Debating India


Get rid of your fears, Atal tells Muslims


Wednesday 25 February 2004, by JHA*Nilanjana Bhaduri

NEW DELHI: “Choose”, said Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the Muslims, and thousands of skull caps bobbed up and down. Vajpayee was asking them to trust the BJP and support it in the next Lok Sabha elections.

It was not about the Congress or the BJP anymore, Vajpayee said at the party’s minority meet here. "We invite a debate - come - there is no issue that cannot be resolved through talks." But the fear had to go.

"The country is at crossroads - Muslims have to get over their fear, think and decide very carefully on where their welfare lies," Vajpayee said, asking the Muslims to decide who to vote for and why, in their best interests and that of the country.

An unusual interruption, when a man in the crowd stood up and asked about Article 370 of the Constitution, went unanswered.

The reference points were all the same: peace with Pakistan, successful Kashmir elections, Haj subsidies. The Prime Minister was winding up his speech at a BJP meet to woo minorities, and many among the crowds had already begun to file out of the Talkatora indoor stadium.

There were a few thousand there, though master of ceremonies Muqtar Abbas Naqvi repeatedly claimed there were 15,000 more standing outside.

Vajpayee’s appeal came at the end of almost four hours of waiting. The BJP Alpsankhyak Vikas Sammelan had begun early, with the crowds streaming out of buses and being handed traditional skull caps to wear on their way into the stadium.

Minorities clearly meant Muslims here - the stray Sikh turban could be spotted with difficulty. The literature distributed was in Urdu and Vajpayee and Venkaiah Naidu were "Janaab" for the day.

But the BJP leaders present assured that this was not a meet directed at electoral gains. "The Congress has forever used the Muslims as a vote-bank," thundered leader after Muslim BJP leader. And that was why, said Naidu, it was not a minorities meet but a minorities development meet.

"I don’t believe in saying things to garner votes", Vajpayee, too, said. But he admitted it was sometimes "difficult to win votes". And so repeatedly, asked the Muslims to look at the BJP anew.

There was a time, said the PM, when the Congress told Muslims that to vote for the BJP would mean being sent to Pakistan. "Today people go to Pakistan and come back, queue up for visas."

"The borders have not seen this kind of peace in many years. Now gunshots are not being fired - when an armyman meets another at the border, they shake hands and hope the peace continues."

Three futile wars had been fought. And then poetically: "If walls cannot be broken down, at least windows should be left open. And if windows are closed, then we should open the ventilators and look at each other."

All to thunderous applause. There was more poetry, mostly Urdu couplets from the many speakers. But the political objective was not lost sight of. Given that the audience was almost completely Muslim, Vajpayee even attacked the US.

He didn’t name the country, but said, "The world is no more bipolar or divided into different camps; one major power is trying to prevail over the world today. I do not want to get into what happened in Europe or West Asia," he said in obvious reference to the US invasion of Iraq and the support extended to it by some European countries.

Vajpayee had to save the day. The minority parade did not quite happen. Poster boys Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain, staring down from a large banner, did the rounds, but had little star support.

Arif Beg and Arif Mohammad tried manfully, the former even exhorting the crowds to shout slogans so loud that they were heard by Sonia Gandhi. Never mind that the lady was out of earshot, somewhere in Haryana.

In all the shouting, the crowds got a little mixed up. People in one stand insisted on cheering an embarrassed Shahnawaz Hussain everytime they were asked to cheer Vajpayee. Clearly, he who mobilises the most crowds gets cheered the most.

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The Times of India, Wednesday, February 25, 2004.

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