Politics is the art of creating less of the same by using more of the same. Hence, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has struck upon less of ‘Divide and Rule’ and more of ‘Unite and Grab Power’ to polarise the gender vote and turn the minority tide in its favour. From Modi to the lowest district-level BJP satrap, sanguine saffron forces are out to unite Muslim women against regressive social practices in Islam. ‘Forget the Men. Empower the Women’ appears to be the saffron party’s new war cry.
Religion has often been invoked to give politics the partisan edge. Successful votecraft is about rationalising opposites; hence the additional votes it expects to harvest from the Muslim community, which is perceived as its biggest political and social opponent, are from Muslim women. Ever since the BJP assumed power at the Centre and took control of over half the states in India, its leadership has been reaching out to Muslim women; encouraging them to rise up against the gender bias prevailing in their community.
They are a crucial component of the BJP’s brainstorming sessions on winning 350 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 as against 282 it won in 2014. Amit Shah, who has been concentrating his formidable brainpower on West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, has advised his election managers to devise ways and means to secure the maximum minority votes from female Muslims who are itching to overthrow the cultural and social hegemony of their males and mullahs.
According to BJP insiders, the party has traditionally garnered less than 4 to 5 per cent votes of the 120 million Muslims in the country. With triple talaq, nikah halala and Arab child marriages raising a storm, the BJP smells blood; it will only escalate its political pursuit of 50 million Muslim women voters who can influence the outcome in 50 odd Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal. The idea behind Modi’s expansive support to them is not only to ignite the reform process, but also disarm his opponents by taking an irreproachably ethical stand over an emotional issue, thereby hoisting his liberal critics on their own petard.
Modi is the first prime minister to raise the issue of triple talaq in an I-Day speech—his third, from the Red Fort last week. Referring to various court cases filed by Muslim women, he said, “I pay my respects to those women who had to lead miserable lives due to Triple Talaq and then started a movement which created an environment in the whole nation against the practice.” No other prime minister has commended women from a particular community in their fight against their own system. It was not an act of minority appeasement on his part, but yet another innovative intervention to add more followers to his ever-growing vote base.
Even the most strident Modi-baiters and liberals have directly or indirectly supported his progressive plaudits by being conspicuous by their silence on the BJP’s new political plan. The ban on triple talaq in the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh election manifesto was clearly indicative of its resolve to create unity amongst Muslim women living under the constant threat of verbal divorce sans judicial scrutiny. From 2014 on, the party, led by Modi, has been quietly working on various social, legal, economic and cultural measures to bring poor and middle class women together on various platforms without mentioning religion.
Barring a few political outfits and social activists ideologically opposed to the BJP, most opinion makers and even some Islamic organisations support these pro-women initiatives. Since the prime minister has distanced himself from controversial issues such as the Common Civil Code, Article 370 and rampant Hindu vigilantism, his attempt to improve the abominable plight of Muslim women has struck a chord. Earlier in the month, a large number of Muslim women sent rakhis to Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as a token of appreciation for their support in the Islamic gender war that threatens to polarise even liberal opinion in India.
It is not for the first time that Modi has chosen women’s rights to play a part in politics and governance. In June, he invited prominent Muslim clerics home to discuss gender inequality. Though they tried to deflect the issue, he forced the focus of the meeting to shift to the regressive practices prevalent in Islam against their own women. Subsequently, the PMO issued a press statement which stated, “On triple talaq, the PM reiterated that the Muslim community should not allow the issue to be politicised and urged the assembled gathering to take the responsibility for initiating reform in this regard. The delegation members appreciated the Prime Minister’s stand on the issue.”
Modi is on a Mission Possible mode to get rid of triple talaq in India. He rarely loses an opportunity to push this agenda forward. Obtaining equal rights for Muslim women is a cardinal tenet of his ever-expanding idea of New India. Not only has he instructed Central and state ministers and law ministers to support Muslim women fighting legal battles against gender injustice all over the country, but has also asked them to fan out across their constituencies to identify and adopt new leaders from the minority community.
During the last National Executive Committee meeting held in Bhubaneswar, a combative Modi directed all the assembled leaders and cadres to support any Muslim woman who asked for their help. The BJP has instructed all the district officials to organise special compulsory programmes for Muslim women during its four-month-long voters’ contact programme, which ends next month.
Traditionally, male members of Muslim families lead their women in making political choices. Unlike other religions, almost 100 per cent of Islamic preachers are men since most Muslim women are kept indoors and often veiled. Since literacy among Muslim females is perhaps the lowest in the world, they remain in the dark about global developments.
However, India is an open and democratic society in which, means of information like newspapers and TV are easily accessible to all, including Muslim women. They have the right to vote—a democratic privilege denied to women in most Islamic countries. Modi knows that giving the women of Islam the power to lead a life of their own choosing will disrupt the minority political narrative in his favour. Pitting the women against their men without jeopardising their basic religious bonding is his new strategy.
His detractors may see it as yet another NaMo gimmick. The truth is Modi is preparing the ground for Muslim women to live life as equals of their counterparts in other faiths and communities. By trapping bigots in the game of conscience, he will not only bring democracy to the most oppressed of women, but also create a large mass of grateful supporters who will perceive him as an angel of mercy than an anti-minority prophet.
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