Of the 6 crore people in Gujarat, about 55 lakh or 9% are Muslims. But their presence in state politics in terms of representation or discussion is next to nothing. Since 1998, there hasn’t been a single Muslim minister in Gujarat and for a long time the ruling BJP has not even had a Muslim MLA.
The outgoing assembly has five Muslim MLAs — all from the Congress — constituting 2.7% of the house’s strength of 182.
The Congress has fielded seven Muslims this time while the BJP and Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) have fielded none.
Though the 2002 pogrom against the community is not talked about at all and Muslims are not sought after, the prevalent suspicion about them is invoked in this election too. “The Congress wants to make Ahmad mian Patel the chief minister of Gujarat,” said CM Narendra Modi at election rallies. Though their 9% presence is too small to be of any electoral consequence, it’s large enough to constitute a significant ‘other’.
In states where Muslims wield political influence, they comprise a much larger proportion of the population – 18.5% in Uttar Pradesh, 16.5% in Bihar and nearly 25% in Kerala.
“Moreover, in Gujarat, Muslims are fragmented into 87 sub-groups. The Bohras, Khojas and Memons, who are mercantile, have entirely different political preferences compared to artisans, fishermen and pastoralists,” says social scientist Achyut Yagnik.
In the Congress’s Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim (KHAM) alliance until the 1980s, Muslims had a place in Gujarat.
Their subsequent marginalisation is linked to the unique format of caste and Hindutva politics that took shape in the state compared to UP and Bihar from the early 1990s. In the friction between caste and Hindu identities, in Gujarat, the Hindu identity prevailed while in Bihar and UP, caste triumphed.
Yadavs, the dominant caste excluded from Congress politics, allied with Muslims who had broken away from Congress after the Babri Masjid demolition, and made a formidable alliance.
In Gujarat, however, the Patels, who were excluded from Congress politics, sought empowerment in Hindutva. “Caste identity is very important in Gujarat, but that operates within and is secondary to the Hindu identity. Patels were the core of the BJP through the 1990s,” points out political scientist Mona Mehta.
Even now, when a section of Patels is fighting Modi’s dominance by floating the GPP, they don’t look at Muslims as potential allies. On the contrary, Keshubhai Patel taunted Modi for trying to appease Muslims through his sadbhavana initiative.
After the 2002 pogrom Muslims were pushed into further isolation as Hindutva mopped up a sizeable section of scheduled castes and tribes, who were once part of the KHAM alliance.
After the defeats of 2002 and 2007, the Congress concluded that raising the issue of the 2002 riots would only lead to Hindu consolidation in favour of Modi and therefore decided to stay silent this season. Muslims are neither out of sight nor out of mind. They are there, but only as the ‘other’.