“YOU ARE a Muslim, what are you doing in a saffron brigade?” Danish Azad Ansari recalled being asked when he was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Ansari would reply that he had joined because the ABVP was a nationalist organisation. The 34-year-old gave me a similar response in April this year, when I asked him about becoming the only Muslim minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, run by the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Janata Party. “What I had learnt in the Vidyarthi Parishad,” he said, “the BJP taught me how to implement that in the mainstream.”
A few weeks earlier, Ansari had been named minister of state for minority welfare. He was an unlikely choice. Although he had been an office-bearer in the ABVP and the BJP, as well as the state government’s Urdu committee, he did not receive a ticket for the assembly elections and was elected to the legislative council only in June. Ansari belongs to an oppressed-caste Pasmanda community, whereas the BJP’s appeal to the Muslim community has historically been directed at Shia clerics in Uttar Pradesh.
Those associated with the BJP portray Ansari’s appointment as a sign of the party’s egalitarianism and concern for Pasmandas—an approach endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the party’s national executive meeting at Hyderabad, on 3 July—even though a look at the BJP’s past engagement with Muslims in Uttar Pradesh shatters this image. As Pasmandas have historically been neglected by all political parties in the state, the BJP’s overtures to the community could offer it a first-mover’s advantage. But by no indications does it seem that Pasmandas would themselves benefit from the BJP’s outreach—not even the Ansaris, a community of weavers to which the new minister belongs.