Apprehension and hope
Touted as "India's most polarising politician", Narendra Modi of the Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has assumed office as the country's prime minister. Among the people present at the ceremony was the prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif.
"This is a clear sign," said Mohammed Ayub, a shop-owner in New Delhi. Ayub believes that Modi's extension of an invitation to Sharif is the first promising sign for the country's Muslims. "It is not easy to forget the past, but we have to move on and to think of it. What choice did we really have?"
Ayub's outlook is shared by a large part of the electorate. The BJP won a clear majority in the parliamentary polls, and the country's ruling party was deliberately voted out of power. The public had lost faith in the government, its image tainted by a string of corruption scandals.
Growth versus Gandhi
Ayub owns a grocery store and has observed the price of basic necessities shoot through the roof in recent times. "There is so much inflation; a kilo of rice costs 18 Indian Rupees, and it is almost double what it was five years back." According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the All India Consumer Price Index, which measures changes in the prices of goods and services, averaged 10 per cent last year.
Ayub is not aware that the inflation rate is at an all time high, reaching double digits, but he feels the pinch. "Modi brought prosperity to Gujarat; I am hoping that he will do the same for all of India," he told Qantara.de.
During the election campaign, Modi stressed his humble roots as a tea stall owner, pitching himself against the Congress candidate, the foreign-educated Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi avoided religious issues and focused on promoting his success story, the growth of Gujarat, which he led as the state's chief minister.
Wasiff Khan, a businessman based in Mumbai, does not buy Modi's development story. He deliberately cast his vote for Congress, simply because he did not want to vote for the BJP. "It is difficult to forgive and forget," Khan told Qantara.de. He believes that the pluralism of multi-ethnic India may suffer under Modi.
While Modi was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, the country witnessed the dark tragedy of communal violence when over 1,000 people, many of whom were Muslims, were killed in religious riots. Both sides retreated deeply into their camps. Khan says that the incident definitely changed the way today's generation perceives Muslims. "If a family is looking for a flat to rent or buy, the first question should be about their income, but it inevitably ends up being about religion, and prospective Muslim buyers are rejected."
Muslims at a disadvantage
The Sachar Report, which was commissioned by the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to evaluate the social, economic and educational background of the Muslim Community of India and was released in November 2006, also highlighted the same problem. Eight years on, an average Muslim still finds it difficult to rent a flat in a city.
The report also highlighted other disturbing facts, such as the one that one-third of small villages with a high concentration of Muslims did not have any educational institutions and 40 per cent of large villages did not have any medical facilities.
"The Muslim community had high hopes from the previous government and they were deeply disappointed," says Amitabh Kundu, head of the committee to evaluate the implementation of the recommendations made by the Sachar report, adding that the urban Muslim still has a long battle ahead. In the run-up to every election, politicians from various parties try to appease India's largest minority, which makes up 15 per cent of the country's population. Promises of university places and jobs are made to Muslims, as they are to Hindu lower caste minorities and tribal communities.
Kundu said that while the average rural Muslim's situation has not changed much, the average urban Muslim's condition is worse than that of other minorities. "They suffer discrimination on the labour market and in the housing sector." Although previous governments have introduced reforms and launched special programmes specifically for the Muslim community, Kundu believes that the implementation of the reforms was mismanaged.
According to Wasiff Khan, the results are often too minimal to be noticed. "We Indians need results and actions; the country needs development, and the poor need basic amenities. If Modi really delivers what he has promised, then we can look beyond the Muslims-Non-Muslims issue."
Tense times ahead
Prof Mohammed Habib, who teaches Religious Studies at the University of Patiala in the northern state of Punjab, says that there is no denying the fact that there is a lurking fear within the Muslim community. "There has been so much polarisation in the elections this year. It goes to show that the country is not yet mature. Religion continues to play an important role in people's daily life," Habib told Qantara.de. He insists that it is this mindset that allows politicians to exploit people's emotions and mobilise them against each other.
The mood in the country is tense, and Modi is being watched closely. Selma Haider, a teacher in a private school in New Delhi told Qantara.de that she is very sceptical about the future.
"A party that is nationalist is now in power, and that is worrying. India is a secular democracy, and a nationalist – regardless of the religion he belongs to – has no place being in the prime minister's office."
Roma Rajpal Weiß
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de