Each time the Bharatiya Janata Party finds itself on shaky ground, it begins to sidle up to Muslims. Paradoxically, the party attempts to win over Muslims in some parts of the country even as it refuses to tone down the Hindutva bombast in other parts.

So Sufis and “Pasmanda” Muslims have become the targets of the BJP’s attempt at “inclusivity” in Uttar Pradesh, even as the party, in its recent assembly election campaigns, got busy promising to curb the Congress’s “bias” towards Muslims in Rajasthan and do away with Muslim reservations in Telangana.

In the face of electoral competition, it is not difficult to understand why a political party would tweak its electoral strategy off and on. In North India, the BJP is seeking to exploit Barelvi-Deobandi faultlines by pitting the more syncretic Barelvi school of thought (for example, Sufism) with the more puritanical Deobandi school represented by organisations such as the Tablighi Jamaat.

Simultaneously, it looks to gain support of Pasmanda Muslims, a strategy which ties in with the party’s electoral agenda of consolidating voters from the backward castes and classes. Despite the BJP’s hardline Hindutva rhetoric, it cannot ignore the community whose vote influences political battles in several pockets of the country.

What is less clear is why Muslims, well-aware of the BJP’s core ideology and the notoriety it has built with its anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies over the past decade, would support the party in public, even if they do not eventually vote for it – a contradiction that I demonstrate in my book Keeping the Peace. Most of all, it is less obvious why pious Muslims would display unexpected flexibility by compromising with their sacred values.

Credit: BJP minority morcha @BJPMinMorcha/X.

The Sadbhavana sham: Gujarat, 2009-2014

Clues to the recent Sufi-Pasmanda-BJP puzzle can be traced back to Gujarat where the BJP first experimented with placating Muslims. Between 2009 and 2014, the BJP had made an apparent attempt to attract Gujarat’s Sunni Muslim voters as part of what was called the “Sadbhavana Mission”.

The BJP’s extent of fussing over the steadfast Congress-supporting Sunnis was so persuasive and unprecedented that many Sunnis began to sing the party’s praises.

A Tablighi fruit vendor I met in Ahmedabad in 2010 dressed in white Islamic attire, complete with a skullcap, moustache, and an unruly beard – a stereotype of the Congress voter – even went on so far as to compare Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, and the BJP with Allah: “There is no shame today in supporting Modi. BJP is Allah. Allah ke sivay aur kaun hai?” Who else do we have but Allah?

I tracked four elections in Gujarat: municipal elections in 2010, assembly elections in 2012, and general elections in 2014 and 2017 and met many more like him, especially during the first two elections. Dressed simultaneously in Islamic garb and saffron bandanas, they professed their hope in the BJP.

By 2013, even the once-ardent critic of Modi, Mahmood Madani of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, had decided that Modi wasn’t so exclusionary after all. Earlier, Madani was instrumental in ousting Maulana Vastanvi, the rector of India’s leading seminary in Deoband, for publicly supporting Modi’s economic policies.

Why did Muslims support a party hostile to Muslims?

The BJP’s state-wide rapprochement with Gujarati Sunnis was, of course, merely political symbolism: it signalled to Muslims and liberal Hindus in other parts of India that Modi’s militant Hindu reputation was redeemable and that he deserved to be made the prime minister in 2014. It worked.

The Hindutva party’s Sufi Samvad initiative, an outreach programme started earlier in November, is also symbolic, a strategy similar to the BJP swearing by Gandhian ideals and India’s democratic roots in forums abroad to camouflage the current democratic backsliding.

But what was more puzzling in Gujarat was why Muslims would support a party that they collectively held responsible for massacring members of their community in the 2002 pogrom. Usually, minority ethnic groups prefer to vote for parties with a capacity to harness greater political control for the group – provided the members of the group vote together in a particular way. But voting for a party complicit in the killing of one’s own community members is like inflicting self-harm.

It is true that the Sikhs too supported the Congress despite the Congress-orchestrated riots targeting the community in 1984. But “Sikhs were never averse to voting for the Congress even before 1984”, a Sikh journalist in Chandigarh had told me. Moreover, unlike the BJP or Modi, Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s public apology to the Sikhs and the appointment of a Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh, aided the return of Sikh voters to the party.

A group of Muslim men stand on the side of a street as they wait to see a car convoy carrying BJP candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi in May 2014. Credit: AFP.

Only public support

Of critical importance was the fact that the enormous wave of Muslim support for the BJP – strongest between 2010 and 2012 – did not translate proportionately into votes for the BJP.

Using polling booth data to estimate voting patterns for 2010 and 2012 elections, it was clear that the BJP did not win more than 10% of the Muslim vote during the years of the Sadbhavana campaign. This figure is not different from Muslim voting percentages recorded in previous years. A more detailed analysis of the voting patterns for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 demonstrated that for every additional Muslim voter in a polling booth, the BJP’s vote fell by 0.61 votes. At the same time, controlling for age average and gender balance, the Congress’s vote increased by an estimated 0.84 votes.

If Muslims are prudent enough to not cast their secret ballot in favour of the BJP, why support the party publicly?

For Muslims in positions of authority – for example, clerics – and those who had joined the BJP as workers, a public approval of the saffron party meant a materially-rewarding future. But for the voter on the street, public approval of a party they acknowledged to be working against the interests of Muslims acted as a shield against “national treachery”.

“We Muslims first believe in nation, that’s what Islam also says … to get rid of our anti-national image we have to be with the BJP,” the Tablighi gentleman had said. The BJP was likely to retain power then and gaining the social approval of the majority by forsaking an “anti-national image” mattered.

One can link the contradictory behaviour of Gujarati Sunni voters – and, potentially, the Muslim voters of Uttar Pradesh – to a rather everyday experience: anxiety, or cognitive dissonance, over the choices we make or the values we cherish.

To illustrate, even while I publicly criticise caste discrimination, I may still hesitate in allowing my daughter to marry someone from a lower caste. Contradictions in our mind cause psychological discomfort. In a bid to reduce the discomfort, I will conceal my true beliefs or pad my hesitation to forbid the inter-caste marriage with a new justification – for example, the potential social ostracism to my family for allowing such a marriage. Consequently, I will adjust my criticism of caste discrimination.

For a Muslim who believes that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party, criticising the party’s attempt to wave a white flag risks inviting social disapproval from the majority for opposing an inclusive government. Misgivings are concealed as Muslims prefer to overtly express their nationalism or mute any contrary views – for example, denying that there is discrimination on religious grounds.

This is more likely for religious Muslims – especially those with visible religious signs, which increases their vulnerability to being identified as orthodox Muslims.

An increase in Muslims publicly supporting the BJP would increase the overall pressure among other Muslims to find social approval, thereby leading them to support the BJP.

Already, the BJP appears confident of winning a record third term in 2024 yet it is leaving nothing to chance in its political outreach to Muslims. The Hindutva party cannot ignore Muslims but perhaps neither can Indian Muslims.

Raheel Dhattiwala is an independent sociologist. She is the Baden-Württemberg Fellow, ‘23 at SAI, University of Heidelberg, and author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).