'Is this Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh?' asks Saleem bhai Patel, a senior Congress leader from constituency No. 159 in East Surat. He is talking about a bifurcation of the Gujarati voter into communities by the Congress. On one side, there is Hardik Patel who is bringing the Patidars into the Congress fold, on the other side there is Alpesh Thakor leading the OBCs and Jignesh Mevani, who has emerged as a voice of the Dalits. Along with the three shining beacons of yuva josh who were brought in to propel the grand old party closer to victory, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was seen visiting temples across the state; a parallel soft Hindutva approach has been adopted.
In a state that is being ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the last 22 years, the Muslim voter has looked at the Congress as its only support. Now, with the party’s attention divided among other groups, insecurity is on the rise. South Gujarat falls in the first phase and goes to polls on 9 December and 21 November is the last date for filing nominations. In Saleem’s constituency (No. 159) out of 2.6 lakh voters, nearly 92,000 are Muslim. Some days ago, in the same area around the city’s Muslim-dominated areas like Chowk Bazaar in Nanpura, some anti-Congress posters were put up. The message on the posters was a threat to the party in opposition that a lack of Muslim representation will result in a lack of Muslim votes.
The posters were removed at the insistence of local Congress leaders who pacified the people. But the mood is tense because the hazy speculation that the party might field a Muslim candidate from Surat West instead (home to nearly 5,000 – 10,000 Muslims) is now taking shape.
"This is the only place from where a Muslim can win. It is really necessary for us to keep the representation alive. The BJP denies that we (Muslims) exist. Nobody from their party shows up here, even when the roads fill up with drain water during the floods. The people here haven’t seen the face of the MLAs and MPs who are ruling Gujarat. The only hope for them is the Congress and if they are let down, there can be a backlash," fears Muqaddar Rangooni, who belongs to the area and has been working with the Congress for the last 10 years. To reach his home, one has to hop-skip-jump over gullies where stuff from furniture and tyre shops and kabaadi walas is displayed in the open; where grease, grime and poultry feathers lie strewn on the floors and goats sit around with a certain entitlement. Muqaddar isn’t the only unhappy man in this neighbourhood.
Aside from the textbook demand of road-raasta-gutter, the people here want access to jobs. They allege that while low-level government jobs are given to Hindus, private employers reject them on the basis of their pin code. On the other end of a straight road live people from the Hindu Kahar samaaj. "In 2014, there were riots in the area and even at that time no senior leaders from the Congress or the BJP came forward to mend differences," says Muqaddar, who runs the Hindu-Muslim Ekta Samaaj in the slums of East Surat.
Another key issue that he points out is the changes in the municipal demarcation of areas that takes place every five to six years. “Gopipura is a traditional BJP vote base, why was it merged with our area? To cut Muslim votes?” he asks. He says areas without OBC, jhuggis and Muslims (the classic Congress vote bank) are joined up with his constituency to cut the Congress vote.
Noor Mohammad, a veteran who has seen both the Congress and the BJP rule Old Surat, says that the ruling dispensation has completely denied the existence of Muslims. ‘Aapka vote nahi chahiye’ ('We don't need your vote') is the message they feel the BJP has conveyed to them in multiple ways. One of them is of course by not fielding a single Muslim candidate as yet. But a rejection of the voter doesn’t translate into a denial of the vote base. The locals here allege that popular locals are bribed by the BJP to contest as independent candidates. Some are paid Rs 50,000, others are offered a lakh or two, and the rate is decided as per their popularity.
‘Hum toh abhi bhi Congress ko hee vote denge’ ('We will now only vote for the Congress') is the typical response of most residents here. They may feel upset and agitated but the lack of an alternative for the 42 percent Muslim voters in East Surat might still keep them loyal to the party they still have faith in.
Meanwhile, the BJP feels the communal halo has been placed around their head by the Congress. Sitting BJP-MLA from the area Ranjit bhai Gilitwala shared that the party has tried to reach out to Muslims but it hasn’t worked. “In Gujarat, the matkas that Hindu homes drink water from are made by Muslim hands. When it comes to business, people from both religions work in harmony. It is only during election time that the Congress propaganda tries to project the BJP as a communal party,” he says, adding that this repeated projection damages the image of the party in Muslim voters.
The Financial Assistance Scheme (Gujarat Minority Finance and Development Corporation), which was established in 1997, has a fund of Rs 400 crore. This nodal agency offers financial assistance is up to Rs 3 lakh for small business and self-employment, Rs 7.5 lakh for higher education and vocational training in India and Rs 15 lakh for higher education in foreign countries. It also gives up to Rs 5 lakh for development of agriculture, Rs 5 lakh for purchase of vehicles for commercial purpose and up to Rs 3.5 lakh assistance to mentally-retarded persons. When asked about the steps the government has taken for minorities, MK Chisty, a Sufi saint who is the chairman of the Gujarat Government Minority Finance & Development Corporation talks about the Haj quota that has been increased from Rs 4,000 to Rs 15,000 in the last three years and the BJP Sadasyata Abhiyaan (national membership drive) that has increased the Muslim primary voter in the state to five lakh. He also adds that Gujarat has become curfew and violence-free and the literacy rate of Muslims which is nearly 80 percent. He points out that the BJP is doing actual work like getting Muslim women relief from triple talaq while Rahul Gandhi is only deploying soft-Hindutva tactics that are upsetting voters.
At the BJP headquarters opposite Jeevan Jyoti theatre, quite close to No. 159, the party’s president from Surat Nitinbhai Thakar refused to comment on the anti-Congress posters that were put up by the local Muslims. He described this an internal issue between the party and the Muslims of the area. As a representative of the ruling party, shouldn’t there be a little more curiosity about any manifestation of public resentment?
"The problem with East Surat is that we are voters first and people later," points out Muqaddar. "Ask the Surat Municipal Corporation how many Muslims have filled up the thousands of vacancies in low-level government jobs in the past years," he says. Locals talk about a pin code based rejection of job applications that has forced BCom and BA degree holders to work as sweepers and biscuit sellers, they also share stories of rejection of requests for landline telephones because officials told them they belong to the ‘M class’ (M: Muslim).
The loyalty toward the Congress that was earlier emotional is now more desperate. The people here want anybody who can guarantee them both safety and development. While a vibe of betrayal with the sole party they trust is visible, there’s also a segment that believes in ‘Kaam karo aane vote le jaao ('Work and get the votes'); symbolic of the Gujarati mindset of getting the work done efficiently and peacefully. Mohammad Shadib, a 26-year-old advertising entrepreneur from the area, feels that the Congress won’t ditch Muslims and Sufi Abdul, who retired from the zari industry, believes that a Hindu candidate might just be better idea because a Muslim face could further communalise the region when what’s actually needed is anybody who is sensitive to the many needs of lower-middle-class Muslims here.
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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 15:18:00 IST