At a tea stall in the Muslim quarter of Varanasi, northeastern India, the morning gossip breaks off as one man reads out an op-ed on Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist frontrunner for next prime minister.
A vigorous debate quickly drowns out the Bollywood music from the radio at Buddhu’s stall in the city’s Lallapura district.
Modi, the 63-year-old leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is running for parliament in Varanasi, Hinduism’s most sacred city, and is his party’s nominee for the premiership. The current chief minister of the western state of Gujarat is leading comfortably in national opinion polls, but has a bitter relationship with the estimated 180 million Muslims in the Hindu-majority country.
“There is no place in our hearts for him,” said Faizi Hasan, 28.
The most significant accusation against Modi is that he failed to stop religious riots in his state in 2002 when 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in retaliation for the death of Hindu pilgrims in an attack on a train.
He has denied responsibility and been exonerated by a series of inquiries, though some are ongoing, but many Muslims still reckon he has blood on his hands.
“His campaign pitch of development and progress in Gujarat is a smokescreen for a sectarian agenda,” says Nizamuddin, a veteran communist activist. “Modi harao, desh bachao!” (Defeat Modi, save the country), he shouts as the group leaves the tea stall to get on with their respective days.
Varanasi is a Hindu and BJP stronghold. But 20 per cent of the voters in the city of 1 million are Muslim, mostly weavers of the renowned Banarasi sari, after the city’s other name, Benares.
“The Muslim voter is quiet. But his ballot will speak for him,” says Haji Rehmatullah Ansari, a leader of the weaving community, chewing betel leaf in his office amid the noise of electric looms.” A message is going covertly via the Muslim clergy to vote against the BJP,” he says.
Varanasi district mufti Moinuddin Ahmed Faruqi says that as a religious man he cannot tell people how to vote, but suggests that the community will not support Modi.
“He has not been able to wash away the stain of the riots. People cannot forgive him.”
Muslims, already one of the most-neglected social groups in terms of education and employment, fear further marginalisation under a Modi government, and possible violence.
Some, though, are prepared to give him a chance.
“We will try out Modi,” says Arshad Khan, 24, who sells cellphone accessories in Varanasi. “Worse anti-Muslim riots have happened under watch of Congress and other parties. He has a development agenda. We want to look ahead, we are concerned about jobs and development.”
Modi may also stand to benefit from the rivalry between branches of Islam.
“The Shias always vote in an opposite way to Sunnis, so some of them might support BJP,” says Mumtaz Ali Babar, another leader of Varanasi’s weaver community. Shias number around 30,000 in Varanasi and 20 million across India.
But at the national level, Muslims are calling for anti-Modi solidarity.
Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JUiH), India’s leading group of Muslim scholars and clerics, has adopted a discreetly worded resolution widely interpreted as advising to vote against the BJP and allies. Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the imam of Delhi’s largest mosque Jama Masjid, also appealed to the Muslim community to vote for the incumbent Congress party, the BJP’s biggest opponent. They could make a difference, making up more than 30 per cent of voters in 46 of India’s 543 constituencies, and wielding potentially decisive influence in 64 others, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.
“The real battle is with BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which preaches hatred against minorities and talks about a Hindu nation,” JUiH spokesman Maulana Abdul Hamid Noumani says. “This ideology is dangerous for India.”
The Rashtriya activist organisation was formed in the early 20th century to unite Hindus against the British and Muslims. It has drawn inspiration from European far-right groups, and been occasionally banned under Indian law. The BJP has no formal links to the group, and has made some efforts to deny favouring Hindus. Its manifesto promises support to Islamic schools, and Modi has said he will not do anything “with ill intent” if he gains power. But the party’s website does call it “the most prominent member of the family of organisations ... nurtured by the RSS”, and it has not fielded a single Muslim candidate.
Abrar Sayyad, national coordinator of the Mumbai-based Association of Muslim Professionals, says Muslims are also “concerned about the future of our community” under Modi.
“When it is a question about our security, issues like corruption or inflation take a back seat.” In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, “the opposition to Modi is only growing,” Ansari says, with many Muslims coming out in support of rival Congress candidate Ajay Rai.
Modi “better not take it lightly, this is not Gujarat. A single vote can determine victory or defeat.”