If Narendra Modi was to run for elections from this portside town in Gujarat where more than 80 per cent residents are Muslims, he would probably win hands down.
According to conventional wisdom, the BJP should not get a single Muslim vote in a state often described as deeply divided on religious lines. But many here are breaking the taboo, moving on from the bitterness and horror of the riots in 2002, when the state government was accused of doing little to protect Muslims.
Sikka in Jamnagar district elected 19 members of the BJP among its 21 councillors two years ago. Of them, 14 are Muslims.
“Since 1947, the Congress was continuously returned to power here. For the first time, everyone supported the BJP in the urban bodies poll last year on hopes that we would also get a share in the gains of development,” said Ahmedbhai Dawoodbhai, a 58-year-old fisherman. “We will vote for the BJP in these elections, too.”
There are other such islands of Muslim support for Modi where the BJP won municipality elections two years ago. These include Niyana town in Rajkot district, Pardi in Surendranagar and Arrod in Bharuch.
For many Muslims, good governance has blunted the sharp edges of their hostility towards Modi.
“If pockets are empty, there will be violence. If people are jobless, there will be violence. Now that everyone is getting jobs, why should there be riots,” asked Ali Asghar Attarwala, an architect in Jamnagar town.
Gujarat’s 45 lakh Muslims form just over 9 per cent of the state’s population, according to the 2001 Census. The literacy rate is 73 per cent, higher than the national average of 65 per cent for all citizens. On most other counts, including sex ratio and work participation, they fare better than the national average for all religions.
“Many Muslims are realising that the only truth is development,” said Hatim Modi, a Muslim who works as a defence contractor. “We have been used by others. We won’t ever forget the riots — but the reality is about development.”
“And there are no inflammatory speeches now,” he added.
All that does not mean Muslims are expected to vote for Modi in large numbers. But their attitude towards him has softened a bit, and so has Modi, they say.
This is also visible hundreds of kilometres to the east from Sikka in the Sabarkantha district, one of the worst affected in the 2002 riots.
Khadim Lalpuri, a community leader and Urdu poet, led the Muslim Coordination Committee that organised relief efforts. But the man who used to bitterly slam Modi has watered down his criticism.
“It seems that there have been some changes in Modi,” said Lalpuri in Himmatnagar town. “The aggressive and tough stand that he had earlier towards Muslims seems to have softened.”
In Sikka, not every one is thrilled with the BJP-dominated municipal council. But the opposition has nothing to do the party and its attitude towards Muslim constituents.
“We voted for the BJP hoping for development. But we still do not have jobs. But it’s not about being Hindu or Muslim,” said Ishakbhai Hasan, 45.
Still, Sikka is swearing by Modi for now.
“How long can we hang on to the past? This country has to go forward, not backward,” said local resident Fakhruddin Bhai. “Everyone has their view but no other chief minister has done as much as Modi. He is not just the chief minister of Hindus.”