by Ajaz Ashraf  May 20, 2015 11:00 IST

In the scorching month of May 2014, the Muslims of India slipped into a dark mood of pessimism at the prospect of living under a BJP government swept into office with a decisive majority.

Over the course of the year, that somber mood has since been dispelled. This is not because the NDA-II has proved to be a different kettle of fish, but because  Muslims have adjusted to what can be called the New Normal. This is the condition in which it is considered normal to have anxieties and fears triggered by political developments – and pessimism, to a degree, is deemed realistic.

To understand the New Normal, we need to rewind to May 2014.

Representative image. AFP

When Modi ascended to office, Muslims feared they would be besieged by the Hindutva forces, which would bring to the front-burner the contentious Ram Temple and the Uniform Civil Code issues. Worse, it was thought Narendra Modi would trigger minor tsunamis to sweep the BJP into power in states where Assembly elections were due. To have a BJP government at the Centre and also in the states seemed akin to Muslims being caught in a pair of red-hot tongs.

Looking back  some of the fears haven’t thankfully materialized; for example, widespread riots haven’t broken out. But it doesn’t mean nothing has changed. For the religious minorities, life under the Modi government can be considered ‘normal’ only because the very definition of the word has been altered. This New Normal has 10 distinct features.

Feature No. 1 of the New Normal is the absence of major rioting – this descriptor doesn’t apply even to last year’s communal conflagration in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where three persons died, scored were injured, and curfew imposed for days. Yet Saharanpur pales in comparison to the horrors we Indians are capable of inflicting on each other.

Horrifying rioting may not happen under the New Normal, but the communal cauldron is constantly kept simmering, brought close to the boiling point every time there is an election around the corner. This began during the byelections in Uttar Pradesh and stopped following the Delhi Assembly polls.

Feature No. 2 of the New Normal pertains to  the methods of keeping the communal cauldron on a slow simmer. Over the past year, Sangh Parivar has  enhanced social tensions through divisive programmes such as love jihad and ghar wapsi.

An additional ploy is to raise communally charged non sequiturs to spark furious debates. Sample just two of these – since Muslims and Christians drink from the same fount of culture, why can’t they call themselves Muslim Hindus or Christian Hindus? Since most Muslims and Christians were either compelled or lured into leaving Hinduism, why can’t they be brought back into its fold?

These debates on non sequiturs leave not only the minorities aghast, but also many who are counted as Hindus. TV, newspapers, digital sites remind the BJP that it was voted to power for ushering in good governance and development, not for tearing apart the social fabric. The media clamour conveys a sense of social instability, turning citizens and investors apprehensive of the future. Perhaps it also enables the moderates in the BJP to mount pressure on the hardliners to retreat.

This kicks in Feature No. 3 of the New Normal. Commmunal rhetoric no longer dominates, the anxieties and fears of minorities ebb, and life seems as normal as when non-BJP governments rule at the Centre. Call it ‘extreme normalcy’ – for it defies credulity, feels illusory, and always seems on the verge of disappearing.

The  Sangh scripts extreme normalcy periodically to to allay the fears of Hindus opposed to Hindutva. The liberal-left and rightwing secular among them then begin to debate issues material, not cultural or religious, in nature.

Over the last two months the nation has witnessed extreme normalcy, manifest in the discussions, say, over the land ordinance. In the weeks of extreme normalcy under the New Normal, members of the minority often begin to speculate on its duration, whether it has been crafted only because there is no election around the corner.

For instance, many Muslims have already begun to predict that extreme normalcy will end as soon as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav cobble together an electoral alliance. Should they fail to reach an agreement, the period of extreme normalcy may be extended, but it is guaranteed to end sometime next year, in preparation for the battle for Assam and West Bengal in 2016 and Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

Feature No. 4 of the New Normal is the political marginalization of Muslims, which underlines in turn the diminishing importance of their vote. As I had written after the Lok Sabha elections, “If you were to look at the results from just the narrow perspective of victory and defeat, Muslims have been effectively disenfranchised: for the first time in India’s electoral history, the Lok Sabha election has been won without their contribution.” And not a single Muslim was elected on the BJP ticket to the Assemblies of Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand – all three states where the BJP captured power in recent months.

