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|November 21, 1998||
Muslim voters return to the Congress fold
Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Bharuch
It is a truism of Indian politics that after December 6, 1992, the Muslims as a vote bank en bloc shifted their account away from the Congress party. This is borne out empirically as well; since then the party has been as stable as a two-legged stool.
Of course, in their anger at the party's failure to protect the community's interests, Muslims have even chosen what they saw as the lesser of two evils, preferring the openly inimical saffron brigade, thereby engendering a tectonic shift in the Bharatiya Janata Party and allies' attitude to the minorities, than siding with the Janus-faced Congress. Witness Rampur, the constituency in Uttar Pradesh with a large concentration of Muslims, returning, in February 1998, the BJP's Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
But of course, the Bharuch Lok Sabha constituency, whose one million electorate includes a significant 18 per cent Muslims, does not conform to this simplification. Here, Muslims have internalised the traumatic aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and careened back to the Congress, en bloc. Today, it is almost like December 6, 1992, never happened.
"We did leave the Congress in the 1996 election," says Rahim, auto-driver. "Today we believe the Congress alone can save us from the BJP."
This is a view that is echoed across the sprawling constituency, whose landscape in the interiors is as settled with mud huts as it is with pale-green minarets. This is a fact the local BJP has accepted as a home truth, eschewing its central leadership's claims that the minorities are veering to the party's fold. "There's are some 200,000 Muslim voters here, and our calculations do not include them," admits a BJP official. Reason? Simple: they only vote Congress.
In Mohamedpura, in Bharuch city, a Muslim enclave with typical mohallas (lanes) and heart-breakingly beautiful Muslim girls rushing to school, the belief is reinforced. "Who protected us when the riots broke out here in 1992-93?" spat out Ahmedbhai. "You Hindus? But you were the ones slaughtering us..."
"Saare desh mein Bharuch ek hi seat hai jahan kattartha dono ke dil me utar gaya," points out a BJP pramukh (local chief) in far-flung Dediapada, a tribal assembly segment where the winning BJP candidate, the now deceased Chandubhai Deshmukh of the saffron party came third in February 1998. "They can never trust each other again..."
Of course, who cast the first stone in Bharuch following what a gang of unruly Hindus did in distant Ayodhya will always be coloured in green or saffron. "Saalah, yeh log sachmuch paagal hain... kya zaroorat thi hamein maarne ki?" asks Amar, my driver for the day and staunch Congress supporter. "Sab ko to maaloom hai yeh logon ne maara-maari shuru kiya tha."
Let the central leadership of all parties give their spiel about secular voting; the fact on the ground is that voting is always on communal lines, a belief which is reinforced in Bharuch. The Congress reinforces its politics by fielding only Muslim candidates, the Janata Dal has a good bet in Chhotubhai Vasava, an adivasi (tribal), and the BJP is extending its reach across both adivasi and Hindu.
Given the mindset of people, it is very easy: sow an idea and reap a vote. In Mangrole, another assembly segment, a meeting is in progress in the local temple, where the BJP brass from Ahmedabad is reassuring the local populace of its sincerity. The venue is significant, since roughly a fifth of the population will not enter it, just as they do not enter the BJP's calculations.
In the February 1998 election, the non-BJP votes far outnumbered the BJP votes in all the assembly segments, though roughly 400,000 voters stayed out of the polling booths. Realising the photofinish that the bye-election will also produce, the BJP is moving on the fast track, mobilising its support base with a vengeance.
For the Muslims of Bharuch, there is no bigger motivation to go with the Congress, warts and all, than the spectre of the 'other side' consolidating itself.
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