THEY are the polyester politicians. Wash 'em, wring 'em, dry 'em—they don't have creases. But don't get it wrong. Because sartorial elegance they have aplenty; bandgullahs dominate and there is even a well-dressed nawab in their midst. It is the political calisthenics they are having to perform which necessitates a degree of elasticity that even the redoubtable wonderfabric is finding difficult to contain. And the stretch marks are visible occasionally.
That the BJP's Muslim candidates for the 12th Lok Sabha elections—six in all, five up from last time—are pinning their hopes on the party's most liberal face, A.B. Vajpayee, is the overriding impression. Clearly, they believe, not to mention hope, that his apparent marginalisation in the second—post-manifesto, post-Sonia effect—phase of the campaign is only a temporary phenomenon.
There is, of course, the fact that the controversy-ridden history of the BJP vis-a-vis their attitude towards the minorities has only spawned allegations—the BJP can only field "non-serious Muslim candidates"; "some of them are there for the money"; "some disgruntled elements want to gain a foothold in politics while the BJP wants to prove it is secular by fielding them." While these may be true in the main, there are some exceptions. It is, at any rate, a little more complex and subtle than that.
Take the BJP's candidate from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, by any RSS yardstick, is the kind of Muslim the Sangh can live with very happily. Having been "drawn into mass-based politics during the JP movement", this 40-something from Allahabad joined the BJP in 1984, when the party "could not even dream of coming to power". "I am no fairweather friend of the BJP," he says. He led a group of Muslims who offered to "shift the Babri Masjid brick by brick" to another site to facilitate the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. "I am not ashamed that I tried to promote unity. But my opponents have raised this issue to distract the people from the real issue, which is barabari (equality) not Babri," he adds.
The "real" issues, says Naqvi, are stability, good governance, economic development for Muslims and all the issues raised by Vajpayee during his campaign. As for the perception that the tenor of the Vajpayee campaign has been drowned in the cacophony of contentious issues raised by the "hardliners" over the past fortnight, Naqvi has a ready riposte: "This business of a post-manifesto change in stance is only being talked about by the urban media. Here, the lasting impression is that of the Vajpayee campaign. We will get Muslim votes in his name. If the hard-line perception being spoken of had actually reached the grassroots, the Muslims would have consolidated against the BJP like in the past and not be confused as they are today."
Eventually, Naqvi does concede that the "impression" that the Vajpayee campaign has been undermined is there among the intelligentsia. But he is quick to add: "Hindu fundamentalism is fast vanishing. Anyway, majority fundamentalism was only a response to minority fundamentalism."
So, what does he say to the Muslims who comprise over 40 per cent of the Rampur electorate on contentious issues on the BJP agenda? "The Ram Mandir I have not made an issue, though I am sure Muslims too will be persuaded to support the construction because that would be dwelling on the past and I want the Muslims to go forward towards equality and integration. It is a non-issue. As for the uniform civil code, I always tell my community that if those living in various countries of the world can be good Muslims and yet be under the ambit of the same law which applies to their fellow citizens, why not here? Some aspects of Islamic law will also be incorporated," explains Naqvi.
That prominent BJP candidates and leaders are sympathetic to the VHP and RSS Hindutva line—the VHP is firm on Kashi and Mathura—that seems to irritate him. "Mathura and Kashi are not on the BJP agenda and will never be. As for sympathisers, how do I know? Somebody could be a sympathiser of the Muslim League too."
But the interface of personal ambition with instinct is a strange one. Because Naqvi is not a "non-serious" candidate. Though far from a frontrunner, his perfectly justifiable instinct for self-survival comes through when he appears to contradict what he has said earlier. "The manifesto was in a way necessary for the BJP to consolidate its base. That will be my basic vote as well, after all". The educated Muslim vote, says Naqvi, himself a Shia, is veering towards the BJP and Vajpayee. "Plus the trader community and Shias. Even uneducated Muslims are no longer blindly following the diktats of religious heads and at least some of them will vote for the BJP for the simple reason that the party which will come to power should not believe that they had no support from an entire community," he asserts.
