‘Have nowhere to go’: Muslim voters in Gujarat face a lack of options

Elections do not hold out the promise of change for Ishaq Vhora, who sells fruit on the busy Bhalej Road in Gujarat’s Anand. His cart is next to a garbage pit, but buyers seem unconcerned by the ambience, or the lack of it. He is polite to a fault and shows no impatience when customers fumble for change or digital payments take too long. “I have nowhere to go…just need to make enough money everyday to pay the rent and school fees,” he says.

His two kids are studying in a private school, where the annual fee is 8,000. He also has to pay 4,500 every month for rent. Election season means little to him, he says, although he’s been watching speeches on his phone. The poll promises of free electricity and education made by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have caught his attention.

“I heard about the promise to make education free. It sounds encouraging,” Vhora says. “The government school here is 5km away and the quality of education is not good. So, we decided to cut corners where ever we can and send the kids to a good English school.”

But, “by now we know better than to believe election promises,” he quickly adds.

Vhora says there is little about polls that excites him or his community. “In our village Tarapur, people mostly vote for the Congress. Now people are a little upset because these days MLAs also switch sides without qualms, so our vote is wasted,” he says.

Across the road from his cart are several posters of independent candidates, who are summarily dismissed as spoilers by Vhora. “The fight is between the Congress and the BJP, the rest are vote cutters. This new party (AAP) and the Owaisi party (AIMIM) are all helping the BJP,” he says.

Limited options

The AAP and the AIMIM, which seem like options for the Muslim community in Gujarat, are not necessarily viewed that way by the community. In Ahmedabad’s Juhapura, a predominantly Muslim locality, the reactions to questions about politics, elections and representation of the community in politics evoke responses that are cautious, but betray anger and disappointment.

A homemaker said the community has been struggling to find its feet outside the “safety” of localities that are essentially ghettos.

“Is it possible for me to move out of Juhapura? Which builder will sell or which owner will rent out their houses? We live here because we cannot live anywhere else. In such a scenario, who has the time to wonder about party and politics. We’ve been voting for the Congress, and the BJP has been forming the government and that is how it will be. We will continue to struggle for good education and health care,” she says, declining to be identified.

In the same locality, a group of young men claim other parties are also growing cold towards the community that accounts for about 10% of the state’s population and is present in significant numbers in about 40 of the 182 constituencies.

One of them who has inherited his father’s grocery store says over the years other parties have also begun distancing themselves from the community. “They come asking for votes, but they have definitely started to field fewer Muslim candidates. What does that imply?” questions.

While the BJP has not fielded a Muslim candidate for the assembly polls since 1998, the Congress has given tickets to six Muslim candidates, and the AAP to three. The AIMIM has the highest number of Muslim candidates at 11.

A senior BJP leader said the prime consideration is “winnability” for the party. “We don’t discriminate as far as our programs and policies are concerned. If a Muslim family is eligible for the PM Awas Yojna or the Mudra scheme, does anyone deny it to them on the basis of their religion? So, what should matter more, representation that is symbolic or services?” he asks rhetorically.

The BJP leader said the party is not rigid about fielding Muslims as that can be seen from the list of Muslim candidates who fought on the party ticket during the 2021 urban local body polls. He did not mention the total number, but in several districts such as Baruch, the party fielded Muslim candidates.

The BJP’s overtures towards the community are met with nonchalance. “Why does the BJP need to resurrect the ghost of 2002 in their rallies and speeches? Other parties are now following their model. Did the AAP or the Congress ask why 11 men were freed from jail,” asks the shopkeeper quoted above. He was referring to the grant of remission to 11 men convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for raping a woman, Bilkis Bano, murdering seven of her family members, including her three-year-old infant, during the 2002 communal riots in the state.

Tried and tested

Although the BJP claims that it got support from Muslim voters in 2017 after Parliament passed a law to outlaw Triple Talaq and is hoping for an encore based on the implementation of the social welfare schemes and the targeted intervention towards the Pasmanda, or the underprivileged sections, there is indication that the Congress, despite misgivings, will remain the beneficiary of the Muslim vote.

“When you have little expectations, it is best to go with the tried and tested,” says the homemaker.

The AIMIM, which was exuberant after its performance in the local body elections, winning 17 seats in three municipalities, is viewed with suspicion and often dubbed as “BJP’s B-team”.

Referring to the community’s skepticism about the party that toes a hardline, Afroz Alam, head of the political science department at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, says, “It is crystal clear that the AIMIM does not contest to get the votes of the Muslim community, but to mobilize the votes of the non-Muslims. Barring the 1946 election (provincial election), when the Muslims voted for the Muslim League, or in some cases in Assam and Kerala for a Muslim party, the community does not vote for a predominantly Muslim party.”

On the perception that the community is sidelined in Gujarat, Alam says, “The community believes that even if the BJP sits it out, it will still win the polls. They are not very hopeful of the opposition, so elections are seen as a ritual, and there is no enthusiasm. Barring those who are or have been in power, there is a growing indifference building up.”


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