political shifts

Gujarat Assembly polls 2017: How an apathetic Congress is driving Muslim voters towards the BJP

Community leaders complain the Congress has taken their vote for granted.

In early May, 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 it. 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, organising skills and connect with the ground-level cadres. Why did she switch? “I do not see a future for the Congress in this state anymore,” said Sheikh. “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 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 Gujarat Congress workers. That even Muslims are leaving for the party blamed for the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002 shows how deep the resentment with the Congress runs.

Shifting loyalty

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 Dhattiwala, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam who examined violence against Muslims in Gujarat in relation to the BJP’s electoral prospects for her PhD thesis at the University of Oxford, 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,” she 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.

Nearly 2,000 Congress workers joined the BJP at the convention in Dahegam, Gandhinagar. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar
Nearly 2,000 Congress workers joined the BJP at the convention in Dahegam, Gandhinagar. Photo credit: Damayantee Dhar

Feeling let down

For Muslims reeling from the 2002 carnage, the Congress party and religious leaders became their support system. But 15 years later, the Muslims are in no better shape socio-economically and many of them are rethinking their support. “The Congress has just used Muslims all these years,” said Rafiq Ahmed Bhagat, one of the two sarpanches who switched from the Congress to the BJP at the Dahegam convention.

Both Bhagat and Idris Patel, the other sarpanch who joined the ruling party, are from villages in Bharuch, the home turf of influential Congress leader Ahmed Patel. “I have been a strong supporter of Ahmed Patel for long and a Congress worker for 30 years,” said Patel. “But attending programmes like Sadbhavna Mission and Sarpanch Sammelan, where Modi himself came to meet us, changed my mind.”

Muslims are 9% of Gujarat’s population as per Census 2001, and for the past 15 years, community leaders complain, the Congress took their vote for granted. Now, many are disillusioned.

In Citizennagar, a Muslim ghetto that started out as a temporary refugee colony for people displaced by the 2002 carnage, the Congress has failed to bring any relief despite being in a position to do so. About 1,300 families, all victims of the riots, live in the shadow of a 60-foot high garbage mound Pirana and lack even basic civic amenities.

Naddembhai Saiyyed, 52, is one of them. A well-regarded community elder, he is often approached by politicians to get them the support of Citizennagar’s residents.

“Since we came here in 2004, we have been struggling for basic things like road, water and a medical facility,” Saiyyed said. “Our kids have no proper education facility that we can afford. The corporator of this ward [Behrampur] is from the Congress but he has done nothing for us. There is a chemical factory whose waste runs behind our house. We have met the corporator numerous times asking him to do something about it, but in vain. Yet, he keeps winning because the Muslims vote for him,” said Saiyyed. “It is better to vote for the BJP this time. Being a ruling party, it can get at least get us some benefits.”

About 10 km from Citizennagar is one of the largest Muslims ghettoes in Gujarat – Juhapura. A large number of 2002 riot victims have settled here in areas such as Siddiqnagar. They have stood mostly with the Congress so far.

“This ghettoisation has affected the minds of young Muslim voters,” said Kalim Siddique, a social worker and member of the Aam Aadmi Party. “The generation raised in these ghettoes after 2002 has strong religious and political views though they might not pray five times a day. That is why they reacted strongly to the remarks of senior Congress leader Bharat Sinh Solanki’s that he would be the happiest if a Ram temple was constructed in Ayodhya.”

Tough choice

In effect, Gujarat’s Muslim voters face a tough choice this election: between an apathetic Congress and an increasingly majoritarian BJP. Who are they likely to choose?

“Of late, the Congress in Gujarat has started behaving like the BJP,” said the 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.”

Danish Qureshi, president of the Democratic Muslims Forum, an apolitical organisation that works to spread awareness about the need for education, women empowerment and human rights in the community, said, “The primary concern of the common Gujarati Muslim is a sense of social security. This factor will obviously determine voting.”

He explained, “A poor Muslim may not support the BJP when the party has come out with an unabashed Hindutva agenda and incidents of cow vigilantism are on the rise. There is a section of the Muslims that is fed up with both the BJP and the Congress.”

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, the 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 the 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 in the riots. “I have never missed voting in any election. One less vote for the Congress means helping the BJP.”

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to remove an error that misstated the academic affiliation of Raheel Dhattiwala.

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