Muslims in poll-bound Gujarat – a tale of exclusion

muslims-india-reuters31217 [FILE/Representative image] Muslims in Gujarat have been systematically marginalised since the 2002 communal riots | Reuters

Amid election frenzy, Muslims remain an overlooked community

  • If Muslims voted for BJP, it was because they did not want to be seen as anti-Hindu

  • Most Muslims are just happy that no communal riots have happened since 2002

This is an unusual election. It is unusual as both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress are pretending that Muslims do not exist in their game plan. 

Muslims do not figure in election speeches of both the main parties. Issues that worry and bother them like marginalisation and communalisation of politics are not discussed in poll campaigns.

Leaders hurtle through the state in a no-holds-barred battle with debate touching pathetic levels of discourse. Both parties sound desperate. Never before in independent India has a prime minister staked so much of his time and effort on a state election. 

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is visiting temples on his election tours adroitly avoiding mosques and dargahs, thanks to the party’s new foray into soft Hindutva. More than anything else, it shows his party’s lack of confidence in itself. It wants to be a pale copy of the BJP that is constantly drumming up the Hindutva sentiment hoping to draw the majority in voting them back to power.

Gujarat has 182 assembly seats. In the last elections, only two Muslims were elected as MLAs. Gujarat has the distinction of not having a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha. 

Ominous signs

Gujarat shows how the political landscape of India is changing. The BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate for the upcoming assembly elections though the community forms 9.67 per cent of the population. Thirty seven years ago when the BJP had little presence in the state, it had put up 18 Muslim candidates. But now they do not seem to matter for the party.

The Congress has fielded only six Muslim candidates. Banners came up in the bustling business city of Surat saying that if Muslim candidates were not fielded, parties should not expect to get their votes. 

Ironically, the Muslims will probably vote for the Congress as they have little choice. Or just not vote. But, even that will not help the community get a voice. Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, says that both the BJP and Congress in Gujarat are indulging in sectarian politics by ignoring the interests of Muslims. Though Patels form just 13 per cent of the population, they have been given 49 BJP tickets and 45 Congress tickets, he said.

Increasingly, the Congress is behaving like the BJP, trying to trump its social media propaganda and roll out of videos invoking Gujarati pride, a pet phrase of the prime minister at election rallies. In many ways, it eloquently signifies the slide of the secular party and the current intellectual poverty within. Gone is its earlier vision and confidence. 

There were so many issues that the Congress could have aggressively raised to show that it cared for the Gujarat electorate and the future of the country. The party was last in the power saddle as way back as 35 years ago.

BJP has pulled up all stops in this election as it would weigh heavily on the credibility of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. Never before has an Indian prime minister addressed so many election meetings for an assembly poll as Modi has done in Gujarat. He is there almost every week addressing multiple rallies in all corners of the state as he cannot afford to take things for granted. 

He knows the last chief minister Vijay Rupani does not have the hold that he has on the electorate. Nor can former chief minister Anandiben Patel, for that matter. With the BJP completing a record 4,610 days in power during three consecutive terms, the party now has to deal with incumbency. As if this was not enough, it also has to handle the anger of the Patidars, dalits and the Mulsims who complain of being sidelined.

After they were systematically marginalised since the 2002 communal riots, Muslims have become apathetic and cynical. They did not even try to politically mobilise. Or act as a pressure group. If they attended BJP rallies or even voted for the saffron party, it was because they did not want to be seen as radical or communal. Or anti-Hindu. 

Any Muslim in Gujarat will tell you this if you promise not to quote him or her. Most Muslims are just happy that no communal riots have happened since 2002. According to data of CSDS-Lokniti, the Congress cornered 69 per cent of Muslim votes in the last assembly elections in 2012. The BJP managed to get just 20 per cent. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress got 64 percent Muslim votes while the BJP got 16 percent.

Glitzy Ahmedabad, which is the state’s biggest city with its shopping arcades, malls, restaurants and entertainment hubs, may look at one of India’s most modern and outgoing cities. But that is the outside veneer. Deep within, camouflaged cleverly is a sense of mistrust both Hindus and Muslims nurture. 

In no Indian city will you find the kind of segregation of these two communities like you would encounter in Ahmedabad. Most Muslims live in a large Muslim ghetto called Juhapura that does not have basic civic amenities. Hindus live in the more modern parts of the city. It is a divided city. 

Modi and Amit Shah have set a target of clinching 150 seats in the 182-member assembly. It is not going to be easy given the circumstances the party is battling in the state. BJP had 121 members in the last assembly.

Seven months ago, BJP sensed the slippery ground they were on and immediately set about organising ground support for an aggressive systematic campaign. Amit Shah mobilised thousands of volunteers asking them to ensure contact with every voter not once, but numerous times. 

Hand-picked volunteers were asked to whip up mass-contact programmes, conduct workshops, register new members and go from door to door explaining on why the party deserved another chance.

Obviously, it was taking no chances as in the state panchayat elections earlier this year; the Congress had shown how it could garner more wins than the BJP.

In the last few months, both Modi and Shah have worked overtime to show that there is no anti-incumbency at work though the BJP has been in power for three consecutive terms. But optics hardly tells you the truth. Reaching their target of 150 seats seems a far cry. 

One video making the rounds in Gujarat subtly packages a message that Hindus would be in danger and not safe. It shows a girl trying to negotiate her way home in the dark as the sound of azan (call to Muslims for prayer) plays in the background.

The campaign shows how electoral politics in India is plummeting to depths we did not imagine a few years ago. And, how politics of the future is going to be.

Ramesh Menon is an author, journalist and filmmaker. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the publication.

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