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India's BJP Seeks to Shed Anti-Muslim Image


In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling coalition, is asking Muslims for their support in this year's general elections. The party is trying to shed its anti-Muslim image and project itself as a party of moderation and peace.

The BJP's recent plea to Muslims to cast aside their traditional distrust of the party went out from none less than its top leader, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. At a convention in New Delhi, Mr. Vajpayee cited his recent efforts at making peace with Pakistan as proof that his party is not anti-Muslim.

He told Muslims he wants to create a "new India," where all people live in harmony and prosperity. Mr. Vajpayee said the BJP fought recent state elections on issues of development, like the need for roads, water, and power. He said nobody can object to such issues.

But many Indian Muslims remain deeply suspicious of the BJP, because it has traditionally held a strongly Hindu nationalist ideology. The party rose to prominence in the late 1980s on an aggressive campaign to build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Masjid, an ancient mosque in Ayodhya. In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the mosque, sparking nationwide Hindu-Muslim rioting.

Distrust of the BJP among Muslims deepened in 2002, after Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat state killed more than 1,000 people. Human rights groups accused BJP state officials of turning a blind eye to the rioting.

BJP leaders now want to change Muslim sentiments. The contentious campaign to build the Hindu temple in Ayodhya has been quietly pushed out of the agenda for national elections, expected to be held around April. BJP officials say it will not be religion and ideology that dominate its platform, but broader issues of economic development.

India's 130 million Muslims make up about 12 percent of the population. Political analyst Subhash Kashyap says the BJP is reaching out to them to expand its political base. Muslims in India have traditionally supported the opposition Congress Party.

Mr. Kashyap said no party can hope to occupy a dominant position in Indian politics without the support of the Muslim community. "On principle, every political party, whether it is the Congress or BJP has unfortunately used the minorities as vote banks," he said, "and they try to get the benefit of the consolidated vote of the Muslim community by trying to please them."

To accomplish that, the party is wooing Muslim leaders like Arif Mohammad Khan. Mr. Khan deserted the opposition Congress Party and joined the BJP, saying he would work to bridge the gap between the party and his community.

Still, many conservative Muslim leaders are withholding their support. They say the BJP is simply being forced to put its hard-line Hindu agenda on the backburner by its secular coalition allies.

Ejaz Ahmad Aslam is a top functionary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. He said he sees "no change of heart" on the part of the BJP.

"They have been right from the beginning anti-Muslim," he said. "They were the people who were responsible for poisoning the minds of common people against Muslims. They were the people who destroyed the Babri Masjid…they are misusing religion."

Mustafa Qureshi, a local leader from a Muslim-dominated area in Delhi, has a different view. He regards Mr. Vajpayee as a moderate leader. He said the BJP's focus on development encourages Muslims like him to think the party is changing.

Mr. Qureshi said there is economic progress in the country, and he too would like to benefit from this by joining hands with the BJP.

BJP strategists insist that the party genuinely wants to shed its image as a party biased against Muslims. But analysts say it has more work to do, to prove the image makeover is more than just a ploy to win another five years in power.