As the Muslim vote becomes less key to electoral victory, Muslims and their sentiments are not taken into account in controversial policy decisions. Hence, the expansion of the ban on cow slaughter to include bulls and oxens, and rewriting of history books to portray the Mughals as despicable bigots Rewriting of history is aimed at communalizing the past for demonizing the Muslims in the present.

Feature No. 5 of the New Normal is establishment double-speak, where RSS pracharaks and the Prime Minister speak in conflicting voices, a trend which originated under NDA-I.

RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat will conflate India with Hindus, extol the superiority of their culture, and tacitly exhort them to assert themselves over others, besides taking potshots at Mother Teresa and her like. By contrast, the Prime Minister will speak of the supremacy of the Constitution, assert an Indian citizen’s right to profess and propagate his or her faith. Since Bhagwat only heads a self-proclaimed (and self-attested) cultural organisation, we are asked to place our faith in the Prime Minister’s words.

Yet Modi didn’t publicly admonish the Hindutva footsoldiers engaged in the ghar wapsi and love jihad programmes, or when the churches in Delhi were vandalized or desecrated before the Assembly elections there.  His strategic silence gives lie to that Red Fort speech, made early in his tenure, which included an appeal to citizens to put a 10-year moratorium on caste and communal violence. Muslims would have preferred Modi to speak against the ideological basis of such violence instead of appealing for a moratorium.

However, the Delhi debacle prompted Modi to speak at a Church function about the “undeniable right” of people to “adopt or retain the religion” of their choice without coercion. Weeks later, he reiterated to Time magazine his government’s intention to provide “total protection” to all communities.

Modi’s interview to Time magazine, unwittingly, underscored Feature No. 6 of the New Normal, when he said, “My Government will not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed, and religion. So there is no place for imaginary apprehensions with regard to the rights of the minorities in India.”

Thus, under the New Normal, Muslims’ fear of the Hindutva projects are dismissed as plain paranoia. This also entails pumping journalists with statistics suggesting that the communal situation under Modi is the same as it was under his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Genuine fears and anxieties of a community that can never be captured or communicated through the curvy lines of graphs are dismissed as baseless.

The severe drubbing the BJP received in Delhi has belatedly resulted in Feature No. 7 — that it is possible for minorities to hope for change under the New Normal. For one, it shattered Modi’s aura of invincibility. Two, the Delhi debacle could prompt the BJP to rethink its strategy of Hindu consolidation. After all, its attempts to trigger communal tension didn’t yield a rich harvest of votes for it.

Three, since there are no permanent majorities in democracy, Muslims and other minorities will stive to align with other segments of the electorate to vanquish the BJP. For instance, in the 2013 Assembly elections, the Congress bagged five out its eight seats from Muslim-dominated constituencies. All these five constituencies voted overwhelmingly in favour of AAP in Feb.  In this sense, the New Normal is no longer about adjusting to the existing reality. It is also about striving to reconfigure it.

The Sangh’s policy of menacing Muslims spawned the tendency among Muslim voters — who have largely chosen to vote mainstream non-BJP outfits since 1950 — to rally behind parties anchored in Muslim identity. This possibly explains the success of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM in Maharashtra recently. It has been the factor behind Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF in Assam performing extremely well.  This trend is likely to be arrested byAAP’s spectacular victory in Delhi.

Feature No. 8  of the New Normal pertains to periodic reminders to Muslims that there are issues other than threats to their religious-cultural identity. For instance, their  own experience of agrarian distress is similar to that of Hindus; the fear of dispossession the land ordinance has triggered grips them as it does others as well.

This could become the basis for consolidation cutting across caste-religious divides. Under the New Normal, even as the Sangh presses on with the Hindutva issues, Muslims will therefore also feel the pull of the politics of interests. They will therefore feel the pressure of choosing between parties predominantly focussed on their religious insecurities and those more inclined to promoting material interests. Their choices will determine the electoral impact in rural areas having substantial Muslim peasantry – for instance, in west UP, which has become a veritable Hindutva laboratory.  (Nor prescriptive any more, I hope)

Feature 9 of the New Normal entails religious minorities keeping their fingers crossed in the hope communal relations don’t deteriorate to the point where their anxieties and fears are enhanced beyond the current levels. For instance, that could happen in case the BJP launches a vigorous movement for building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya before the UP Assembly elections, as is widely feared; or roads having Muslim names are changed. That would, for sure, lead to redefining the New Normal. Watch this space next year.