Counting Muslim votes in Modi’s Gujarat

Narendra Modi's triumphant return to power in Gujarat, by a huge margin, is as much a victory of Moditva – the brand of rightwing exclusionary politics espoused by Modi over and above Hindutva – as it is an endorsement of the chief minister himself. With the Bharatiya Janata Party's tally, at 117 out of 182 seats, being just short of the 127 it won in 2002, the Modi phenomenon surpassed even the upper ceiling of exit polls. This win was partly the result of a well-orchestrated media campaign, funded in large part by Gujaratis abroad, through well-timed newspaper advertisements bearing reminders of the Godhra train-burning. There was also a widespread distribution of masks bearing smiling Modi faces.

Yet Modi masks do not the complete picture make. For those who care to notice, Modi lost out in central Gujarat, one of the areas most severely affected by the 2002 anti-Muslim carnage. As results rolled in, it was clear that in central Gujarat alone, the BJP was down 19 seats from 2002, though he later made up for that deficit elsewhere. Here at least, the law of diminishing returns seemed to have worked, after the emotional appeal to communalism went beyond certain limits. These limits evidently included Modi's last-minute implication that the Muslims of Gujarat could well meet the same fate as Sohrabuddin Sheikh, the small-time criminal killed in 2005 in a fake encounter. But part of the reason that the chief minister gave up his 'development plank' and swung back to his time-tested communal rhetoric was because, in the run-up to the elections, the satta, or illegal betting market, had showed an edge for the Congress party.

Despite the whipping up of communal colour in the last few days of campaigning, the state's Muslim community, which had been backed into a corner in previous assembly polls, had presented a modicum of opposition to the saffron sweep. And yet, the Modi juggernaut was so overwhelming, Gujarat-wide, that Muslim and other activists who campaigned against Modi can for now do nothing more than recall how they tried to stem the Modi tide from tearing through the state for the third time.

In Godhra, the epicentre of the 2002 carnage, Mohammed Hussain Kalota's family turned out in full strength to cast their votes on 16 December. For the Kalotas, the act of voting was an act of defiance against what they perceived as injustice perpetrated on them by the country's law-enforcement agencies. Kalota, the former president of the Godhra Municipality, had been at home when the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express went up in flames on 28 February 2002. Although the truth of the train-burning has yet to be ascertained, the police foisted a case on Kalota, accusing him of being part of the conspiracy. Kalota, like many others accused in the case, is currently in jail, but the court case against him is at a standstill. Despite the fact that the chargesheets filed by the police do not have any conclusive evidence, bail has been denied to all.

Kalota's family got up early to participate in the December elections. For them, the day held more significance than the mere assertion of their democratic right to vote. This was a day when they wanted their individual votes to count, a day when they wanted to ensure that their home state passed the litmus test of inclusiveness. For the Kalotas, this was a day that they hoped would prove that Gujarat does not stand only for Hindus and their development, but rather could be a state where Hindus could live with Muslims and other minorities without fear, a state where access to development and progress would be equitable across all communities. Modi's victory does seem to have dashed that hope for now, given the fact that the chief minister has not shown remorse for the 2002 incidents, nor has he reconstructed himself.

A plea for moderation
A short distance away from the Kalota home, in another locality of Godhra, Ahmed Kalota was busy passing out instructions to groups of errand boys. At each of the seven booths that he was monitoring, there were 30 members of the local Muslim community, each carrying lists of the Muslim electorate eligible to vote. More than just monitoring, the idea behind the exercise was to ensure that the community leaders played an important role in convincing the voters to step out and cast their votes. "Fifteen days prior to the polling date, we visited each and every house in all the seven polling booth areas that have been allotted to me, to ensure everyone from the community votes," says Kalota. "On the polling day, those who were reluctant to step out, we went to their house and convinced them to queue. And the result is showing, because the polling in all the seven booths that I managed was 73 percent."

The areas in Gujarat with significant Muslim populations went to the polls on 16 December. Days before the polling date, local-level Muslim leaders, backed by the Congress party, met in each constituency and finalised a plan to ensure a healthy turnout during the polling day. "Generally, the very act of casting one's vote is a celebratory exercise," says Kalota. "But in these elections, we were voting to protect our freedom. It was as if we were preparing for a sombre ritual to assert our identity, to assure ourselves that we are equal citizens of a democratic and secular country." For the Muslim minority in Gujarat, this election was about attempting to protect a multitude of freedoms – from fear of discrimination, from rabid communal hatred and propaganda, from fear of riots and of denial of justice.

Local-level planning by Gujarat's Muslim communities over the past year went almost completely unreported in the Indian media. Even the Gujarati press has not been able to capture the rigorous groundwork that was undertaken by local anti-BJP political activists and community leaders, with an eye to both the Muslim and Hindu communities. Even given the final results, as announced on 23 December, many say that this work has paid certain dividends. "By coming out in large numbers and ensuring that our vote counts, we have succeeded in sending out a message to Modi," explains Kalota. "We want to tell Modi: Please become moderate." Despite Modi's win, many Muslim community leaders are convinced that the chief minister cannot continue to play the communal card. This was certainly true in Godhra, where Congress candidate C K Raulji was announced the winner.

Few are under any illusions as to what the election results mean, however. "This is not a defeat of the Congress party, but a victory for communalism," says Saiyyed Ummarji, the son of a Godhra cleric who is currently a prime accused in the train-burning case. "Modi successfully polarised the electorate in Gujarat, even in areas where there was discontent against him. That is why discontent against Modi could not be crystalised into votes for Congress. Where Congress went wrong was that it went soft on Modi, and failed to take him on headlong."

The outcome notwithstanding, Kalota emphasises that the Muslim community in Gujarat is for looking forward, not backward. "Like the Hindus, we also want peace," he says. "Like the Hindus, we also want development. Like the Hindus, we also want to leave the traumatic events of the Godhra train fire and the communal riots that followed behind us. And Modi knows that whenever he talks of Godhra, others will talk about the riots, and there will be tension whenever that happens. So … we are certain we will see a new, moderate Modi as the chief minister."

For the sake of Gujarat's minorities, many are now certainly hoping that Kalota is right in his prognostication. On the other hand, Chief Minister Modi might well take his victory as a green light to a forward march to the Centre, and the elevation of Moditva to the national stage. In that case, Muslims not just in Gujarat, but throughout India, will need to beware.

— V K Shashikumar is editor, 'special investigations', CNN-IBN.

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