LAZILY flicking an invisible speck of dust from his impeccably tailored sherwani, the Nawab of Banganapalli declares: "I joined the party and stepped into electoral politics only when I heard Atalji was the prime ministerial candidate." Syed Jaffer Ali Khan, 63, grandson of the Nawab of Banganapalli in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, is the BJP candidate from Nandyal, once held by former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. A man of few words, his friends do most of the talking on his behalf.
Khan carries his air of elegance to his politics as well. Unperturbed by the aggressive stance of the Congress and TDP candidates towards him or his party manifesto, he is "confident" that the Muslim community will not be "misled" by the opposition. Chips in close chum Mir Ahmed Ali Khan: "The minorities are confident that Vajpayeeji will not do anything wrong which would hurt our sentiments. And we believe him. Ayodhya, Article 370 and a uniform civil code have been on the party agenda for quite sometime, why crib about them now? The BJP is not saying anything new. But their assurance to the minorities is that the party would try and implement these things only after consulting all sections of society and with legal sanction. We have taken their assurance at face value," he argues. The nawab nods in agreement.
Moreover, the nawab, who says he has been assured by the party leadership that a beautiful mosque will be built adjacent to the new temple, asks: "Can't Ram and Rahim live together?"
The nawab feels that the BJP's promises to Muslims for their uplift are important. "The party assures us of taalim (education) and tanzim (monitoring the community's overall development) and this is important. Over the last 50 years, there has been a steep fall in the literacy rate among Muslims. Every party has used the minorities as a votebank. I pray to Allah that this ignorance among illiterate Muslims is eradicated," he adds.The BJP's Nandyal candidate also stresses that he is "for a strong, secular and stable government at the Centre and wouldn't like a khichdi-type coalition to make a mockery of our democracy." His only comment on BJP "hardliners" is that all the top leaders such as Advani and Govindacharya are people of integrity. "Only the BJP can provide a stable government with an able prime minister in the present circumstances," he adds.
The BJP, in the past, has shown that it is a presence in the area and can count on around 45,000 votes. By choosing to field a Muslim candidate in Jaffer Ali Khan, the party has sprung a surprise on its rivals. And attempted to make that quantum leap in support which they would need to figure in the contest.
IN the Kashmir valley, too, a number of Kashmiri Muslim leaders have hopped on to the BJP bandwagon. But the only mass leader the BJP has roped in is Abdul Rashid Kabli, twice an MP, thrice a legislator. Kabli is contesting the Srinagar seat this time. There's a slight hitch though. After the onset of militancy, Kabli apparently advocated the cause of separatist groups in some western countries. But now he swears by the "honesty and integrity" of Vajpayee: "He is the most charismatic leader India has ever produced. He alone can do justice with Kashmiris." As for Article 370, he believes that "the BJP is not really going to do anything drastic about it".
"Kashmir has a distinct identity and that has to be preserved. I am sure that once the BJP comes to power, it will listen to Kashmiris on the issue of the state's special status and respect our aspirations," says Kabli. Of course, he doesn't agree with the party on the uniform civil code: "Nearly 20 crore Muslims live in India and the BJP can't ignore their sentiments. We will convince them and I am sure that Vajpayee will agree with us."
As for the theory that the BJP draws its power from the RSS, his reply is illuminating: "I don't know whether the RSS controls the BJP. I only know Vajpayee." He also believes that once the BJP comes to power, "excesses on the people of Kashmir (allegedly committed by security forces) will come to an end and we will have a government with a human face".
Another "big catch" for the BJP is Deen Mohammad Cheeta, a lower-rung worker of the National Conference, who floated his one-man-outfit Aman Nawaz Conference (Pro-Peace conference) from Jammu after he migrated there at the peak of insurgency. Having merged his party with the BJP, he is now the party's candidate from Baramulla and is in the news for promising to "explain to the people that the BJP can protect Kashmiri interests". His opponents allege that his outfit was part of the intelligence agencies' counter-insurgency campaign. Cheeta fought the previous Lok Sabha elections as an Independent and lost. He seems to be keeping a low profile this time as well, and even the staunchest BJP supporters are not claiming victory for him.
