foreign policy terms happens to be Sheikh Haseena in Bangladesh. Will Modi break his taboo on travel to Muslim countries by an early visit to Dhaka?
There obviously is a new, secretive style being enunciated in South Block of which itineraries are only a glaring part. It would therefore be premature to arrive at conclusions even on the basis of Modi’s travels and the Sangh Parivar’s known stance on minority issues. Who knows what script has been thought through on the BJP-PDP arrangement in Jammu and Kashmir which has been managed with skillful patience and care so far. All these are salient features in his first year.
(A leading commentator on political and diplomatic issues, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)