New Delhi, India – The resignation of a federal minister has left India’s ruling party with no Muslim parliamentarian for the first time in its history.
Minorities Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi resigned on Wednesday, a day before his term as a member of parliament (MP) was scheduled to end.
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The 64-year-old politician was the only Muslim minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that boasts of nearly 400 MPs.
Naqvi’s exit comes as the BJP faces allegations of persecuting the minority community since coming to power in 2014.
India is home to about 200 million Muslims – the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan.
Naqvi has been replaced by actress-turned-politician Smriti Irani, 46.
Media reports speculated that the BJP could be considering Naqvi for the post of India’s vice-president amid global outrage over one of its officials making controversial anti-Islam remarks.
The vice-presidential polls are scheduled on August 6 while the term of the current incumbent, M Venkaiah Naidu, ends on August 10.
Last month, the BJP nominated Droupadi Murmu for the president’s post. If Murmu wins, she will be India’s first tribal politician and the second woman to hold the position.
India’s constitution provides a largely ceremonial role for the president and vice-president, with the prime minister and his cabinet holding the executive powers.
No BJP leader in parliament or assemblies
Modi’s BJP, which claims to be the “biggest political party in the world”, has 301 members in the lower house of parliament who are elected directly by the people.
Naqvi’s exit means the right-wing party does not have any Muslim member in the upper house of parliament as well.
With Rajya Sabha term of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi ending on Thursday, BJP will have no Muslim MP among its 395 Members of Parliament
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) July 6, 2022
Significantly, the BJP does not have a single member of legislative assembly (MLA) in 18 of India’s 28 states the party currently governs, either directly or through its coalition partners.
Experts say the absence of Muslim representatives in the BJP’s elected ranks contradicts the party’s oft-repeated slogan: “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” (Harmony and inclusive growth for all).
Journalist and political analyst Arati R Jerath told Al Jazeera the BJP historically had a “token Muslim presence” but that is no more the case as far as the executive is concerned.
“This is something new and unusual. They don’t even have a token Muslim face anymore. I guess it shows how BJP has changed now under Modi and [federal Home Minister Amit] Shah,” she said.
“It quite openly says that we have shown that we can win an election without the support of Muslims.”
In the 2014 national election, the BJP fielded seven Muslims but none of them won despite an overwhelming support for Modi among the voters that year.
In the 2019 polls in which Modi returned to power with a larger majority, the BJP fielded six Muslim candidates but they again lost.
In India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh where 19 percent of the population is Muslim, the BJP repeated its 2017 strategy by not fielding a single Muslim in the assembly elections held earlier this year. In Manipur and Uttarakhand state polls, the party did the same.
Jamal Siddiqui, the head of the BJP’s minority wing, claimed the party does not take religion into account while choosing its candidates.
“The party assigns seats depending upon the requirement and if people see it from the glasses tinted with religion, then it is really very unfortunate,” Siddiqui told Al Jazeera.
Home Minister Shah in March cited “winnability” as a factor while defending the BJP’s decision to keep Muslims out of its list of candidates. “Our ticket distribution is on the basis of winnability,” he said.
Jerath agrees with the BJP’s winnability argument and says the party does feel that a Muslim contesting on a BJP ticket does not stand a good chance of winning a seat.
“The BJP’s core voter who is a very right-wing Hindu nationalist voter would hesitate to vote for a Muslim candidate,” she said.
Rahul Verma, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said not having any Muslim MP or MLA is “unlikely to damage” the BJP’s electoral prospects.
“But the party should neither side-step nor gloat over this fact. Optics and reputation matter in politics and BJP being the dominant party nationally must find ways to have representation of Muslims in its organisation, legislative branch and ministerial positions,” he told Al Jazeera.