Caps are not a symbol of unity, says Narendra Modi, who has been sporting a new one almost every day as he criss-crosses the country to win support for his campaign to become Prime Minister.
Last week, the BJP mascot defended his decision to refuse a skullcap offered by an Ahmedabad cleric at a communal harmony meet Modi had hosted in September 2011.
“If wearing a cap were to be seen as a symbol of unity, then I never saw Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel or Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wearing such caps. My job is to respect all religions and traditions of all. I live by my traditions and respect the traditions of others. This is why I cannot fool people by posing for photographs wearing a cap,” Modi said in separate interviews to two television channels.
Days earlier, BJP president Rajnath Singh had readily posed for pictures wearing a skullcap offered to him at the Hazrat Qasim Ali dargah in Lucknow, the constituency where he is hoping to fill Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s shoes.
Modi said he would “not hoodwink” people by donning skullcaps, a “ritual” he described as a “bad practice of appeasement that has crept into Indian politics”.
Not everyone is convinced.
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, posted pictures on Twitter of Modi in different headgear representing the religious or ethnic traditions of the states he has campaigned in — from the hornbill cap popular in the Northeast to the dastar (Sikh turban).
“Mr Modi the problem isn’t you refusing to wear caps/turbans for a photo-op it’s the refusing of only one type of cap that’s wrong,” Omar tweeted.
In Chennai this week, Modi went all-ethnic — turning out in a veshti-shirt-angavastram and greeting voters in chaste Tamil.
“Wearing a topi is one’s personal belief and has nothing to do with political motives or gains and losses. Such gestures are symbolic. The important thing is to do something substantive for the minorities,” BJP spokesperson and Rajnath’s political adviser Sudanshu Trivedi snapped at a news briefing on Thursday, when asked about the BJP chief wearing the skullcap.
Rajnath’s sympathisers claim he had to cast himself in the Vajpayee template as a “moderate” to win the Lucknow seat, where roughly one-fourth of the voters are Muslim. If the community votes as one bloc, it can tip the scales either way.
The BJP’s feedback is that in the Uttar Pradesh capital, which votes on April 30, Muslim voters are rallying around Rita Bahuguna Joshi of the Congress who had lost narrowly to the BJP’s Lalji Tandon in 2009.
Joshi is a Brahmin from Uttarakhand. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the other principal players, have also fielded Brahmin candidates. But Joshi’s advantage, a BJP source said, is that she commands the nearly one lakh votes of Uttarakhand’s Brahmin migrants.
“That kind of a base vote enhances your inherent winning prospect. Therefore, Muslims might find it more viable to invest their votes in her rather than the Samajwadi and BSP candidates who lack a strong core vote in Lucknow,” the source said.
Rajnath’s “pro-Muslim” signals were meant to lessen the “threat of a religious polarisation”, the source added.
But the BJP president’s detractors don’t think his agenda is that “simple and straight”. They are wary he is positioning himself for the country’s top job in case the numbers don’t stack up for Modi.
Rajnath had followed up the dargah call with a visit to two prominent Lucknow clerics, Maulana Kalbe Jawad and Maulana Khalid Rasheed, the naib imam of the Aishbagh Eidgah.
Jawad, a Shia preacher, compared Rajnath with Vajpayee and said: “We (the Muslims) are scared of Modi but Rajnath has Vajpayee’s acceptability.”