Shahnawaz Hussain of the BJP has held key positions in the erstwhile Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance government in Bihar. Now out of power, his party faces the daunting task of countering the Other Backward Classes (OBC) consolidation that the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are aiming for in the next election. In this interview, the former Union Minister discusses his party’s plans to navigate Bihar’s electoral maze and the motive behind its focus on backward Muslims. Excerpts:
At the BJP’s national executive meet in Hyderabad in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the importance of focussing on the deprived sections of all communities. What are your party’s initiatives in this regard?
This is not the first time he has said so. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat, his focus was on the poor and the downtrodden as he comes from a poor background and can relate to them. The BJP has always given leadership roles to people from OBCs, Dalits, and tribals. The Mandal Commission’s recommendations also included backward Muslims as beneficiaries of reservation, because except for the Sheikhs, Sayyads, and Pathans, all others in the Muslim community are backwards.
What will be the BJP’s strategy in Bihar for the 2024 Lok Sabha election? The 2015 Assembly election showed that the BJP can face a rout if the RJD, the JD(U), and the Congress are together.
When a team performs well unexpectedly, that match is much talked about. But the BJP has outperformed them [Grand Alliance] in several other political matches in Bihar. Even in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which we fought without Nitish Kumar, we won 32 of 40 seats. Narendra Modi comes from the backward Teli community, which is listed as OBC in Bihar; the people of Bihar consider him as their own. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the NDA [with Nitish Kumar] won 39 of 40 seats; in the 2020 Assembly election, the BJP’s strike rate was the best as OBCs and EBCs [Extremely Backward Classes] supported us wholeheartedly. EBCs and OBCs were angry with Nitish Kumar, though the latter has been attributing his poll debacle to the Lok Janshakti Party’s role as a vote-cutter, which is not true.
The JD(U) can keep circulating narratives about Nitish Kumar emerging as the opposition’s consensus candidate [for the 2024 election]. But, then, is Rahul Gandhi walking thousands of kilometres to facilitate Nitish Kumar’s elevation?
The JD(U)-RJD is talking about a caste census. We respectfully agreed to that. But then, they want to fight elections over caste; we want to fight elections to accord respect and power to [backward] castes.
When it comes to caste census, the BJP’s stand is contradictory. It supported it in Bihar as Nitish Kumar’s erstwhile ally, but its Central leadership and other State units opposed it. With your political opponents in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh making a caste-based census the fulcrum of their politics, how do you plan to counter it?
When the T20 format of cricket started, teams like Pakistan and Sri Lanka performed very well initially, but later India gave a fitting reprisal. We are champions of the OBC-centric political field that the Grand Alliance is aiming to recreate. It is the BJP that gave the country an OBC Prime Minister. We are not the supposedly Brahmin-Baniya party of the 1990s; we are the party of OBCs, Dalits, and tribals. We are a party that works for every block of society. The West Indies have won so many World Cups, but now they do not even qualify for the semifinals. They [JD(U)-RJD-SP] are the West Indies of OBC politics, having run out of steam.
The BJP fielded four Pasmanda Muslims in the MCD elections. There are reports that the party may field up to 1,200 Pasmanda candidates in the UP municipal elections. On November 26, a party meeting in Patna focussed on Pasmanda Muslims. How has the community reacted to the BJP’s outreach?
The minority community wants participation in politics, but they were not associated with our party in great numbers. Our endeavour is to reach out, just as we reached out to backward classes and Dalits. The word Pasmanda means left out; they are enlisted as OBC reservation beneficiaries, but some of them want enlistment in the Scheduled Castes list. We will connect more widely with them [backward Muslims]. We have given the ticket to Pasmanda Muslims in earlier MCD elections also.
At least a dozen castes within the Pasmanda Muslims have been struggling for inclusion in the SC category. What is the government’s stance on this?
There are [Muslim] castes that are Dalits by occupation but are enlisted as OBCs, such as butchers, and they have been demanding inclusion in the SC list. In Jammu and Kashmir, we have worked to emancipate the Gujjar community and enlisted them as ST [Scheduled Tribe], but in this case there are constitutional restrictions. But we are committed to ensuring Pasmanda Muslims’ political participation. In Jammu and Kashmir, we nominated Gulam Ali Khatana, a tribal, to the Rajya Sabha. In Uttar Pradesh, we are focussing on building leaders from large backward Muslim communities such as Ansari, Qureshi, and Raieen.
Some of the worst crimes such as lynching have been directed against Pasmanda Muslims/marginalised Muslims. Will you be issuing some directives to your party cadres/larger Sangh Parivar cadre to this end?
As far as the Sangh Parivar is concerned, they treat all citizens equally; their focus is to ensure everyone becomes a dutiful citizen. As far as Muslims are concerned, whatever atrocities have been reported, say, on the Qureshis who are butchers, it did not happen because they were Muslims… those who perpetrated these crimes were not from our party. If the victims of most of the atrocities were from the Pasmanda community, it is not because of their religion, but because of circumstances, such as suspicion over cattle trade, etc.
The Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra is aimed at countering the BJP ideologically while also raising the pitch against unemployment and inflation. We have seen big crowds joining the yatra. How much of a challenge does it pose to the BJP?
The yatra has been forced on Rahul Gandhi, as he would just keep disappearing from public space after delivering speeches in a couple of public meetings. So, the Congress came out with a plan to end his frequent holidaying. He went to Kerala where his party has a stronghold. He is travelling only in regions where the Congress has some sway. His yatra is becoming increasingly dependent on film stars; one day he walks with [actor] Swara Bhaskar, another day some other star pops in. Those who are participating in the yatra are Congress workers; the common man has kept his distance.
Rahul Gandhi is avoiding States where his leaders’ deposits were forfeited. That would be the real test. He says this is about ideology, but what we see is he giving tips to people on push-ups and wrestling. By the way the country is united; he is walking to unite his warring party.