Modi picks 12 Muslims for a local election. The outcome could be intriguing

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By Anumeha Yadav

Defining times AI Saiyad (far right) an ex IPS officer, is contesting from Ahmedabad

ON A busy street in Juhapura in Ahmedabad, Abdullah Ibrahim Saiyad removed two rose garlands from his neck and addressed the 50-odd residents gathered at the small clearing: “I am a Saiyad, a Saiyad never tells a lie.”

The men occupying the first three rows of white plastic chairs nodded their approval. But the women sitting behind them looked on sceptically from under their dupattas. “When it rained, for days, we waded in waist-high water, dirt from the sewage entered our houses! What have you come here to promise now?” Rehana bi, a 46-year-old resident demanded, standing up. A chorus of women joined her, speaking up about overflowing gutters, dirty water in taps, broken roads — the story of poor neighbourhoods across the country, but a neglect that is compounded in Juhapura, Gujarat’s largest Muslim ghetto. This settlement on the western periphery of Ahmedabad that for the last 30 years has had no metalled roads, no government dispensaries, municipal parks, no buses passing though, and only two banks have ATMs for over three lakh residents.

Saiyad, a retired police officer, one of the two Muslims given a ticket by the BJP to contest civic election in Ahmedabad on 10 October, says he sympathises. “I have understood your problems since 1983 when I was the deputy commissioner, traffic, Ahmedabad. I put off going on Haj to contest on behalf of all of you. What could be a bigger promise?” he declared, before driving away in his silver Toyota Innova.

How many of the nods Saiyad got at the meeting actually translate into votes will become clear only after the 12 October results. But the BJP has fielded 12 Muslim candidates in the upcoming civic elections, a first in recent years, in cities such as Ahmedabad, Surat, and Bhavnagar. This throws up questions if the BJP in Gujarat is on the cusp of a change. What has brought about this turn? Is this Modi’s message to Bihar, where CM Nitish Kumar has stopped him from campaigning for the October assembly elections? How will Muslims respond to this?

BJP SENIORS say this is not unusual; nationalism being a priority, not Hinduism. “We are clearly pro-Hindu, but we are not anti-Muslim. We believe in appeasement for none, justice for all. We will take nationalist Muslims with us in our path to development,” says Vijay Rupani MP and general secretary, Gujarat BJP, when asked if this did not contradict CM Narendra Modi’s usually shrill campaign rhetoric of “hum paanch, humaare pachees”.

Changing colour Waseem Ansari (in white) does not want to recall the 2002 riots
Photo: Mayur Bhatt

Twelve Muslim candidates — two each in Ahmedabad and Surat, one in Rajkot, and seven in Jamnagar — are still only a miniscule number of the total 558 seats. Not only is the proportion a pale shadow compared to the Muslim proportion of nine percent, it is not also by any means a substantial number. The Congress, which has upped its tally of Muslim candidates from 17 in the 2005 civic election to 23 this time, dismisses it as a weak gesture. Congressmen also make light of Modi’s statement that it has lost control over Kathlal, a Congress bastion since 1960, to the BJP in the by-polls last month because Muslims in this northern part of Gujarat had sided with the BJP. Narhari Amin, a member of Congress’ core committee in this election, says that was a result of “internal weaknesses” instead. The BJP’s previous attempt at fielding Muslim candidates, five in the Junagadh civic election in 2009, failed to win it any seats. The Congress and the BSP won four and one, respectively.

The two candidates, initiating this first of sorts in two of the largest Muslim-dominated areas in Ahmedabad, come from contrastingly different backgrounds. Saiyad, who retired as Additional DGP, Police Administration in 2008, is relying on both, his credentials as an administrator, as well as his religious identity. “Hubal watan minal inaam — love for one’s country is a part of honour,” he quotes in Arabic from the Hadis, a religious text, in his second floor office off the Sarkhej-Juhapura road. The area got added to Ahmedabad municipal limits only in 2010. Inspired to join the police after his father retired as a sub-inspector to their ancestral home in Mehsana, Narendra Modi’s home district, Saiyad joined the state police services in 1971 and the IPS seven years later.

He spent several of his over 30-year career in various positions in police training academies at Junagarh, Vadodara, and most recently, Gandhinagar — a career his peers term “uneventful”. His appointment as Additional DGP, Administration, in his last posting is ascribed to his proximity to PC Pande, who was Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad, during the 2002 riots and the state police chief when the Sohrabuddin encounter took place.

The Congress, which has 23 Muslim candidates, calls the BJP’s decision a ‘weak gesture’

Ansari Abdul Waseem, 46, who is contesting on a BJP ticket from Rajpur-Gomtipur area, is a tailor by profession, who now runs a small machine embroidery business in this area dominated by migrant Muslim textile workers from Uttar Pradesh. Having done his schooling till class VII in Urdu in the local municipal school, Waseem worked in a textile mill like his father before beginning tailoring, and then embarking on an embroidery business. He joined the BJP as a party worker 13 years ago. Waseem says he feels compelled to reverse the neglect of the past five Congress leaders elected from this area, including former mayor Himmat Patel.

The one strand that runs common in both aspirants is their response to the 2002 riots. “The riots were not communal, call them anything else,” says Saiyad, who recalls that his car was stopped by a rioting mob but allowed to go without any violence. “Riots like that have been endemic to this city. They happened in 1969, 1985, even 2000. They are not something I wish to talk of,” says Waseem.

It is not a memory everyone has been able to put behind. “I watched my son’s skin burn and peel off till his ankles, he spent a month in hospital. First they destroyed everything and raped mothers, and now they are here to fill their pockets with money,” says Shahjehan, a 55-year-old, dismissing the campaign rally passing by her house in the narrow kachha lanes of Rajpur. “This could be a trick,” says Iqbal Hussain, depositing the saffron and green campaign flyer in a bin he keeps outside his grocery shop. “It would be fair to give them a chance,” differs 22- year-old Abdul.

There are others who are not convinced. “These candidates are opportunistic, they have given into BJP’s tokenism,” says Sohel Sachora, who works in the dairy industry and organises educational events for the Students Islamic Organisation. Older Islamic leaders see this as a political message. “Nitish Kumar made it clear that Modi and his politics is not welcome in Bihar. With this, the BJP wants to claim that Muslims in Gujarat vote for it,” said Shafi Madani, the state president of Jamat-e-Islami Hind.

Whatever be the BJP’s motives, the verdict will be known in about a week.

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