Till a few years back, Narendra Modi didn’t have a single supportive voice in the Muslim community. He now has a few. They may not be very vocal, but they are influential and have managed to provide a bridge for Modi to address the community’s broader concerns.
Among the names now being linked to Modi are Asifa Khan, an erstwhile protégé of Sonia confidant Ahmed Patel, who crossed over to the BJP; Zafar Sareshwala, a businessman who had filed many human rights cases against Modi in the International Court of Justice; and Ali Syed, a former Inspector General of Police in Gujarat.
Syed was projected as a mayoral candidate in the last corporation elections in Ahmedabad but lost. He now heads the state Waqf Board. Baba Mehboob Ali, a.k.a. Sufi Sant, who heads the BJP minority cell, is another visible face. He also heads the Haj Committee.
There is a possibility that the BJP may field one or two Muslim candidates in the forthcoming assembly elections in order to carry forward the Modi campaign slogan of "Ekmat Gujarat, BJP Sarkar". That issue is still being debated in the party’s parliamentary board. The new TV ads, which will be released soon, have distinctly Muslim faces who say only one word in the ad—"Ekmat"—while another says "Gujarat".
Zafar Sareshwala is one name that often comes up in conversations involving Modi and Muslims in Gujarat. He is not a politician. He and his family has been in the industrial valves manufacturing business and stock broking. He also has an exclusive BMW dealership in Gujarat. He has one showroom and is in the process of opening another 1,00,000 lakh square feet BMW showroom on the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar Highway.
Sareshwala talks of the growing wealth of Muslims in Gujarat and says that last year 53 Muslims bought BMW cars; this year the number so far has added up to 54. He is hoping to take this to 60 BMWs by the end of the year. The obvious point is to suggest that there is no bar to Muslim prosperity in the state. Discrimination is coming down.
But Sareshwala is not the same man today that he was in 2002. Though he did not lose any family member in the riots, his business establishments were targeted and he lost money when his trading terminals were shut down for days after the violence. He was in London then. Moved by his own economic condition and the loss of three NRI neighbours who were killed during a visit to Gujarat during the riots, Sareshwala filed human rights abuses cases against Modi and LK Advani in the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
But today Sareshwala thinks dialogue is better than sulk. “It was very tough then. After going through a prolonged churning of thought, consultations with family and friends, I decided to open a dialogue with Narendra Modi. After all, we live in a democratic system. I came to Ahmedabad from London in 2005. If he was re-elected chief minister, who do we talk to? Dialogue is the essence of a democratic process. Someone had to hear our problems and we had to seek solutions from him. How can you shut the door, and decide not to talk and then hope for a solution? Thus we met Modi."
But Sareshwala acknowledges that in breaking the taboo, "all hell broke loose. I, and my family, we were called all sorts of names. "Kaum Ka Mir Zafar... Sold Out... and so on. I was accused of not caring for Naroda Patiya (victims) and such other cases."
"But with the support of my family I held firm. My point was should we degenerate after the riots or move on? Modi gave me his number and told me to bring any, or all, such cases which came to my knowledge to his notice at any time, day or night. If someone tried to put a spoke in the wheel just because the person belonged to the Muslim community, corrective measures would immediately be taken. And he took action," says Sareshwala.
Things have changed for him now. More people from the Muslim community come to him for solutions. The name-calling from within the community and outside still hurts him, but he takes solace from the fact that the state administration has started taking corrective action and his "community at large, too, has started benefiting".
The latest entrant from the Muslim community to Modi’s camp is Asifa Khan – to much consternation in Congress circles. A BJP leader described her a "combination of three M’s -Muslim, mahila and media". The last ‘M’ is a reference to her status as a former journalist.
Suave, articulate, English-educated and ambitious, Asifa Khan was asked by Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s influential political secretary, to join the Congress in 2008. Ahmed Patel had known her as a journalist and they were from the same place in Gujarat – Bharuch. He believed she would be a good political prospect for the Congress. She rose to become state Congress spokesperson and media cell convener of the All India Muslim Congress.
"Before joining the BJP, I told him (Ahmed Patel) about my decision at a very personal level," Asifa told Firstpost. What was his response? She declined to say anything on that. "We don’t need to go into the details. I still respect him a lot, adore him and we are proud to have him in that position in the Congress. He knows the problems the Congress faces in Gujarat and is aware that corrective measures have to be taken."
The problem with the Congress, she said, was that for every small thing a decision had to come from Delhi – and that would take months. No leader in the state, big or small, had any authority. One was completely dependent on Delhi. For Gujarat Congress, Delhi means Ahmed Patel.
She has a long list of anecdotes where meetings with a series of aggrieved Congress leaders, including MLAs, failed to find solutions. This happened even if the leader concerned was from the Muslim community. She saw this contrasting with attitudes in the BJP, and this is what prompted her to join Modi’s bandwagon.
After a small one-on-one meeting with Modi, she officially joined the BJP. She is full of praise for Modi about how he has changed the face of the state, locally, domestically and internationally. “There is one policy, one implementation in Modi’s regime, without discrimination, without bifurcation on grounds of caste, creed and religion. There is clarity of sense and purpose."
There are others like Ismail Pathan in Rajkot and Shahnaz Qureshi in Junagadh who are actively working for the BJP after switching sides from the Congress.
Rasheeda Bhagat, writing in BusinessLine, quotes social scientist Achyut Yagnik as saying that the mercantile community among Muslims is now moving towards Modi, and some of them told her “our lives and businesses are safe when he is in power”.
Yagnik confirms this point to her: "It’s because Bohras, Agha Khanis or Khojas and Memons are all mercantile communities and they support him. And the Bohra support is because their spiritual leader Syedna openly supported Modi in Rajkot recently."
The slow accretion of mercantile support for Modi does not mean all sections will warm up to him, but it is a beginning. This opening to the Muslim community will help him plan a bigger image makeover after the Gujarat assembly elections, Modi’s supporters believe.