The credibility that Narendra Modi has acquired among many Hindu voters over the years is for what his government oversaw in 2002; not for engineering a spectacular model of economic development

There is little doubt that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be back in power in Gujarat in the next fortnight. A vote in favour of the Congress, the only longstanding rival to the BJP in the State, would be no less than a tactical mistake. Despairingly or pragmatically, a certain section of Muslims continue to support the BJP even after their intuitive belief was proved right — that Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘sadbhavana’ felt too fantastic to be real. Indeed, of 182 BJP contestants fighting the elections, none is a Muslim.

But for every Gujarati Muslim compelled by pragmatism, there are twice as many who would willingly make the tactical mistake of choosing a party that has little chance of gaining power than a nearly invincible BJP. Here are three reasons why:

1. The cover of ‘development’

Every day the media reports statistical figures either giving evidence of the BJP’s economic achievements in Gujarat transgressing class and religion or counterevidence suggesting a skew in this eulogised model of development. Either way, the story of the BJP’s success in the last 10 years in the State is crucially centred on economic development. How true this is is of little relevance. The point is that the development story is an insidious cover: the credibility that Mr. Modi has acquired among large sections of Gujarati Hindu voters over the years is for what his government oversaw in 2002 and later in extra-judicial killings of Muslims, not for engineering a spectacular model of economic development. “Modi had the audacity to take on the might of the aggressive Muslims and to preserve our ‘asmita’ (regional pride). He is a real lion!” This is something I hear from Gujarati Hindus quite often during research in Ahmedabad.

At the heart of ‘asmita’ is a discourse of nativism and mobilisation around a narrative that had long seen Gujaratis as victims of outside meddlers, write Nalin and Mona G. Mehta in their edited book, Gujarat Beyond Gandhi: Identity, Conflict and Society. Victimhood of the Gujarati Hindu formed the core of the nativism. Indeed, provision of State resources and economic development are not the real winning factors for the BJP. In avoiding Muslim representation in the elections, the party has clarified that it has no intention to veer from its ideological commitment to Gujarati ‘asmita’ and Hindu nationalism. Unlike a Congress that can be held by the scruff of its neck for swaying away from its secular ideology, the BJP cannot be held accountable for ‘sadbhavana’ promises broken.

2. ‘Ten years of peace’

This is the BJP’s favourite catchphrase after ‘development.’ Sure, in Gujarat’s most riot-prone city of Ahmedabad, communal violence and curfews were so recurrent during Congress governments that a year without a big or small riot would find a centre spot in our year-enders. But are these 10 years of peace under BJP rule as vibrant as its economy?

Recently, Mr. Modi chose two important constituencies in Ahmedabad to make his electoral appeal to the voters: Vejalpur and Jamalpur-Khadia. As urban vocabulary goes in highly segregated Ahmedabad, both are ‘border’ constituencies. Unlike earlier, Mr. Modi was careful not to overdo the identity rhetoric. If in 2002 he used ‘Miyan’ Musharraf in the pejorative, 10 years later he is quick to clarify how his venerable reference to Ahmed ‘miyan’ Patel was misconstrued as a communal slur. Even as Hindus on one side cheered to every remark that their charismatic leader made, Muslims stayed silent. For many of them, Mr. Modi was giving across an untrustworthy signal. “I will not vote for him, though I fear that if I don’t there could be another riot,” my autorickshaw driver, a Muslim man from Jamalpur, said. In expressing his dilemma, the rickshaw driver simplified a vast scholarly literature on the subject of Hindu-Muslim relations in India: that electoral competition and violence are crucially linked. If there is peace in Gujarat today, it is primarily because violence is not required.

In addition, Ahmedabad is as polarised as it used to be and Muslims continue to be refused housing. A ‘Muslim property show’ held in Ahmedabad last month — the first of its kind in the country — was sad proof of Muslims reconciling to the fact that life in post-riot ghettos is a permanent reality.

Where communal segregation is assumed to be normal, peacefulness cannot be normal.

3. Legitimisation of prejudice

Anti-Muslim prejudice is rooted in most of urban Gujarat. It always was, even before 2002, when the Congress was in power. It is quite well known that asking a stranger her caste and religion in the first meeting is acceptable in Gujarat. ‘Tame keva? (literal: what are you?)’ rarely evokes embarrassment. In earlier times, if the recipient of this question was discovered to be a Muslim, the conversation would either reach an impasse or take on a more formal tone. Prejudice was profound but latent; a semblance of guilt in expressing anti-Muslim prejudice existed. The difference then and now is the expression of this prejudice. In these 10 years of peace the guilt has disappeared. Muslim hatred is completely acceptable today, for many continue their rant against Muslims even after they discover they are talking to one. Is the earlier hypocrisy preferred to the existing cockiness? Maybe so if one believes that legitimised prejudice is worse than calculated normality.

As a Muslim myself, I am proud of being part of a thriving democracy. But a thriving democracy inevitably means chaos and the liberty to dissent. The fear of disrupting peace by showing dissent is as frightening as violence. Development is as much about human dignity as it is about gross domestic product.

(Raheel Dhattiwala is a doctoral student in Sociology in the U.K.)

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