Muslim boy meets Hindu girl. On a DTC bus. They fall in love. ("She had the loveliest eyes...") Hes a sales rep; she, a teacher at a government-run school. The courting years are spent sitting through a string of Hindi films at theatres across the city. Finally, they get married. ("Our parents did protest, but its all well now.") Have two children. A few years later, at the grand old age of 31, hes waiting to move the family from their rented two-room flat in a downmarket colony to a bungalow in Lutyens part of the capital. Hopefully, with a biggish lawn "for the iftar get-together". Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, minister of state for food processing in the Vajpayee government and the lone Muslim elected to the 13th Lok Sabha on a BJP ticket, has arrived.
In a manner even he concedes he couldnt have dreamt of when he landed in Delhi from his thatched-roof house in Madhepura, Bihar, in 85-86 and enrolled at the Pusa Institute for a diploma in engineering. "I had a friend studying with me who, one fine day, told me he was off to attend an RSS-run officers training camp. I was shocked; Id considered him a close friend and here he was, consorting with the enemy. Then, to my utter surprise, he asked me to come along. The perception that the Sangh hates Muslims had been drilled into me so, instinctively, I refused. But he cajoled me into accompanying him. I started interacting regularly with the Sangh and after some time, had the good fortune of meeting senior BJP leaders like Sikander Bakht and Arif Beg. At the time, any Muslim in the BJP was derisively referred to as nakli Mussalmaan. But I realised that these were the people who were true Muslims because they had joined a party which spoke of nationalism in the loudest voice. Kehte hain na, Mussalmaan ka aadha iman, hubbul watani (one half of a Muslims honour is his love for the nation)." Within a year or so, Hussain joined the BJP.
Now recuperating from an attempt on his life in Bihar, Hussain makes it clear he will not be cowed down. "Id just been sworn in as minister and had gone back to my constituency to express my gratitude to the electorate when I was attacked. Well, they can go on shouting RSS ka dalaal forever but Laloo (Prasad Yadav) and his secular friends are running scared."
He harks back to his initiation into the BJP and is all praise for "Atalji" who evokes a "very positive" response among Muslims. Having said that, Hussain proclaims that his true mentor in the BJP is Uma didi (Bharati). "In 91, I was nominated to the national executive of the BJP youth wing and a couple of years later, it was announced that Uma Bharati would be taking over as president. Such was the scare, thanks to the misinformation spread about her, that I was in near-panic. I remember asking a colleague in trepidation, ab kya hoga? As it happened, the first day I went to meet her, Uma didi handed me her personal diary and told me to decide whom she should meet over the week. That was the kind of trust she reposed in me and over the years she has become an elder sister to me; she once asked me why I always got in so late for our weekly meetings held on Friday. I told her I had to first go to the mosque and pray. After that day, our meetings were rescheduled so as never to fall on a Friday."
He adds: "Of course she is a Hindu and proud of it. Just as I am a Muslim and proud of it. But then Hindutva was never meant to be a communal slogan; it only represents nationalism for the BJP." Hussain is also one of the rare Muslim politicians who flaunts his connection with the Sangh. The only time he falters in heaping fulsome praise on the party and the Sangh is when questioned on the Babri masjid demolition. But even there, he seems to have made his peace. "I didnt sleep for days after that happened and I spoke to each and every senior leader. All of them were equally distressed by the act of the demolition and have said so publicly. Anyway, the party paid the price for it. Now, we are in a new phase."
For those looking for a paradigm shift in Indian politics, this may be it. A grassroots leader not overburdened by sophistication and certainly not by wealth, from the BJP, a party which till today is looked upon with extreme suspicion by minorities. Who at the age of 31 has fought two Lok Sabha elections (he lost the first from the same constituency in 98), mobilises significant minority attendance for party dos and is a conservative, religious Muslim to boot. Steeped in Sangh-speak and party tradition. Not the token Muslim representative who wouldnt have won a corporation seat fighting on the BJP ticket and had to be accommodated in the Rajya Sabha. But a Muslim face that represents, for the BJP, the perceived softening of the Muslim non-elites attitude towards it. In a line, the kind of chap who has no qualms about saying that "even some Muslim youngsters are now attending RSS shakhas".