A Divided Muslim Vote In Gujarat Will Only Pave The Way For BJP

Shunned by both the BJP and the Congress, the Muslims of Gujarat feel a division of their votes would ultimately help the BJP to retain the power again in the state

Muslim supporters of the BJP during an election rally in Gujarat

In poll-bound Gujarat, the message of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is loud and clear. Once again, the party is not thriving on any strategy that requires it to bank on Muslim votes. In fact, the party has never fielded a Muslim candidate in assembly elections since 1998. However, it is a common trend that whenever the Muslim vote is fragmented, it keeps the BJP in play in poll-bound constituencies with a sizeable Muslim population.

On November 25, Home Minister Amit Shah, during a speech he delivered while campaigning for the BJP in Gujarat, said that those who committed violence in the state were “taught a lesson” in 2002. Shah’s statement was a subtle hint at one of the deadliest riots in the state.

The 2002 riots were triggered when a train at Godhra was set ablaze, killing at least 59 Kar Sevaks, who were returning from Ayodhya. According to the reports published in 2005, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the violence that rocked the state.

The riots also led to the displacement of over 98,000 people in Gujarat. As a result, hundreds of Muslim families were ghettoised, as they found Muslim neighbourhoods safer. According to a report published in 2018 by ‘Land Conflict Watch’, a data-research project that maps and analyses ongoing land conflicts in India, “The 2002 riot-affected families continue to reside in relief colonies without legal ownership recognition for the houses where they were rehabilitated.”

This is not the first time a top BJP leader was blasé while evoking the memories of communal violence amongst the electorate. The then chief minister Narendra Modi, in 2012, writes Christophe Jaffrelot in his book Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, “claimed to have brought an end to the communal violence that reigned under Congress rule when ‘Ahmedabad’s identity was curfew,’ suggesting that the riots in this city prone to communal violence had been due to Congress’s benevolence toward Muslim troublemakers, who were seen as the cause of the violence…” He went on to say, writes Jaffrelot, “It has been 11 years… Has the curfew gone or not?”

The common refrain of ‘winnability’ of a candidate has gone through multiple churning over the years, as a result, as mainstream parties apply various strategies to ensure victory in the election. This ‘winnability’ is rooted in a meticulous electoral arithmetic of a constituency. There is no surprise then that the BJP has not fielded any Muslim candidates in this election, either, as they do not have winnability according to its poll arithmetic.

The Indian National Congress, too, has given tickets to only six candidates from the community, which is around 3.3 per cent of all seats, while Muslims constitute around 10 per cent of state’s population. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is contesting its first election in Gujarat, has fielded three candidates, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has 13 contestants in the fray to consolidate its presence after winning 17 seats in three municipalities in last year’s local body elections.

Obviously, there is a dearth of Muslim candidates in the mainstream parties. In several Muslim-majority constituencies, voters are in a catch-22 situation, as they have to elect from several independent Muslim candidates, apart from candidates of mainstream parties. Take, for instance, the Limbayat constituency of Surat, where 44 candidates are in the fray, of which 36 are Muslims. No mainstream party has fielded any Muslim candidate for this seat.

In a few Muslim-majority constituencies, some candidates have either withdrawn or are not campaigning, because they thought it will further fragment community votes.

Dariapur constituency of Ahmedabad is another example where Muslims constitute 45 per cent the voters. There are five Muslim candidates out of seven in the fray. Gopal Patil, a Congress candidate from Limbayat, alleges that the BJP has fielded independent candidates to cut their votes. However, the BJP has denied the allegation. “A lot of Muslim candidates are contesting independently, because many mainstream parties do not give them tickets,” says Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Verma reckons that for quite a while the BJP has not fielded any Muslim candidate and the number of Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress is also going down. AAP too is toeing the same line.

The reason behind this shunning of Muslims, Verma further says, is that the Congress and the AAP believe the political turf has veered towards the right wing and if they field more Muslim candidates, it may not go down well with the general electorate, who may take it as “appeasement of the Muslim community”. The BJP is not fielding Muslim candidates because “the party believes that Muslim candidates are unlikely to bring in votes of their community. This may also alienate the party’s Hindu base”.

Political observers believe that too many Muslim candidates will eventually benefit the BJP. “It is true that more Muslim candidates means more fragmentation of the Muslim votes, which will keep the BJP in play even in constituencies with high Muslim population,” avers Verma.

However, some observers opine that the BJP’s outreach to the socially disadvantaged Pasmanda Muslims and fragmentation of votes may help the BJP in this election. The party had got one-fifth of Muslim votes in both 2007 and 2012 elections.

In a few Muslim-majority constituencies, some candidates have either withdrawn or are not campaigning, because they thought it will further fragment community votes. Shahnawaz Pathan of AIMIM, for instance, withdrew his nomination from Bapunagar constituency in Ahmedabad, where Muslims are around 28 per cent. Out of 37 nominations, nine have been filed by Muslim candidates.


Pathan tells Outlook, “I realised that a lot of independent candidates had filed their nomination and at least 50 per cent of them were Muslims.” He was requested by community members to withdraw. “Their fears are true. The fragmentation of the Muslim vote would end up only benefiting the BJP,” he adds.

The Congress got 67 per cent and 69 per cent of the Muslim votes, respectively, in the 2007 and 2012 elections. Any fragmentation of votes would eventually make the BJP’s chances of sweeping the polls brighter. “To be honest,” says Pathan, “they (BJP) don’t even come here to seek votes.”


The AIMIM is contesting with more enthusiasm after making some strides in local body elections. But allegations of being a “vote-cutter” and being the BJP’s “B-team” haunt the outfit. However, an AIMIM worker in Gujarat rejects such allegations as unfounded. “In Gujarat,” he says, “our party has not reached that stature where we can win assembly polls. We may win a seat or two, but we can’t win all constituencies. Muslims do not remain stuck with Congress only, they vote for several other parties too. Their voting pattern is scattered. And if we are not able to unify that base for AIMIM, how can we win?”


The Congress, too, is wary of Muslim votes. For the party, managing its support base among Muslims, while standing against the BJP’s Hindutva politics, has been a tough task in the state. In 1995, none of its 10 Muslim candidates won and in 1998 only five out of nine could win. A Congress worker says, “Nobody knows where the Muslim vote is going… it is very diluted this time. But we have data that gives us some insight.” The Muslim independent candidates and the AAP are expected to severely cut the community vote this time. The AIMIM is contesting from 13 seats only and is thus not in a position to make a major impact.


“The Congress will be at a gross disadvantage, and since it is the main opposition party in the state, it is a win-win situation for the BJP,” he concludes.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Caught in a Cleft Stick")