There’s change in the air around ‘Matoshree’, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s suburban residence. A number of Muslim leaders are knocking on a door they earlier avoided. That, and the unprecedented visit last week of Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, spoke volumes about the new Thackeray line. One which seeks to win over the minorities and put behind the militant brand of Hindutva that has in the past converted elections in Maharashtra into a display of saffron muscle.
From threats and derogatory references, Thackeray now suggests Hindus live "amicably" with Muslims. This from a man who six years ago when the Babri Masjid fell in Ayodhya, praised his boys for a job well done. Now it’s the BJP and the more militant members of the Sangh parivar who’re outraged at his suggestion that a national monument—including a temple, a masjid and a memorial to freedom fighter Mangal Pandey—be built at the disputed site.
Thackeray speaks of a tremendous response, not only from within Maharashtra, but also from Arab nations to both his changed approach and the nearly three years of riot-free government under the Sena-BJP. The BJP state unit too claims that Muslims have become less cautious and more open to them. "For the first time, BJP leaders were invited to not less than 100 Iftar parties here. Till now no one was willing to even accept our greetings on Id," says city unit president, Kirit Somaiyya.
According to Somaiyya, in a 2,000-sample survey conducted across Mumbai by the BJP last fortnight, about 33 per cent Muslims were willing to consider the BJP. "This doesn’t mean they’ll vote for us. But at least they’re not shutting us out any more. BJP posters, banners and we ourselves are gaining access to them and their areas," he says. Another survey on a similar-sized sample conducted in Mumbai Northeast, Pramod Mahajan’s constituency which has a size-able Muslim and Dalit population, showed 25 per cent of the Muslim electorate knew him and 10 per cent may even vote for him.
In Mumbai itself, Muslims form nearly 10 per cent of the electorate. While the Dalit vote’s been divided among factions backing different political parties, Muslims have mostly stood by the Congress, except in the last polls. In the post-Ayodhya riots that rocked Mumbai, the Muslim community was mostly targeted by Shiv Sainiks. Memories of the bloodshed remain. It was the serial blasts that followed and the repressive measures—including indiscriminate use of TADA—by the Sharad Pawar government that weaned Muslims away from the Congress. They’ve since found an alternative in the Samajwadi Party (SP). The Congress places its hopes on alliances to raise its seat tally from an all-time low of 15 out of 48 seats in Maharashtra in the last elections. A poll understanding with the SP this time in Mumbai offers it hope of winning back the Muslim vote. Pacts are also being firmed with the Republican Party to bring the splintered Dalit vote within its fold.
But the BJP and Sena too have trained their smiles on the Muslims. Not all are convinced. "Their claims are nonsense. Bal Thackeray is never firm in his statements and everyone knows their history. The Congress has done its best to see the secular vote isn’t divided. They’ve realised the SP’s strength," says Sohali Lokhandwala, SP MLA and candidate from south-central Mumbai.
Clearly, the Sena will have to do more than signal a mere change of heart. Whether its new line under a mellower Thackeray gets votes or not, it would mark a beginning in an area long vilified by the party.