NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party is struggling to change a “perception” that it is against minority Muslims and lower-caste people, a political ally said, which could cost it votes in a general election due next year.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trounced the opposition at the last election in 2014, but it has lost a handful of recent by-elections after opposition groups banded together.
Veteran politician Ram Vilas Paswan, a central minister and the chief of the Lok Jan Shakti (People’s Power) Party, which is allied with the BJP and says it represents India’s socially backward classes, predicted another term for Modi.
But he said the BJP would have to work towards changing its image as a group that caters mainly to upper-caste Hindus.
“Whatever the government is doing it is doing for everyone; even for the minority community it has done a lot,” Paswan said in an interview in his bungalow, seated on a couch under a huge oil painting of himself.
“But despite everything, the perception is not changing among the minorities and the scheduled castes (socially backward classes) irrespective of the work being done.”
India’s 1.3 billion people are about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim, according to the latest census data. Backward classes make up about three-quarters of the Hindu population.
Critics say the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda has polarised the population.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, hardline Hindu groups and cow protection vigilantes have carried out numerous attacks on Muslims accused of eating beef or killing cows.
Many Hindus believe cows are sacred and killing them is banned in most states.
A crackdown on abattoirs, tanneries and leather factories, mostly run by Muslims, has also hit a large number of lower-caste Hindus who transport cattle and work in tanneries.
Paswan said the opposition could take advantage of the BJP’s pro-upper class Hindu image and it needed to be countered aggressively.
The BJP said Paswan’s comment was a “well-meaning observation from an ally” but that the party has “foiled repeated attempts of the opposition Congress party to create an impression that the BJP is losing the perception battle”.
“We need to be cognizant of the fact that opposition parties have been raising a bogey of non-issues, but so far they’ve failed,” said BJP spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.
When Modi won office in 2014, his party or its partners ruled only seven of India’s 29 states. Today, it is in power in 21 of them and has replaced Congress as the party with strongest nationwide presence.
But in by-elections for 10 parliamentary seats since last year, the BJP has lost all of them and two small regional parties have walked out of the ruling coalition.
Paswan, whose party enjoys considerable support from the Muslim community in his home state of Bihar in the east, said ending ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was “unthinkable”.
“This is essentially a government of the BJP, they have an absolute majority. Still Modi has given space to allies like us,” said Paswan, a 10-time member of parliament who began his political career in 1969.
“Can’t even think of leaving the NDA. No one has approached me and I am happy where I am.”
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel