In Gujarat, there is a general apathy of the ruling party towards Muslims, matched only by the apathy of the common Muslim towards the electoral process.
The only Muslim who has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Gujarat more than once is Ahmedbhai Mohammedbhai Patel, better known as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977, 1980 and 1985 from Bharuch but in 1989 and 1991, lost at the polls from the same seat. Thereafter, he moved to the Rajya Sabha to which he has been elected five times – the last time in August this year in a fiercely contested poll. Patel has reportedly told confidants, including some journalists, that it is now well-nigh impossible for a Muslim to get into the Lok Sabha from Gujarat. With an average of seven Vidhan Sabha seats making up for a Lok Sabha seat, the chances of a Muslim getting into the assembly is more. But as things have worked out in the last two decades, as far as politics is concerned, the Muslim is as good as totally marginalised in the state. Incidentally, Gujarat has a 9% Muslim population. In the 2012 assembly polls, two Muslims were elected as MLAs, down from five in 2007 and three in 2002. Gujarat has 182 assembly seats and going by their population percentage, Muslims should have more than 16 MLAs.
The Bharatiya Janata Party – which dominates the political landscape in Gujarat – has shown little inclination for Muslims, but according to recent newspaper reports, there is a “queue” of Muslims for a BJP ticket for the forthcoming elections. Mehboob Ali Chisti, the BJP minority morcha chief, is quoted in the newspaper reports as saying that “during recent parliamentary board meetings, Muslim community leaders have demanded the Jamalpur-Khadia, Vejalpur, Vagra, Wankaner, Bhuj and Abdassa seats”. And this is because 350 Muslims have secured seats for the BJP in local body polls in urban areas in 2015.
What final view the party will take on fielding Muslims is not known, but in the last polls in 2012 or even before that in 2007 and 2002, the party did not put up any Muslim. A builder Usman Ghanchi, who has been with the BJP for long, is trying very hard to get the Jamalpur-Khadia seat that has 61% Muslims. Gujarat Wakf Board chairman A.I. Saiyed, who retired as an IPS officer, is also keen to land a BJP ticket for the polls. Analysts believe that since this time polls in Gujarat are being fought on caste lines (with a Patel backlash and Dalit and OBC mobilisation), the BJP might as well concede a seat or two to Muslims.
But this will not change the ground situation and lead to Muslim empowerment. “In recent months, there are some Muslim voices talking of supporting the BJP, but these are optics. This is a defence mechanism Muslims adopt to make themselves acceptable to the society at large and powers that be. But I don’t think any Muslim votes for the BJP in Gujarat,” says a community leader who does not want to be named. He is, however, quick to add that the Congress has also done little for Muslims in recent years following exactly what the BJP has been doing. Many point out that the Congress has followed a very defensive posture in Gujarat for the last decade and a half, though this time, the line of the grand old party could be more aggressive. Whatever might be the case, analysts believe that the proportion of Muslims going out to vote is much lower than others. “I don’t think more than 50% of the Muslim electors cast their franchise,” says political journalist Rajiv Shah, hinting at political apathy of the Muslims. “There are not too many Muslim netas around who would mobilise their followers for any cause. This contributes to their disenchantment to the political process,” he adds. Social activist Hanif Lakdavala says, “I think no Muslim goes to political parties and no political parties go to Muslims. This is generally true and this time too.”
In Ahmedabad, the most important city in Gujarat, the Hindus and the Muslims stay separately, demonstrating the chasm between the two communities. Muslims, however rich and well to do they might be, are kept out of the modern western part of the city: neither can they purchase property here nor rent any. They have to live in the older part of Ahmedabad across the Sabarmati river or in a huge Muslim ghetto called Juhapura. Sociologists point out that this chasm has expanded since the 1990s and there has been no effort to bridge this expanding gulf between the two communities which has led to mutual distrust.
According to analysts, the standard right-wing response to the Hindu-Muslim situation in Gujarat has been to argue that in the last 15 years, there have been no communal riots in the state. This is quoted to suggest that this peace has meant that both the Hindus and the Muslims have prospered in the interim. However, this could well be a specious argument because ‘the peace’ came after the prolonged Gujarat 2002 riots in which Muslims were at the receiving end. The riots broke the back of the Muslims and relegated them to a subordinate position. “Things are slightly better now. Middle class Muslims, like their Hindu counterparts, have benefitted from economic growth, but the condition of the poor is as pathetic as it was a decade ago,” Shah says.
However, historically, the representation of Muslims in the polity of Gujarat has been very low. Even in 1985, when the Congress swept the assembly polls winning a record 149 out of 182 seats, the number of Muslims MLAs was merely seven. This, in spite of the fact that the Congress won on the strategy of KHAM that involved combining the Khastriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims together. In fact, Gujarat has never had more than two Muslim MPs at one time except in 1977 when Ahmed Patel got elected from Bharuch and Ehsan Jafri, who was brutally killed in the 2002 riots, was elected from Ahmedabad. In 1962, in the first Lok Sabha elections after the creation of the state, Joharaben Chavada was elected from the Banaskantha seat. Joharaben was the widow of Akbarbhai Chavada, a farmers’ leader and a Gandhian who had been elected to the same seat in both 1952 and 1957, but at that time it was part of the Bombay state. In the first state assembly polls, also in 1962, seven Muslim MLAs were elected.
Many reasons have marginalised the Muslims in the polity of Gujarat. This includes the general apathy of the ruling party (to put it conservatively) towards Muslims, matched only by the apathy of the common Muslim towards the electoral process.
Kingshuk Nag worked as resident editor of the Times of India in Hyderabad for many years. Prior to that he was the TOI’s resident editor in Ahmedabad.