Analysis

Gujarat Elections & the Muslim Vote

Ironically, a little too much importance is being given to the role of Muslim vote in the Gujarat assembly elections. With Muslims being around 10 percent of the state’s population and as elections are viewed as primarily a key battle between the Congress and BJP, in essence, the Muslim vote cannot be expected to have any major impact on either party’s political fate. Besides, both parties are well aware that their success depends on who the majority community decides to favour. In this context, neither is taking risk of losing their crucial votes. This explains the minimal importance given in selecting Muslim candidates by parties in the fray.  

Chances of a Muslim candidate winning elections in a state which has been dominated by Hindutva-brand of politics are slim. The present Lok Sabha does not have a single Muslim from Gujarat. Not surprisingly, BJP has continued the anti-Muslim policy it has followed since 1995, thus it is not fielding any Muslim candidate in these assembly elections. Political caution has prompted Congress to field lesser number of Muslim candidates, four compared to seven it fielded last time. The present 182-member Gujarat assembly has only four Muslims while it should have over 18.  

Now, it is to be watched whether communal polarization displays itself strongly or not in these elections. Without doubt, the Congress decision of fielding Shweta Bhatt against Narendra Modi from Maninagar constituency partly reflects the party’s attempt to awaken secular conscience of Gujarati voters. Shweta is wife of Sanjeev Bhatt, a suspended police officer, who has accused Modi for his negative role in Gujarat-carnage (2002). Clearly, while Sanjeev is engaged in a legal battle against Modi, his wife has decided, with support of Congress to fight against him in the political domain.

 With Modi having a strong base in Maninagar and entire Gujarat, prospects of his facing a close contest from Shweta may be viewed as negligible. Yet, Shweta and the Congress party are not expected to take part in this political drama without expecting some gains. Had Congress selected any party worker, with strong roots in Gujarat, to fight against Modi, most probably the candidate would not have received as much media attention as Shweta has.

 Though an advocate by profession and also a classical dancer, till she filed her nomination papers to contest from Maninagar, Shweta was more of homemaker and hardly active in public life. Had she not been Sanjeev’s wife, who has dared to challenge Modi legally, in all probability, the Congress would not have selected her.

By pushing Shweta into the political fray against Modi, Congress has succeeded in compelling people to once again reflect on the horrific communal phase Gujarat went through in 2002 under Modi. This may be viewed as a multi-purpose strategy. The primary purpose is to incite a fear of extreme communalism that the state faced in 2002. Congress is to a degree hopeful that this may help at least secular Gujaratis to give another thought to voting in favour of Modi and his party. Here, it may be noted, with Modi at helm, BJP has won two assembly polls after the Gujarat carnage, in 2002 and 2007.

 Nevertheless, Congress is banking on Shweta to at least succeed in adding a little more fuel and fire to the anti-Modi campaign than the party could in 2002 as well as in 2007. The fact that she is wife of a suspended police officer is likely to make Gujaratis more inquisitive about giving at least an ear to what she has to say. From this angle, within a short period, Shweta is getting more media attention than most other candidates fighting the assembly polls.

 If Shweta fares well, even marginally, this would help Congress in feeling more confident about planning its political strategy for the next parliamentary polls. This also indicates that Shweta has been deliberately fielded by Congress to contest assembly polls with an eye on the parliamentary elections. The party’s key agenda is to ensure that her campaign plays a significant role in setting the stage for the performance of Congress in the Lok Sabha polls.  

 There is a view that the current infighting within BJP ranks and the saffron brigade over Modi’s political ambitions may play a greater role against him in Gujarat than the Congress campaign, including that of Shweta. Though several party leaders have cautiously expressed that Modi is their prime ministerial candidate, some are known to have strong reservations against him heading the government if BJP and its alliance win next parliamentary elections.

The nature of Modi’s electoral performance is strongly dependent on the campaign strategy of his own party workers and its associate groups, including the saffron brigade. It is to be watched whether infighting within his own camp over his national ambitions helps Modi in the assembly elections or not. Regarding Congress, the party has fielded Shweta displaying its secular card. It may or may not succeed in Gujarat, but the Congress is hopeful of this political strategy paying dividends in the parliamentary elections when the Muslim vote will assume greater significance.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2012 on page no. 11

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