Gujarat Muslims clueless where to go

Voters stand in a queue to cast their votes in Gujarat (Photo Courtesy: Caravan Daily)

AHMEDABAD — With the infighting of some top leaders of the Gujarat Congress and Ahmed patel episode, Muslims are confused in deciding as to whom to vote in the upcoming assembly election. Gujarat’s Muslim voters are facing a tough choice this election: between the tottering Congress and an increasingly majoritarian BJP, who would they likely choose?

In early May, around six months before the Gujarat assembly election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s minority cell held the first of a series of conventions aimed at trying to convince Muslims to vote for the party. At this convention, held in Dahegam in Gandhinagar district, nearly 2,000 Congress party workers joined the BJP.Among them was Mehmoodaben Sheikh, 52, vice-president of the Congress’s minority cell.

In her 21 years with the Congress, Sheikh came to be known for her leadership, organisational skills and connect with the ground-level cadres. But why did she switch? “I do not see a future for the Congress in this state anymore,” informed Sheikh, adding, “I do not have any hope for the party.”

Sheikh’s move reflects that of Asifa Khan, the media convener of the All India Mahila Congress from Bharuch, who had switched to the BJP three months before the assembly election in 2012.

The Congress, Sheikh alleged, treats its women members as second-class workers, particularly at the taluka level. “Funds would not be released for all-woman programmes even though they were organised at the behest of senior leaders of the party,” she said. “There were times when we organised programmes where women workers came from far off villages. The party was reluctant to arrange for their travel and food. I have seen BJP’s women workers, they are not treated the same way.”

Sheikh’s switch to the BJP is a reflection of widespread disillusionment among the Gujarat Congress workers. That even Muslims are leaving the Congress to join the BJP, blamed for the Muslim carnage of 2002, shows how deep the resentment within the Congress runs.

On the another hand, the BJP in Gujarat is busy building a rainbow coalition of various social groups to take on the opposition Congress, which is working to wean away disenchanted Patels ahead of assembly elections in December.

While the Congress is planning to field a third of its candidates from the influential Patel community, the latter is trying to bring upper castes, other backward classes (OBCs), tribals and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs and STs) into its cover.

“OBC constitutes about 40% of the state’s population and the BJP is working closely with as many as 150 castes under this category at the constituency level. The work to strengthen the tribal and scheduled caste voters is also in full swing. Also, the upper castes which constitute Brahmins, Baniyas and others form about 10% of the state’s population and there is a renewed focus to get their support,” said a BJP official on conditions of anonymity. The BJP’s target is to win 150 of 182 assembly seats this time.

Patels, who form about 14% of the state’s population, are among the most influential communities in Gujarat and have backed the BJP for over two decades now. However, unmet demands for reservations in jobs and education have made many of them bitter.

The Congress, which has about half a dozen of its 57 MLAs in Gujarat from the Patel community, recently held meetings with the Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) convener Hardik Patel, following which the quota agitation leader said that he would consider supporting the Congress, if it fulfils their demands.

“The Patidars are no longer with the BJP as the party has deserted them. We are looking to field about 50 Patel candidates in the upcoming state elections especially in Saurashtra region,” said a Congress leader, seeking anonymity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat for over 13 years before becoming prime minister, is seen as the party’s main campaigner for the assembly elections. The BJP had won 115 seats in 2012 state elections. With Modi at the Centre, the party has faced a series of agitations from members of the Patel community, Dalit community and OBC community over various issues.

While tribals constitute about 16-17% of the state’s population, scheduled castes make up about 7.5-8% and Muslims about 11% of the state’s population.

“The Congress had won 149 seats using the so-called KHAM alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims in the mid-1980s and the BJP is now trying to pull off a similar feat,” said another BJP official.

While the BJP is working on rebuilding support of OBCs, the Congress is seeking to woo Patels.

After 2002, the BJP in Gujarat had found it easier to win over the minority Shia Muslims, who tend to be more affluent. Now, the party seems to be successfully wooing leaders and voters from the majority Sunni sect as well.

Raheel Dahttiwala, a sociologist at Oxford University, noted that this trend began in 2009. “It was in 2009 that the BJP began the process of reconciliation with Sunni Muslims of Gujarat through its Sadbhavna Mission,” he said. “Many Sunni Muslim clerics came out in support of the BJP. Noticeably, between 2009 and 2013, the BJP nominated 297 Muslim candidates for various local body elections and 148 of them won. Most nominations were given to Sunni Muslims.”

“Though affected alike by the riots, Shia and Sunni Muslims have had different stances towards the BJP,” Dhattiwala explained. “While the Sunnis, who are the majority Muslim sect in Gujarat, have traditionally been anti-BJP, Shias – Dawoodi Vohras and Khojas – who are mostly businessmen, have been inclined towards whichever party has been in power.”

By 2012, however, some Sunni Muslim clerics were openly supporting the BJP. Most notably, Jaimiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind president Maulana Mahmood Madani commended Modi for his “inclusive treatment of Muslims” in Gujarat in 2013.In effect, Gujarat’s Muslim voters face a tough choice this election: between an apathetic Congress and an increasingly majoritarian BJP.

“Of late, the Congress in Gujarat has started behaving like the BJP,” said sociologist Gaurang Jani. “Recently, Youth Congress leaders demanded that cow be made the national animal. Such behaviour ahead of the election might dent their Muslim vote bank. Also, cow vigilantism and beef ban notwithstanding, a section of the Muslims, especially voters aged 18-25 have shown support for the BJP in the hope of earning the ruling party’s patronage.”

The BJP’s Muslim leaders are confident that their methods will get the party more Muslim votes than in 2012. “It was through various programmes in 2012 that we took from the Congress 17 seats where Muslim votes were decisive,” said Mehboob Ali Chisti, BJP minority cell president.

The “methods” Chisti refers to include roping in leaders of various sects. The minority cell, for instance, brought Sakhi Baba, a self-styled Sufi saint with a sizeable following in Kheda, to its convention in mid-May. Indeed, Chisti himself is the leader of such a sect in Surat. Another method is to organise programmes where people meet senior party leaders directly.

Still, winning over Muslims is no easy task for the ruling party, not least because a vast section of the community does not trust it. “I want neither the BJP nor Modi,” said Abdul Qayyum, 62, of Juhapura, who lost five family members, his home and shop during the 2002 riots. “I have never missed voting in any election. One less vote for the Congress means helping the BJP.”

The writer is Editor of Gujarat siyasat, and general secretary of AIMC, Gujarat Chapter.

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