India's Hindu nationalist party is going all-out to woo an unlikely constituency to help it surge to victory in upcoming general elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is working overtime to garner the Muslim vote, pitching its peace overtures to Pakistan and a booming economy, while playing down its Muslim-bashing image and Hindu revivalist roots.
The key salesman is India's avuncular Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, seen as the BJP's moderate face.
"I seem to recollect the days when Muslims were told if the BJP came to power they'd be sent to Pakistan," Vajpayee told a New Delhi rally last week.
"Where's the question of sending them to Pakistan? Now people travel freely between India and Pakistan," he said, referring to moves to restore transport links between the nuclear rivals after they nearly came to war in 2002.
Ever since Hindu zealots razed a mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, triggering savage religious riots in Gujarat, India's 120 million-strong Muslim minority has given an even wider berth to the BJP, which rode to prominence on a shrill Hindu revivalist plank.
But now, Muslims are switching sides from the secular Congress party, even in western India, scene of deadly Hindu-Muslim religious riots two years ago, as the BJP seeks to show a moderate face embracing all Indians - Hindus and Muslims - ahead of next month's elections.
Hostility and suspicion
Human rights groups accused the Gujarat BJP state government of looking the other way four years ago when 2000 people, mainly Muslims, were burnt, hacked or shot to death in an orgy of revenge killings after a Muslim mob was accused of torched a train carrying BJP fundamentalists.
Ilyas Khan, Gujarat's Congress general secretary who joined the BJP on Friday, said it was true few Muslims in the past had supported the party. In the 1999 election, the party won the votes of only 6% of Muslims.
BJP accused on fanning Gujarat riots
that killed 2000, mainly Muslims
He told AFP he signed up with the BJP because he had faith in "Vajpayee's broadminded view of the future of India and that he will protect Muslims' interests. We have faith in his words."
Recently, the BJP presented another prize new recruit to the media - Arif Muhammad Khan, once a prominent member of the Congress Party.
Khan, a vociferous critic of the BJP for failing to curb the Gujarat violence, said he joined to "build goodwill between Muslims and the BJP."
"It's not healthy for a democracy for so much hostility and suspicion to exist between the country's largest minority and the ruling party," he said.
Khan's recruitment added to the BJP's other Muslim members, Textiles Minister Shahnawaz Husayn and party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Another well-known Muslim and Congress member, Najma Hept Allah, deputy speaker of the upper house, is expected to sign up soon with the BJP.
Analysts also attribute the shift in attitude to the fact that polls point to a strong win by the BJP-led alliance, and say some may feel they will have more influence if they are on the victors' side.
"When the chips are down and the BJP has to choose between defending the secular constitution of India and the links with its ideological moorings, it will always sacrifice the former in favour of the latter"
Prem Shankar Jha,
"When India is gaining under the BJP, why shouldn't we join hands with it?" asked Ilyas Khan, referring to the country's eight percent-plus economic growth.
A Muslim pharmacist in one of New Delhi's Muslim districts said he did not distrust the BJP as much as before.
"I like what the prime minister says. I'm not so worried about the BJP," Muhammed Irsan Khan said.
However, political analyst Prem Shankar Jha said he did not believe the BJP had shed its fundamentalist baggage.
"When the chips are down and the BJP has to choose between defending the secular constitution of India and the links with its ideological moorings, it will always sacrifice the former in favour of the latter," he said.
Other Muslims were also sceptical of the BJP's commitment to serve all Indians. At the same time, they said they did not have high hopes for Congress, which ruled India for 45 years of its 57 years of independence.
Sayyid Tariq Bukhari, general secretary of India's largest mosque, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, said Congress rule was a "history of broken promises" to the Muslims in such areas as education and government jobs.
"The main difference between the parties is that Congress stabbed us from the back and the BJP has tried to stab us from the front," Bukhari said.