Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Muslim support base has undoubtedly grown since he assumed office in May, but there is one particular Muslim community that has contributed most conspicuously to this shift.

The Dawoodi Bohras, with their distinctive white kurtas and white-and-gold caps, have been prominently photographed with Modi on various occasions in the past few years. Now, as Bohras grow increasingly vocal in their support, Modi’s government is returning the love.

On Monday, among the thousands who attended Modi’s address at the Olympic Park Arena in Sydney, were 100 Bohras who had been specially invited by the Indian High Commission in Australia. Representing nearly a fourth of the total Bohra population of Australia, they showed up in traditional attire and praised Modi for promoting development and inclusive growth.

Six weeks ago, a posse of around 100 diaspora Bohras also attended Modi’s massive Madison Square Park event during his visit to New York.

Business and development

The enthusiasm that Bohra Muslims are showing for Modi is not as surprising as it may seem.

The Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia sub-sect of traders hailing predominantly from Gujarat, are a  business community reputed for their image of being wealthy, progressive and incredibly close-knit. The Bohra population in India is estimated to be around 500,000, with an equal number of diasporic members settled in various parts of the world.

The former spiritual leader of the community – the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin who died in January – had maintained cordial relations with a succession of national and world leaders. His son Mufaddal Saifuddin, the current Syedna, has close ties with Modi, and over the past few months has been asking community members to support Modi in his initiatives.

Not long ago, Bohras shared the general Muslim distrust of the BJP and Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots. For the ordinary Bohra, however, it was the Syedna’s warmth towards Modi and talk of development that led to a change in perception.

“A few years ago, I was against Modi because of the riots that occurred during his term in Gujarat, but now my feelings towards Modi have changed for the better,” said Nooruddin Sevwala, a trustee at the Bohra-run non-profit Burhani Foundation and the deputy world chairperson of Giants International. “Modi has visited our Syedna so many times now, and he is definitely an intelligent, powerful man with good oratory and time management skills.”

Both small and large businesses, Sevwala says, stand to gain if Modi implements business-friendly policies. “So far, his policies have been oral, but one has to be neutral about these things, and we are trying to support a good cause.”

Khalil Noorani, a businessman from Vapi in Gujarat, is also a recent member of Modi’s fan club, although he is not a supporter of the BJP as a party. “Modi knows how to handle business communities and can do a better job than the UPA government did in ten years,” said Noorani. “In Gujarat, infrastructure and the power sector have definitely developed fast under Modi.” As long as Modi maintains his focus on development, Noorani feels he can remain popular.

Ghosts of the past?

Most Bohras who favour Modi today prefer not to dwell too much on the debate of Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, even though many Bohra shops were burnt and businesses destroyed in the mob violence.

Instead, they choose to focus on development and change as pragmatic reasons for Muslims in general to support the prime minister.

“There are many legitimate reasons for Muslims to be disenchanted with the Congress party, and as a result Modi attracted substantial Muslim support from all across India,” wrote Aziz Poonawalla, a US-based Bohra blogger, about the community’s show of support for Modi in New York last month.

Bohras, writes Poonawalla, are apolitical but have a strong sense of civic identity, so supporting a candidate elected by the majority is an expression of the community’s faith in India’s democracy. “The PM is also keenly aware of the optics of having widespread Muslim support, as an immunisation against his human rights record – so in an odd way, supporting him also ensures that he keeps issues affecting Muslims in India on his agenda.”

Contrary voices

There are, of course, several Bohras who are unfazed by Modi’s development rhetoric, and still deeply uncomfortable with his party’s Hindutva ideology.

“People in my community are enamoured by this vision that Modi has created, of the nation developing as businesses flourish, but a good orator is not necessarily a good leader,” said Zahra Gabuji, a 24-year-old Bohra student in Mumbai. The Gujarat riots during Modi’s term as chief minister is the main reason for Gabuji’s scepticism of Modi. “Besides, the BJP’s Hindutva ideology is very in-your-face,” she said.

Irfan Engineer, a reformist Bohra based in Mumbai, believes the Bohra establishment has its own reasons for maintaining friendly relations with Modi – just as it has always maintained good ties with previous governments and leaders. “The Syedna’s establishment has been collecting large amounts of money as religious taxes from the community,” said Engineer, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. “To protect all that wealth, they need patronage from the state.”