India’s political parties pay price for ignoring Muslims in crucial poll battle
India’s two main political parties have paid the price for ignoring Muslim voters in the crucial elections to the legislative assembly of Gujarat state whose results were declared on December 18.
The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) registered its worst performance—but its sixth straight victory--by just managing to keep its head above water in the bipolar ballotbox battle, winning only seven more seats than the 92 required for forming a government as it turned a Nelson’s eye toward the state’s five million-odd Muslims.
The Congress, too, let slide a golden opportunity of grabbing power from the saffron party after 22 years in the wilderness by cold-shouldering the minority community and fell flat after bagging 80 seats, though this was its best show since 1985.
While the BJP did not bother to field a single Muslim candidate in any of the 182 constituencies, the Grand Old Party gave the election ticket to only six men from the community constituting about 10 per cent of the population in the state which now has only three victorious lawmakers in the House against 12 in 1985.
As Abdul Hafiz Lakhani, editor of the popular fortnightly, Gujarat Siyasat, pointed out, the near-absence of any minority discourse in the high-octane campaign and the silence imposed on minority organizations in raising their demands left the hard-pressed Muslims disinterested in the crucial assembly polls, reducing their turnout by 4 per cent.
“I congratulate the Muslims of Gujarat for showing their maturity in voting patterns and their refusal to be treated as a captive vote bank of any particular party”, said Lakhani, adding that the Congress made an ideological blunder by playing a softer version of the right-wing ideology.
Indeed, during his whistle-stop tours, Rahul Gandhi, the sixth generation Congress president from the Nehru-Gandhi family, visited 27 Hindu temples. But, in none of his 30 jam-packed public meetings throughout Gujarat, he did not utter a word about the sorry plight of Muslims reduced to second-class citizens and forced to live in ghettos what with the majority community not offering jobs or houses in their midst.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP’s one and only star campaigner, purposefully hurled disparaging anti-Muslim innuendos in his every rabble-rousing speech and succeeded in consolidating Hindu votes in minority-dominated areas. Truth to tell, the BJP lead was as large as 40 per cent in constituencies where Muslims formed 20 per cent of population in the two-phase elections held on December 9 and 14.
In sharp contrast, 35-year-old Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani fought polls as an independent and kept speaking about injustice to Muslims in Gujarat during his campaign rallies and defeated his BJP rival by more than 20,000 votes even though the Muslim turnout this time has fallen from 72.17 per cent in 2012 to 68-59 per cent.
Of the 20 Muslim-dominated constituencies, 13 went to the BJP and seven to the Congress but Muslim voters’ preferences tilted the scales in 36 seats where the victory margin was less than 3,000 votes. Again, there were hundreds of Muslims among the 550,000 mostly-young voters who were angry with both the BJP and the Congress chose to press the none-of-the-above button in at least 28 seats.
Apart from Muslims’ disenchantment, there were other reasons, too, which stopped the Congress in its tracks after pocketing 80 seats—internal squabbles, lack of a local charismatic leader, failure to declare the chief minister’s face, lack of dedicated volunteers, late entry of Rahul Gandhi, wrong choice of candidates, etc.
Modi, who was the Gujarat chief minister for 13 years till he ascended the Delhi throne in 2014, and his alter ego hailing from Gujarat, BJP chief Amit Shah, have blotted their copybook with the unexpected outcome of the close contest in which the duo was confident of capturing at least 150 seats to the break the Congress’s 149-seat 1985 record.
In fact, while Gandhi’s temple run fetched the party 18 seats, social activist and lawyer Khemchand Koshti drew the attention of this correspondent to the fact that Modi’s 34 rallies in 43 days did not impress voters in 12 seats where the saffron party had to bite the dust.
Koshti, who has been raising his voice against several public issues, including a thoughtless 2015 legislation for compulsory voting, feels that despite several complaints of faulty electronic voting machines, the Election Commission has failed to give a convincing reply on the results which also proved that while the BJP triumphed in urban areas, the Congress wooed the countryside.
Of the 55 urban seats, the walked away with 43 and the Congress bagged 12. In the 127 rural seats, however, the Congress reigned supreme in as many as 71 and the BJP took 57 at the hustings where five BJP and four top-drawer Congress leaders suffered humiliating defeats.
Although four women from the Congress and eight from the BJP women have been elected, Ruzan Khambatta, who has been campaigning for women empowerment for several years, says that both the BJP and the Congress kept promising about a 33 per cent quota for women, they had fielded just ten each.
“The two parties would do well to learn lessons from the outcome of the elections by at least refraining from using communal inflammatory speeches at the cost of damaging the social fabric of Gujarat”, she sums up.