Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to skip President Pranab Mukherjee's iftar comes as no surprise. In fact, it would have been surprising had PM decided to attend. To those who have followed him closely, his decision not to attend the iftar seems to follow a particular trend, and appears to be part of the prime minister's belief system... Last year too he choose not to attend, travelling instead to Mumbai.
This time the reason is said to be the meeting with chief ministers of Northeastern states scheduled for 7pm, exactly the time when barely a kilometre away, the president will, in keeping with tradition, be hosting an iftar for diplomats, politicians and members of civil society. However, it's not without significance that five of the eight CMs from the Northeast will not be attending the meeting called by the prime minister.
Typical of Narendra Modi, he likes to use every possible opportunity to send out an unmistakeable message that he does not believe in the Nehruvian model of secularism, which in his view amounts to tokenism. Those from the liberal and inclusive stream of politics, concede that while iftar parties may be symbolic, gestures like partaking in the festivities of people from other faiths have a significance of their own. This, of course, is not to say that most political parties, Modi's included, have not used such occasions for political purposes.
What he and his political managers term "tokenism" was once a practice started by Jawaharlal Nehru, but was abandoned when Lal Bahadur Shastri became prime minister. It was in the mid 1970s that it was restored and became an annual feature during Ramzan. Even the BJP's first prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee followed the practice without fail. As prime minister, Vajpayee made it a point to not only invite people to break their fast at 7 RCR, but also attend many such iftar parties hosted by others. In 2003, he had to travel abroad, so he directed Shahnawaz Hussain to play host.
The point here is not whether the prime minister is right in not attending, let alone hosting an iftar party. My own view is that he has every right not to attend. However, what does not wash is the reason that people close to him bring about that he does not believe in "tokenism". If that indeed is the real reason, then what about his participation in "Gurupurab". If his assertion, that he is opposed to tokenism or symbolism is to carry conviction, then the prime minister certainly cannot be selective in such matters.
Iftars have often been criticised for being a little more than political photo-ops. But Modi, by staying away from even the president's iftar, seems to have sent his own political message, albeit a controversial one. For him, reaching out to the Muslims will not involve being seen to be part of any festival or symbol of the community, which has a religious or even quasi-religious flavour.