Why Modi is no longer ignoring the Muslim world

Has this affected the PM's popularity with the majority community?

 |  7-minute read |   17-08-2015
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's geopolitical prism, critics complained, looked East, looked West but ignored the Islamic world. That perception no longer holds.

Apart from Bangladesh, the prime minister visited several Muslim-majority Central Asian countries last month both before and after the BRICS and SCO summit meetings in Ufa, Russia. His two-day dash through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on August 16-17 is, however, important for two specific reasons.

First, it re-establishes the balance between the Modi government's lean-Israel policy and the Arabian Gulf states where over 7.2 million Indians live and work.

Second, with the UAE playing an active role in the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen against the Shia Houthis, India needs to deepen counter-terrorism links in the Middle-East, especially with the Gulf kingdom where 2.6 million Indians work.

Long a safe haven for terrorists and fugitives like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel, the UAE has lately been more receptive to cooperation with India. Terrorists are finding it harder to use the UAE as a base. This isn't out of altruism. The Middle-East is reeling from the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS).

Also read: Getting Dawood can be Modi's greatest victory

Nurtured and funded initially by Sunni Saudi Arabia to counter the Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam) regime of Syria's Bashar Assad and Shia powerhouse Iran, IS has turned viciously on its benefactors. Saudi mosques have been attacked by IS suicide bombers. The UAE, also Sunni majority, remains largely tranquil but its participation in the Yemen war as well as strikes by its airforce over IS positions in Syria make it vulnerable to future terrorist attacks.

This vulnerability has made the UAE take India's concerns over terrorism seriously. A principal objective of the prime minister's visit, apart from drumming up investment from the fund-rich Emirate, is to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation.

The first Indian prime minister to visit the UAE since Indira Gandhi in 1981, Modi will have experienced a very different Emirate from what his predecessor witnessed. Bilateral trade has grown to $30 billion (Rs 1.95 lakh crore). India is the UAE's second largest trading partner; the UAE is India's third largest trading partner. Remittances from the UAE total over $11 billion (Rs 71,500 crore) annually, sustaining the economies of states like Kerala.

In Abu Dhabi, the prime minister's visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque was a political coup. The UAE has now pledged to allot land for the construction of a Hindu temple - the first in the Emirati kingdom.

As he did at New York's Madison Square Garden event last September, the prime minister will address a sell-out crowd of over 50,000 Indians in the Dubai cricket stadium on Monday night (August 17). Unlike Indians settled in the US, Indians in the UAE are mostly unskilled workers though around a fifth of the total hold high-level jobs. And unlike NRIs in the United States or elsewhere, they are not citizens of the country where they work. They will one day return to India. They form a potent, seven million-plus vote catchment area.

How will the prime minister's UAE visit impact his wider relationship with the Muslim world? Before he became prime minister, several opposition politicians warned that communal riots would break out on his watch. To their disappointment (and everyone else's relief) that hasn't happened.

The other fear was that mosques and churches would be attacked by wild-eyed members of far-right Hindutva groups. The former director-general of Punjab Police, Julio Ribeiro, wrote an op-ed fretting about the safety of minorities in a soft Hindutva country. A series of coordinated attacks on churches seemed to justify his fears till it was discovered that five out of six serious incidents involving these churches were not "communal" attacks after all but stray cases of vandalism.

Ribeiro later wrote another op-ed admitting he'd exaggerated the communal threat because "unless you exaggerate, nobody listens to you."

Modi is acutely aware that every word he utters about religion in India or abroad will be dissected by a still largely hostile media. So what does Modi think of Christians and Muslims? Ask him and a blank look will cross his face. He doesn't think in terms of Muslims or Christians, he says. To him they are all Indians. This is the public position he has consistently taken since he began his campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Also read: Why Muslims and Christians are safer in India than most places on earth

Increasingly, moderate Muslim clerics are beginning to understand this. Modi's visist to the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque in Abu Dhabi drew grudging praise from several Muslim leaders. Even dyed-in-the-wool "secular fundamentalists" like Congress leader Digvijay Singh called it a "good sign".

However, as Digvijay Singh and his fellow-travellers know, the Congress' decades-long tokenism towards Muslims has kept them in socio-economic ghettos. India's Muslims, especially in north India, remain backward and under-represented in virtually every professional sector. In the recent Economic Times Start-up Awards, dozens of bright young entrepreneurs were nominated. Not one Muslim figured in the shortlist of over 40 names.

For years the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) sought Muslim votes on the basis of religion - not education, jobs, innovation and empowerment. The result: Muslims today, according to both the Sachar Committee and Mishra Commission reports, are poorer than even Dalits.

Also read: Why Indian Muslims can no longer be ignored

Their poverty and backwardness, exploited by semi-literate Mullahs, make young Muslims vulnerable to the call of jihad. Even in a state like Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), grounded in an inclusive Sufi culture, the Islamic State has begun to establish a presence (though it is presently restricted to small groups hoisting IS flags in public).

While the terror attacks in Gurdaspur and Udhampur showed clear evidence of local help from radicalised Islamist sleeper cells, the majority of India's 180 million Muslims are peace-loving. They can be assets against the import of radical Islam. The problem lies within. I wrote this in an op-ed, titled "Educate, Don't Appease", in a leading daily one year after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won re-election in May 2009:

"Six of India's highest constitutional functionaries are Sikh (prime minister), Christian (UPA chairperson), Muslim (chief election commissioner), Parsi (chief justice of India), Dalit (speaker of the Lok Sabha) and Hindu (president). There is no other country in the world with such breathtaking plurality at the highest level of leadership."

Consider Britain: only Protestant (not Catholic) Christians can be monarch. The law of blasphemy protects only Christian citizens in the United Kingdom. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, minorities (including, in Pakistan, even Muslim Ahmadis) have restricted rights. Unlike burqa-banning western democracies such as France and Belgium, Indian secularism does not separate church and state. It allows them to swim together in a common if sometimes chaotic pool.

"By appeasing rather than educating nearly 14 per cent of its minority population, Indian politicians have choked a powerful nationalist voice against terrorism directed at India by Pakistan. As the 21st century ebbs and flows, India's global ascent cannot be slowed by a marginalised minority. But imagine how much the ascent could gather pace were that minority turned into an economic and social asset: modern, educated and forward-thinking."

The prime minister recognises all this. The decision to form a government in alliance with a soft-separatist party like the PDP in J&K shows the importance he attaches to bringing India's only Muslim-majority state into the national mainstream. This has upset many of his supporters who expected him to take a hardline Hindutva position on J&K. Modi in public and private has confounded both followers and critics. Has this affected his popularity with the majority community?

A recent Mint-Instavaani opinion poll, published just ahead of Independence Day, showed that Modi's approval ratings, which slipped from 82 per cent in August 2014 to 74 per cent in May 2015 had climbed back again to 79 per cent in August 2015.

Next month the prime minister will embark on his third summit meeting with US president Barack Obama. A Madison Square Garden-style blockbuster in California's Silicon Valley is planned for September 27. It was President Obama's end-of-visit remark just after Republic Day this year, at a speech on the need for religious tolerance if India is to fulfil its potential as a global superpower, that sparked off months of criticism of Modi's record even while the US itself was torn apart by racial riots in Ferguson and elsewhere. As he returns from the UAE tomorrow, the irony of those presidential words will resonate strongly.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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