India elections: Muslim voters warily eye frontrunner Narendra Modi

Modi, who represents a Hindu nationalist party, is widely blamed by Muslims for not averting a pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. The state's chief minister has since tacked to the center.

Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
A Sadhu or a Hindu holyman wears a badge with an image of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), outside an ashram in Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 6, 2014.

Like many MuslimsAbdul Sheikh has strong views about the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming India’s next prime minister.

Mr. Sheikh’s wife and seven children were killed in communal pogroms that shook this city in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, and left 1,000 dead, mostly Muslims. Sheikh’s surviving son, who lives with him in the shanties of Faizal Park, a Muslim enclave, still bears scars from being set on fire by a mob. 

Mr. Modi was chief minister of the state during the riots, and was widely blamed by Muslims for what happened. “If he couldn’t save us in Gujarat, how will he take care of India?” Sheikh asks.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been running a high-voltage election campaign that promises economic growth and improved governance against a shambolic, scandal-ridden incumbent coalition government. But for many Indians, especially among minority groups, doubts over Modi’s role in the 2002 riots as well as the BJP's muscular Hindu nationalism remain a sticking point.

Muslims make up less than 14 percent of voters in India, but they have a much larger presence in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two populous northern states on which the election could turn. Despite efforts by the BJP to woo minority voters, polls indicate that Muslim voters in these states are likely to split their vote between other, secular parties. Almost half the states' seats will be decided in voting Wednesday, the penultimate of nine days of staggered polling that ends May 12. [Editor's note: In the original version, the number of polling days was misstated.]

In recent weeks Modi’s “development for all” platform has been overshadowed by vitriol from members of his party and allied right-wing Hindu groups. One BJP leader told a rally in Jharkhand that those opposing Modi should be sent to Pakistan. The same week, Pravin Tagodia, the head of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad that stoked anti-Muslim feelings in the Gujarat riots, reportedly instructed a public meeting there on how to evict a Muslim newcomer from their mostly Hindu neighborhood.

Modi has criticized these comments. But he has also resorted to divisive rhetoric himself. At rallies in the border states of Assam and West Bengal, where illegal migration from Bangladesh is a huge source of conflict, he suggested that only Hindu refugees are welcome in India.

The BJP in turn has accused the ruling Congress Party and others of stoking minority fears. An Aam Admi Party candidate told her Muslim constituents to vote “communally” against the BJP.

“Each side is playing the communal card, while accusing the other of polarizing voters,” says D. L. Sheth, former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. 

For Sheikh, the widower in Ahmedabad, Mr. Tagodia’s call to evict Muslims hurt the most. He invokes Mahatma Gandhi, Gujarat’s most famous son, who fasted to keep the peace between Hindus and Muslims during the bloody partition of British India in 1947 that birthed Pakistan.

“It was Gandhi who asked us [Muslims] to stay in India,” and assured us of safety, he says.

Polarized by riots

In a city with a long history of communal violence, the 2002 massacres have polarized people further. In 2012, a Supreme Court-appointed committee cleared Modi of complicity. But many of the victims who live in squalid conditions on the city fringes still believe that Modi deliberately didn’t do enough to stop the riots.

“If Modi had ever visited us, said he’s sorry and that he’ll take care of us, it would be different,” says Mohammed Abdul, a furniture maker who lost his home and business in the riots, and lives in a refugee camp in the shadow of a hill of garbage. In 2002, Modi referred to these camps as “baby-making factories” for Muslims.

But some Muslims have swung to Modi’s side, including businessmen who have reaped the benefits. Zafar Sareshwala, who owns a BMW showroom on an upscale avenue of malls and office complexes, credits the chief minister with his prime location.  

These areas fall under Gujarat's Disturbed Areas Act, a law that restricts Muslims and Hindus from selling property to each other in “sensitive” areas, and which has increased Muslim ghettoization. Modi's intervention allowed Mr. Sareshwala and other Muslims to open stores there. 

Sareshwala used to be a critic of Modi. Now he argues that Muslims need to “stop being victim-centric” and focus on rebuilding. He points to the conviction of around 400 people, including a former state BJP minister, Maya Kodnani, for instigating or participating in the violence. That’s more than other riots including those under Congress rule, he notes.

Modi has also sidelined militant Hindu groups like the VHP that allegedly fomented the pogroms. “I’m not saying everything is perfect,” he says. “Out of 100 tons of dirt, maybe 40 tons have been removed.”

Hindutva goes mainstream

Modi spent his early career with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary group closely aligned with the BJP. At the core of their ideology is Hindutva, a form of religious and cultural nationalism.

But some in Ahmedabad, including Sareshwala, believe that Modi is now more interested in political power than Hindutva, while the BJP has tacked to the political center so that it can form national coalition governments.  

In the 1990s, the BJP led a campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque, which resulted in the mosque’s demolition by Hindus and triggered riots across the country. When the BJP needed outside support to form a government in 1998, it put the issue on the back-burner. 

The temple demand is at the bottom of the BJP’s current manifesto, and emphasizes constitutional solutions. Modi continually talks of the constitution, Mr Sheth notes, seeing this as part of his adaptation of Hindutva to a globally linked, modern economy. “His Hindutva is now more about majoritarianism than religious solidarity,” he says.

Even if the BJP has softened, some of their supporters haven't. In a mall in Nagpur, a city in central India, a young man working at a paintball studio said riots like those in 2002 need to happen every now and then to keep India’s Muslims in their place. “They’ve come up in the world, and they’re the most corrupt,” he said.

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