Another month of Ramzan has come and almost gone and once more Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stuck to his decision of neither attending iftar parties nor organising one. Since becoming Gujarat chief minister Mr Modi has never attended these gatherings. In August 2011, during the Sadbhavana programme, he infamously refuse a skull-cap offered by a deposed cleric of Pirana dargah, one-time Sufi shrine on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, now a temple.
Mr Modi’s aides explained that he did not feel the necessity to participate in rituals or observances that are not part of his faith. In 2014, after becoming Prime Minister, Mr Modi discontinued the long tradition of Indian Prime Ministers hosting iftar parties. Officials were queried on the discontinuance of this symbolic act of the state, demonstrating its participation in the most important annual ritual and festival of Muslims. Mr Modi took the decision, they explained, because he did not believe in “token gestures”. Congress leader H.N. Bahuguna began the tradition in 1975 and suggested the idea to his boss, Indira Gandhi. It was since followed by every predecessor of Mr Modi, the much eulogised Atal Behari Vajpayee included.
Yet Mr Modi indulged in “tokenism” last April, when he despatched Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to Ajmer to offer a chadar at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti on his behalf. This was another long-standing tradition in which Indian Prime Ministers were often joined by heads of state or executive chiefs of neighbouring countries. Many also sent their ambassadors to the shrine with a similar offering. Did Mr Modi honour this custom for fear of global criticism because United States President Barack Obama became the first non-South Asian head of state to send a chadar to the dargah this year? After all, Mr Obama’s gesture followed the reminder to Mr Modi that social inclusion was a responsibility that no democratic leader could ignore.
But by sending a chadar Mr Modi was trapped within the hollowness of his argument. If Mr Modi refused the skull-cap because it was against his faith, why did he send a chadar? If tokenism serves no purpose, how do spin doctors explain this? Many years ago, Ashis Nandy suggested that Mr Modi should go to a dargah and seek atonement for 2002. But to seek atonement, one does not have to “go” anywhere — pardon must be sought from people and to seek such deliverance a visit to a temple, dargah or gurdwara is not necessary.
There is no escaping the conclusion that Mr Modi’s actions are politically driven or motivated. When Mr Modi was consolidating his image as Hindu Hriday Samrat, breaking fast with Muslims would have fetched the scorn of hardcore Hindutva supporters. In 2011, when he was embarking on his electoral campaign for the 2012 Assembly election which nosedived into the 2014 Lok Sabha election, he needed to alter his image and not project himself as a hardline leader. The mass contact programme he organised was called Sadbhavana, a name normally given to peace marches after clashes. Yet, as the skull-cap incident demonstrated,
Mr Modi would remain within the threshold to ensure that his core voters did not view him as another sickular-vaadi.
In 2014, flush from a victory greatly made possible by political yield from social polarisation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Mr Modi, to ensure that neo-converts did not drift away, decided to discontinue the iftar practice at 7, RCR. In April, when reiterating the BJP government’s commitment to religious freedom and guaranteeing protection to minorities, a symbolic gesture was necessary and thus Mr Naqvi was sent to Ajmer. Now that elections are looming in Bihar and polarisation is a possible strategy, the decision was to again stay away from the iftar hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee who continues this convention. By hosting or attending iftar, one does not become Muslim or violate one’s faith. It is akin to non-Hindus staying true to their belief despite attending Holi Milan and spraying gulal.
Mr Modi is rooted to definitions of the past and looks at national identity through the prism fabricated almost 90 years ago by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, revolutionary nationalist turned chief ideologue of the Hindu nationalist ideology. Savarkar contended that India belonged to Hindus and only those who considered the land to be both punyabhoomi and pitribhoomi or matribhoomi, had a right to this land. Believers of other faiths, for instance Islam and Christianity, considered other geographical territories as holy land and, therefore, their right to India was limited unless they adhered to the belief of the majority community. Savarkar is a very big icon for Mr Modi and his ilk, and they consider his political theory as gospel.
In a conversation with him while writing his biography, Mr Modi claimed that he had no problem with people following their own faith or religion. He, however, expected that they would consider the adarsh (ideals) and the mahapurush (spiritual leader) of the majority as their own. In a multi-religious country this is a tall order and expecting this from the minority is nothing short of majoritarianism.
While warding off criticism that he does not pursue programmes aimed at benefiting minorities, Mr Modi cites the credo of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”. He contends that each of his initiatives is for all and lists projects like girl child education, skill development and sanitation. True, the benefit from these programmes is for all to reap, but does vikas only mean material growth and improvement in living standards? What about inter-community relationships? Is there no need to rediscover and develop lost trust between two communities? If Mr Modi, the Prime Minister, continues acting like a campaigner on the prowl, Indians will soon reach a stage where brothers and comrades will become strangers and be at each other’s throat constantly. For reasons of state, this would be dangerous and virtually impossible to cope with.
The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times