New Delhi: In a piece for the Indian Express on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 68th birthday, Syed Zafar Islam, the new Muslim face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the party’s nominee for Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming by-election, claimed that before joining the BJP, he had “approached a few political parties, including the Congress”. I met some senior party leaders” but “I was thoroughly disillusioned”, he said.
According to Islam, “There was little there except lust of power. And then the unthinkable happened. I had a chance meeting with Modi. He greeted me warmly and invited me to join him if I was interested in his project of nation-building. He said if I was a ticket-seeker then I was not the right man for him.”
However, those who have known Islam well before his entry into politics say that this is not entirely true. “He not only met Congress leaders but also worked for the party for quite some time before joining the BJP,” an old acquaintance of Islam’s told The Wire. This information was corroborated by at least three more people who have known Islam for over a decade.
According to a friend of Islam’s, who also happens to be a relative of a senior Congress leader from Jharkhand, Islam worked closely with Ajay Maken in Rahul Gandhi’s backroom team before moving to the BJP and had also worked with Digvijaya Singh. Confirming that Islam was indeed a part of the backroom team, a former member of the team told The Wire that “he had a cabin in the backroom but as a person without any portfolio”.
“Since he was not given much importance, my guess is that he moved to the BJP because he was looking for a position, if not a ticket,” the former member of the team added. Islam’s claim that he had a ‘chance’ meeting with Modi also appears to be dubious, since at least two persons who have known him quite well told The Wire that Islam was actively looking for a role in politics, and hence was meeting leaders from across mainstream parties.
“Apart from the Congress, he also met leaders in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP),” a senior journalist told The Wire, recalling Islam’s meeting with an AAP member, close to party chief Arvind Kejriwal. The senior journalist also said that it is possible that through people close to the BJP, Islam may have also met BJP leaders, including Narendra Modi.
“Zafar once told me that he had joined the BJP because he was persuaded by Paresh (Rawal) bhai,” recalled the friend and relative of the senior Congress leader, when asked about why Islam had switched over and joined the BJP. According to him, Rawal and Islam knew each other from Mumbai, where the two were neighbours.
This reporter – then a human rights activist – also recalls seeing Islam at a civil society meeting in April 2013, where he was introduced as a banker from Mumbai who was currently associated and working with the Congress party. “This was the time when he was trying to build his base in Delhi,” said an activist who was also present at that meeting.
BJP’s outreach to Muslims
Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which Modi was declared as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, special efforts were made by the party to recruit Muslims to the BJP. Businessmen like Zafar Sareshwala, scriptwriter Salim Khan and some others were roped in to give the impression that the BJP in general, and Modi in particular, were not hostile to Muslims. Coincidentally, a book titled Modi, Muslims and Media: Voices from Narendra Modi’s Gujarat by Madhu Purnima Kishwar was also launched before the elections. The book’s foreword was written by screenwriter Salim Khan, father of actor Salman Khan.
The efforts yielded positive results as some Muslims, with considerable traction, switched loyalties and joined the BJP. Former journalist and general secretary of the Peace Party, M.J. Akbar had joined the BJP earlier in August 2013, with his supporters. M.J. Khan, on the other hand, is currently the main force behind a newly launched Muslim advocacy group called the Indian Muslims for Progress and Reforms (IMPAR).
Over the years, many either switched their loyalties and joined the BJP, or have been working indirectly for the BJP. While former Rajya Sabha MP Sabir Ali, who was expelled from the Janta Dal United (JDU) for praising Modi, joined the BJP in March 2014, others like former Congress leader Shahzad Poonawala, once pro-Congress and AAP supporter Firoz Bakht Ahmed and Aligarh-based Mohammad Jaseem, who along with filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt had campaigned for the Congress in the backdrop of the 2014 general elections, eventually decided to back Modi later.
Similarly, former journalist and AAP leader Shazia Ilmi joined the BJP in January 2015 ahead of the Delhi assembly elections that year.
Did Zafar Islam play a crucial role in bringing Scindia to BJP’s fold ?
Zafar Islam joined the party before the 2014 elections and was eventually appointed as the party’s national spokesperson. An investment banker turned politician, he was appointed as an unofficial independent director of Air India in May 2017. After Islam was recently chosen by the BJP for the Rajya Sabha seat, there were reports that he was being rewarded for bringing Jyotiraditya Scindia’s into the party’s fold, which eventually led to the defeat of the Congress and the formation of a BJP government in Madhya Pradesh.
However, people closely acquainted with Scindia, MP state politics, Congress and Islam believe that such reports bestow too much credit on Islam. Rasheed Kidwai, who is an expert on the Congress and author of the upcoming book House of Scindias said that “to say Zafar Islam played a crucial role in Scindia joining the BJP is giving him too much credit”. According to Kidwai, Islam might have acted as a small intermediary at some point of time in the process, but to say that he was the main force behind it seems a bit far-fetched because Scindia already had several reasons for leaving the Congress.
“Scindia was angry with the Congress as he was of the opinion that he was being sidelined in the party and Rahul Gandhi was not just responsible for the party’s decline but also its defeat in the 2019 general elections,” Kidwai told The Wire. “Having been a member of parliament for several terms, he already had a working relationship with BJP leaders.”
“Let’s also not forget that Scindia’s grandmother was one of the founding members of the BJP and like direct access to Rahul Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders, Scindia also had direct contacts with senior BJP leaders,” added Kidwai.
Another senior journalist, who has known Islam since his days as a Congress worker and who met him after Scindia joined the BJP, told The Wire that Islam felt uneasy receiving undue credit and publicity for Scindia’s switch to the BJP. “He was worried that such publicity might hamper his political prospects,” the senior journalist said.
Steadfast defence of the ‘Gujarat model’
So the question arises: if Islam was not being rewarded for bringing Scindia into the BJP, then what could have been the rationale behind his selection for the Rajya Sabha seat? And why haven’t other Muslims, who switched their allegiances and became Modi supporters from ‘Modi bashers’, not been rewarded like him?
One of the possible reasons could be Islam’s constant and tireless defence of Modi and his efforts to build a new constituency of Muslims supporting the BJP. Unlike other Muslims who had joined the BJP but were previously critics of Modi, Islam had a clean record. The only public record available of Islam is his unflinching and constant defence and support for Modi and his governance.
This is what distinguishes Islam from the rest. Since there is almost no public memory of Islam being a Congress supporter and worker, he can’t be accused of political opportunism like others who have switched their loyalty for political gain. Being an alumnus of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) also seems to have worked in Islam’s favour. Moreover, apart from acting as a spokesperson of the party, through his writings, Islam has strongly defended the party and the prime minister on a range of issues of considerable importance, both as an expert on finance and as a member of the Muslim community.
In fact, his very first piece in May 2017 for the Indian Express, written after the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, called for Muslims to give the BJP a fair chance. Ever since, he has also defended Modi and the BJP on issues like demonetisation, the Centre’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. However, his main focus has been defending the “Gujarat model” vis-à-vis Muslims.
As as to why a person from Jharkhand was chosen to represent UP, the fact remains that this is nothing new, as almost all parties have done this. Manmohan Singh was a Rajya Sabha member from Assam while he was the prime minister. Similarly, both M.J. Akbar and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi represented states other than their native ones. Additionally, apart from his early life, Islam has hardly lived and worked in Jharkhand.
On the other hand, by nominating Islam from UP, the BJP is trying to create the impression that the party wants a Muslim representative for the state in the parliament. Currently, the BJP does not have even one Muslim MP from the state, for which the party has been criticised several times.