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“Ten per cent of minority votes were polled for the BJP, mind you, not for Modi,” says J.V. Momin, a senior Muslim Congress leader in Ahmedabad. The youth, he says, haven’t seen any leader but Modi. “Those who were 8 or 9 in 2002 are now ambitious youngsters who think of Modi as an achiever. The minority community has resigned itself to the idea that they owe today’s peace and stability to him,” he adds. In fact, most observers Outlook spoke to insist that 10 per cent of the state’s Muslims voted for Modi’s Hindu-only candidates—the same as every previous election.
All this matters, of course, because the BJP’s victory in Gujarat is being seen (for the third time) as a vote against secularism. Or is it a vote that supports, regardless of community, the state’s free market bent? The answer is a complex one, given the baggage of the riots (cases relating to 2,000 murders by angry mobs in early 2002 have not been settled yet) and the Modi-fuelled perception that Muslims have “moved on”.
Actually, by most accounts, the elections angered and isolated Muslims all over again. Yes, some of them did vote for Modi. The reason they did so, despite Modi’s lack of repentance, says Ahmedabad RTI activist Bharat Singh Jhala, is “bhay aur bhram” (fear and illusion). Muslims also lack a good progressive leadership in the state. “They live under a great fear in Gujarat. They are a suppressed lot,” says Babubhai Desai, an activist based in Surat, adding that small skirmishes are rapidly becoming the norm in his city. “Even a minor accident, a bicycle colliding with a scooter, takes on a communal colour if a Muslim is involved. Tempers are perpetually frayed. This isn’t how it was five years ago.”
Gujarat lacks a viable alternative—credible or otherwise—for minorities to repose faith in. Five attempts in recent history to create a third party, whether for the powerful Patels or other groups like the farmers or workers, have inevitably failed. Here, choices are limited. “While the whole country can complain about a lack of ‘options’, the choice for Muslims in Gujarat is simply whether they would want to be exploited by the BJP or the Congress,” argues Desai.
There were immediate issues too that didn’t work to the Congress’s favour, like the clamp-down on the number of subsidised gas cylinders (six, at the moment). “This became a big issue against them in Gujarat,” says Habib Mev, another Ahmedabad Congress leader. “In villages, non-Muslims dominate. Over there, the minority voted out of fear. But even in cities, some vote went against them,” he says. In Gujarat, Muslims comprise 10 per cent of the population, lower than the national average or that of more populous states such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Gujarat’s Muslims are made up of 8-10 per cent of the wealthier classes, including the Syeds, Bohras, Khojas and Memons, with wide business and professional interests. They have tended to vote BJP for a decade. “There is only a slim chance Muslims other than these sections would support Modi-style economic development. They are the poorer, uneducated lot, who see no benefit in it,” says Desai.
Actually, some 40-50 lakh new voters emerged on the scene this year, and the state’s economic model has raised aspirations as well as created a groundswell of support in urban areas. In rural Gujarat, however, Muslims are a tiny minority—many of them vote for the BJP out of fear of being isolated or targeted.
This time, Modi deftly steered his campaign in a new direction. When required, the M-factor was put into service. On the Sir Creek issue, it was projected to the state’s communally polarised audience that: were Modi to exit, the Congress would collude with Pakistan. “The difference this time was that more than Modi, it was his footsoldiers that carried such messages through,” says Hanif Lakdawala, who runs an NGO, Sanchetna, from Ahmedabad.
Besides, Modi doesn’t need to tom-tom 2002 like before. His brand of leadership ensures the state isn’t secular, and all political interventions follow that assumption. “The other impact of this is that before now, Modi never needed to prove to the country that Muslims are ‘with’ him. He needs this now,” says Lakdawala. Clearly, the pro-vikas veneer the Modi camp put over his old hard Hindutvawadi face—combined with the Patel-versus-others scare created by him and the Congress, ignoring its own grassroots leadership, seems to have sent a percentage of the Muslim voter reluctantly into the arms of the BJP and Modi—yet again.