The BJP has reconsidered its dismissive stand towards minorities as vote banks in Karnataka, and has decided to specifically pursue two sections: Sufis and women. Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the party is looking to regain lost ground in Karnataka, where it was defeated by the Congress in the Assembly elections in 2023. To this end, the party is trying to replicate its ‘Shukriya Modi Bhaijaan’ campaign from Uttar Pradesh — projecting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a saviour of Muslim women. It is also positioning Sufis as ‘different from other Muslims’ and has planned a massive outreach for this community. The Congress, which came to power in Karnataka and Telangana in the Assembly elections held in 2023, received a huge chunk of Muslim votes.
“The BJP realised that the women's votes in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in 2022 emerged as a crucial determining factor in the party's comfortable victory,” a BJP party source said. “Muslim women in Karnataka will be told about Modi's initiatives such as Ujjwala (cooking gas), construction of izzat ghars (toilets), Ayushman Bharat (health insurance), Awas Yojana (livelihood scheme), the triple talaq ban, increase in Haj quota, and removing the need for mahram (male guardian) during Haj,” they said.
Newly appointed Karnataka BJP Minority Morcha President Anil Thomas told TNM that the Shukriya Modi Bhaijaan programme was launched in Bengaluru by the party’s Minority Morcha national chief Jamal Siddiqui on January 9, 2024. “To begin with, the party will concentrate on five Lok Sabha constituencies, where the Muslim voters are a decisive factor for the candidates' victory,” Anil Thomas said, referring to Bengaluru Central, Raichur, Bidar, Kalaburgi, and Belagavi. “Though Bengaluru North and Dakshina Kannada constituencies also have a significant number of Muslim votes, we don't want to scatter our money and manpower,” he added.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam practised in India for centuries. Though it is a Muslim tradition, Sufism embraces elements of other religions, making it a tolerant and inclusive form of worship. Prominent Sufi saints in India include Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Auliya, Bullen Shah, and Data Ganj Baksh.
The total population of Muslims in Karnataka is 12.5%. The representation of Muslim law makers in the Assembly or the Lok Sabha from the state has been dwindling. According to the 2011 census data the total population of Muslims was 79 lakh of which 38 lakh were women. Of the 84 MPs that were elected from Karnataka since 2004, Iqbal Ahmed Saradgi was the only Muslim, who represented the Kalaburagi Lok Sabha seat in 2004.
Anil Thomas said that seeking Sufi support was a directive of Modi himself. “The Sufis have a totally different approach to mankind. They are inclusive and are advocates of love, peace and harmony,” he said. Modi, he said, is interested in Sufism, and had even sent a Ghilaf-e-Mubarak (sacred chadar) to be placed at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti on the 812th Urs of the Sufi saint — a festival commemorating the death anniversary of the saint.
Syed Tahazeer, a Sufi from Bengaluru Rural, said he is a part of the Sufi Samvad Maha Abhiyan, where the Modi government's schemes and programmes will be explained to Muslims across the country. “We plan to create a family chain of the Mureeds to spread the word on Modi's work. A single Peer with 100 Mureeds in turn can make a chain through their family members,” Tahazeer said. A Peer is a spiritual guide and has many disciples called Mureeds.
Tahazeer attributed his support for the BJP to the quick responses by former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to minority issues in 2008. “During Yediyurappa's tenure, the Karnataka State Minorities Development Corporation sanctioned 17 loans to minorities to buy cabs in Bengaluru Rural — against just five by the present Congress government, which claims to be sympathetic towards the Muslims,” he said. According to him, Muslims have been exploited by secular parties. “When the Babri masjid was demolished, which party was in power at the Centre?” he asked.
SA Muneer Ahmed Shah Chistiul Qadri, a Sufi from Nelamangala in Bengaluru Rural, said the BJP central leadership has directed for Sufi Samvads to be held in places where the minority population is in a large number. One such Sufi dialogue has been planned in Shivaji Nagar in Bengaluru with the tentative date being January 22. The Samvad will be attended by Sufis of various dargahs in the state.
In March 2016, a world summit of Sufis was held in New Delhi and was inaugurated by Modi. The Prime Minister during the summit said, “Sufism is the voice of peace, co-existence, compassion, and equality. At a time when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer, you are the noor (light).” Modi, who is set to inaugurate the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22, 2024, is said to have evinced interest in a plan mooted in a meeting with a Muslim delegation recently to develop a ‘Sufi Circuit’ across the country. Presently, Bihar is the only state to have a Sufi circuit, established by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2011.
While the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and other states in the Hindi belt is concentrating on Pasmanda Muslims, in Karnataka, the Pasmanda numbers are lower, and are called Pinjaras or Nadafs in north Karnataka. The community's profession was making cotton mattresses, but with people now preferring branded and machine-made mattresses, the younger generation in the community has switched over to agriculture, becoming mechanics, or starting cycle repair shops.
Muslims in India are broadly categorised into three social groups — Syed-Ashrafs (religious leaders and aristocracy), Ajlaf (backward Muslims), and Arzal (Dalit Muslims). Ajlaf and Arzal are collectively known as Pasmanda Muslims. A Persian word that means ‘those left behind’ or the oppressed, the term is used for socially and economically deprived classes among Muslims. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for a significant population of Pasmanda Muslims, with 3.5 crore and 1.5 crore respectively.
Will the outreach also mean tickets to Muslims? The Karnataka BJP has so far not given a seat to a Muslim in any of the Assembly polls, but has nominated members from the community to the Karnataka Legislative Council. “There is no point in fielding a Muslim candidate, when you know he is not going to get the votes of his community,” a party functionary told TNM. “In each Assembly constituency of Karnataka, the minimum population of Muslims is 20,000 to 25,000. The BJP starts its votes mobilisation by subtracting these 20,000 to 25,000 votes.”
Anil Thomas said there is a possibility of giving representations to minorities this time. “For now, we will for ask a ticket to be given to Karnataka State Minorities Commission Chairman Abdul Azeem from Bengaluru North,” he said.
Naheed Ataulla is a journalist who has covered Karnataka politics for over two decades, and is a former Political Editor of The Times of India. Views expressed here are the author’s own.