BJP's poll poser - how to net Gujarat's Muslim vote
Will Gujarat's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manage the unthinkable and garner Muslim votes when the state goes to the polls next month? The party is certainly hoping that the Muslim community, comprising almost 10 percent of the population, will forget the volatile past but has done little to win back the confidence of what is a valuable 'vote bank'.
As Chief Minister Narendra Modi makes a third bid for power, the BJP at the national and state levels acknowledges the importance of getting the Muslim vote. But party leaders are evasive when asked what was being done to woo the Muslim vote.
The refrain is that their party's poll strategy is not community-specific. Instead, they are fighting on the poll plank of development and good governance.
Gujarat's Muslim community constitutes 9.89 percent of the state's 60 million population. They have historically experienced riots at regular intervals, including in 2002 when at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
"The Gujarat BJP's strategy will be for all six crore Gujaratis, including Muslims," Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat Parshottam Rupala told IANS.
Minister Jay Narayan Vyas, who holds multiple portfolios, echoed Rupala: "Our slogan is 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' (Participation and progress for all). The BJP has been working for the progress and development of all Gujaratis, irrespective of caste or community. And our poll strategy will be likewise."
Agreed BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi: "Good governance is our poll plank."
But behind the scenes, BJP planners, it is learnt, are trying their best to woo Muslims. They have to, for demography and delimitation dictate so.
Muslims can influence the outcome of the elections in at least 35 of Gujarat's 182 constituencies. In 10 constituencies, the Muslim vote is more than 25 percent. Five of these 10 constituencies lie in Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad: Jamalpur-Khadia (61 percent), Dani Limda (48 percent), Dariapur (46 percent), Vejalpur (35 percent) and Bapunagar (28 percent).
There are 25 other constituencies where the Muslim component is more than 15 percent. Of these, seven have more than 20 percent Muslim vote: Godhra, Wankaner, Abdasa, Mandvi (Kutch), Siddhpur, Somnath and Surat (East).
The party is hoping some of the steps it has taken will show dividends.
The head of its minority cell, Mehboob Ali Chishti, aka Mahebub Ali Bavasaheb, is from the liberal Sunni Barelvi sect that has a large following in the state. As the December polls draw closer, Bavasaheb has been exhorting Muslims, especially Barelvis, to vote for the BJP and 'share in Gujarat's development'.
In recent days, the BJP has bagged two influential Muslim faces: Congress spokesperson Asifa Khan and retired IPS officer A.I. Saiyed.
But will just this be enough?
"I think there is a major change in the mindset of Gujarat's Muslims. Till now they have been taken for granted by the Congress. But as they witness the benefits of development that the BJP rule has been bringing to the state, they might just switch sides this time," said Naqvi.
What about tickets? BJP circles in Gandhinagar are abuzz with chatter that Narendra Modi has decided to commit 'sacrilege' by fielding Muslim candidates this time. The party had not done so in the 2002 and 2007 polls and no clear answer is forthcoming this time.
"A poll ticket is not a guarantee of the community's political importance or presence. Parties give tickets to Muslims in several states. But that is just to cash in on Muslim votes. The Muslims who are elected are just 'goonga guddas'. They don't raise community issues at all," said Naqvi.
Ultimately though, it all boils down to acceptance.
"All these manoeuvres won't work for the BJP until it expresses regret over 2002. Until then, Muslims won't accept it," said former Gujarat University political science professor Dinesh Shukla.
Given the trajectory of events in the party, that is unlikely to happen.
(Rajat Ghai can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )