Gujarat Elections: Will Muslim Voters Be A ‘Game Changer’ Amidst Caste and Community Polarisation?

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BJP is using its Minority Cell members from across India to campaign for the BJP and win Muslim votes in Gujarat at the hustings.

Abdul Hafiz Lakhani Caravan Daily

AHMEDABAD — As the much-watched Assembly elections nears, the political heat in the Western Indian state of Gujarat has picked up pace.

Muslims have voted for the Congress party in large number in Gujarat Assembly elections from 1962 to 2012. This trend prompted the BJP to always project the India’s oldest party as Muslim appeaser – and also anti-Gujarat. Muslims have largely kept aloof from the BJP, particularly after the communal riots of 2002 in which the community suffered the worst and most.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister and a proclaimed ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat, famously refused to wear a skull cap from a Muslim delegation during his three-day ‘Sadbhavna’ fast in Ahmedabad in 2011. The BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate for years in many states that went to polls.

Traditionally, six to eight per cent Muslims in Gujarat had always voted for the BJP before and in immediate years after the 2002 carnage. For long, a sizable number of Shia Muslim sect engaged in mercantile occupations like Dawoodi Bohra voted for the BJP. Similarly, Sunni Muslims also gave their tacit support to BJP candidates in several Assembly constituencies. The 2012 elections witnessed a visible upsurge in Muslim support for the BJP even though any Muslim did not figure in the candidate lists for the 182 constituencies.

However, there was an interesting change in the BJP’s campaign strategy in the last Assembly elections. For the first time in 2012, Chief Minister Narendra Modi overtly reached out to the Muslim voters by launching Sadhbhawna mission and observing 36 one-day fasts in different parts of the state. These rallies helped in attracting a section of elite Muslims towards its. As an outcome, some Muslims shifted their support to the Saffron party.

This election, quite ironically and contrary, neither the star campaigner Narendra Modi, nor the BJP, which is also headed by another Gujarati and a Jain, is making a direct appeal to the Muslims. Instead, the party is using its Minority Cell members from across India to campaign for the BJP in Gujarat at the hustings. It is also trying to woo the biggest minority community via the Rashtriya Muslim Manch, an arm of the RSS to which BJP owes its allegiance, and an assortment of 50 Muslim clergy. They had arrived in the state from various BJP-ruled states to pep up the mood as the electioneering tempo picks up.

BJP and Congress are contesting the elections with the relatively common strategy of caste and community polarisation to gain success. There is every possibility that the mobilisation on religious wedge issues will speed up with the active engagement of both the parties till the Election Day.

The decline of Congress as an alternative to BJP in the state over these years have left Muslims frustrated. A majority of them felt their inability to defeat BJP on their own due to the vote consolidation by majority Hindus. As a result, Muslims in Hindu dominant constituencies publicly supported the BJP to gain the material advantage from the local MLA and seek security in return.  Economically poor Muslims and those living in mixed Hindu-Muslim localities voted for the Saffron party.

This time, BJP and Congress are contesting the elections with the relatively common strategy of caste and community polarisation to gain success. There is every possibility that the mobilisation on religious wedge issues will speed up with the active engagement of both the parties till the Election Day. An independent analysis based on statistics reveals BJP, in 2012 Assembly polls, indeed snatched away sizeable Muslim-dominated seats from the Congress (Jamalpur-Khadia; new seat Vejalpur; Karjan; Vagra). Interestingly, this election took place for the first time after the delimitation as Muslim votes got divided. They do not form the critical mass required for a make-or-break outcome in any of these seats to any particular candidate.

A close analysis of booth-wise break-up gives a fair understanding of the situation. In terms of winning seats, BJP has seen a downward slide. The party won 127 seats in 2002 which got reduced to 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012. The party’s vote share too declined in the last 10 years, from a close to half of all votes polled in 2002, BJP could manage to get 48 per cent of all votes in 2012. In the 2012 assembly elections, only five Muslims were in the fray, out of whom two were chosen for the law-making House by the electorate. This is a sharp fall as compared to 1980 when Muslim representation in the Assembly stood at 10 per cent, equivalent to the percentage population of the minority community in the state.

Three Rajya Sabha MPs from Gujarat at the time were also Muslims. Today, Ahmed Patel, senior Congress leader and close aide of the party chief, Sonia Gandhi, is the only Muslim MP from Gujarat. Patel had won by a wafer-thin margin in the fiercely-contested, high-drama election earlier this year. Interestingly, he was one of the few Congress candidates to buck the anti-Emergency wave in 1977 to win the Lok Sabha elections from Bharoch in south Gujarat. There is no Muslim representation from Gujarat in the current Lok Sabha, the upper house of Parliament.

Spokesperson for Gujarat Congress, Manish Doshi, claims his party views that Muslims should be given tickets in areas where there is a possibility of them winning the elections are high. The party gives representation to all sections of the society. According to the Hindustan Times, the Congress appears to be on a sticky wicket in terms of ticket distribution in Gujarat, an issue that has cost the party dear in past elections, as it gears to finalise its candidates for the first phase of assembly polls to be held on 89 seats on December 9.

The Congress’s Central Election Committee (CEC) will decide candidates from shortlisted contenders. Two party panels at the state level sifted through the resume of 1,500 applicants for all the 182 constituencies. The CEC will discuss at least three names on each seat before finalising a contestant. Factionalism has been rampant in the Gujarat Congress in the past.

Soon after his anointment as the Congress Vice President at Jaipur in January 2013, Rahul Gandhi resolved to give block, district and state units a greater say in candidate selection. The party has roped in its chief of Overseas Wing, Sam Pitroda, a Gujarati who is a close associate of the Gandhi family and the man behind the telecommunication revolution during Rajiv Gandhi’s era, to get people’s inputs for its manifesto. How the scenario unfolds in Gujarat in the coming days is worth watching and the results as well as it will have a big bearing on elections in the future in other states and for the Parliament.

(Abdul Hafiz Lakhani is Ahmedabad-based senior journalist and editor of Gujarat Siyasat)

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