Then there is Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, national secretary of the BJP youth wing. More familiar in the confines of the 11,Ashoka Road headquarters of the BJP in Delhi and liaising with members of the press corps, rather than in an underdeveloped backwater of Kishenganj, Bihar, from where he has been pitchforked into the electoral arena for the first time. Just about 30 years old, Shahnawaz was known to have been keen to contest from Katihar (Bihar), preferring to take on sitting MP and Congress general secretary Tariq Anwar rather than try his luck at Kishenganj. The reason: the preponderance of "illegal" Bangladeshi immigrants in Kishenganj.
For a party that has consistently promised to take strong action against "illegal Bangladeshis", Muslim or not, its candidate has been getting a rough ride from members of the minority community, many of whom feel that they are being unfairly targetted. "That is not an issue, our campaign is going well. We will get Muslim support thanks to the Vajpayee campaign," is all this "loyal soldier" of the party is willing to say over the telephone from his constituency. "Atalji's name and his campaign shuts up our opponents who try and label us communal. The contentious issues on the BJP's agenda are not being raised in the campaign," he adds.
Shahnawaz himself puts it best when he says that "the impression that a hardline attitude has crept in is not good. We are not the Bajrang Dal." In fact, of all the Muslim BJP candidates in the fray, he is likely to put up a decent showing. First, being a partyman, he will attract the core support base and second, he hopes to get at least "10 per cent Muslim votes", thanks to a liberal campaign modelled on Vajpayee's stance.
In neighbouring West Bengal, Calcutta-based businessman Muzaffar Khan, the BJP candidate from Malda, speaks of his "conscious decision" to join the party in 1990 after a fairly long stint in the Congress. He has come a long way in the new party, but the going has not been easy. As he takes on the veteran Congressman, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, the mood is upbeat though party insiders concede that his battle is for the "number two and three positions".
FOR Khan, 45, "only the BJP can take on the CPI(M)" and he tried to put his political career where his mouth is by taking on chief minister Jyoti Basu from Satgachia assembly seat in the last election, polling nearly 12,000 votes. He says that he supports the party's stand on repealing Article 370. And his position on Ayodhya and a proposed uniform civil code is that "of Vajpayeeji's". "There will be no arbitrary or unilateral decision on these issues. A solution will be found only through discussions and agreement between Hindus and Muslims," he adds.
And he has been telling his supporters in private that he intends to raise with Vajpayee the entire question of the hard-liners attempting to dictate the BJP agenda in the recent past, when "Atalji comes to Malda on February 16."
Say what you will of these candidates, they are attempting to break the stereotype of the "kind of Muslim who supports the BJP". Whether they are succeeding or not is another matter. But even as Vajpayee once again tries to put his agenda for the party up front, even the party's Muslim candidates concede that the BJP label does tend to put paid to any serious electoral ambitions in the Muslim-dominated constituencies from which they have been fielded. Barring an odd exception. And despite the "end of the party's untouchability among Muslims" and the inroads the BJP claims to have made.
There is a common pattern of brushing aside the more difficult issues on the BJP's agenda, and a discernible sense of awkwardness at the hardliners' attempts to up the ante. Says Dr Mehmood Fazal, former member of the Planning Commission who joined the party a couple of years ago: "The issues which are considered 'contentious' are nothing new. The point is that we have to focus on development, bringing prosperity and good governance to India."
Former Congress MP Aslam Sher Khan, who joined the BJP recently, is more forthright: "I will concede that there is a perception that Vajpayeeji's caravan, which was growing by the day, has been thrown off-track a bit because of the stridency on some issues. Maybe it could have been handled differently, but I can tell you that it is easier to face the Muslim community asking for votes for Vajpayee than it was in 1996 asking them to vote Congress. "
The bottomline, however, is that there are just six out of 383 candidates; which is 1.6 per cent of the BJP's representation. For all the sophistication of thesis—and "genuine attempts to find "winning candidates"—by the party's top brass, the figures tell their own story. It is not too difficult to see why.