On The Campaign Trail - Ghosts of 2002 Continue to Haunt Godhra
Battle of Contrasts in Gujarat Campaigns
The small town of Godhra in Panchmahal district of Gujarat stands established in the political history of the country. It was the burning of S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002 in which 59 Kar Sewaks were charred to death, that triggered anti-Muslim violence across the state in which hundreds perished.
Thanks to the political class, the town has been unable to wash away that stigma till date. Election after election it has found a place in the politicians' narrative as they try to rake up the past to reap votes. The current elections are no different.
The town was in news again, as it was from here that the rapists of Bilkis Bano, a victim of the 2002 violence, were released on Independence Day. This was followed by the comment of the local Bharatiya Janata Party (MLA) CK Raulji who reportedly said that the rape convicts set free were 'Brahmins with good Sanskar'. He later backtracked.
Raulji was in the committee that had recommended the release of the convicted rapists. The BJP has fielded him again from the seat against Rashmitaben Chauhan even as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) have also fielded their candidates. The constituency goes to polls on December 5.
A visit to the town shows that it continues to be completely polarised. The two communities are segregated with there being hardly any effort all this while to bring them closer.
A round of the Polan Bazaar and Signal Falia areas that have an almost absolute Muslim population revealed that the community is hurt by the politicians trying to rake up the 2002 happenings repeatedly and allowing the people to overcome that stigma.
"I want to convey this to Amit Shah. You are our Home Minister. Talk of things around education and development, something that we appreciate. Why do you want to play on divisiveness just for votes? Even Asaduddin Owaisi is doing the same by responding to Shah's comment and playing up the issue among Muslims. Why can't they let us be? The case has seen convictions and those responsible for train burning have been duly punished," said an eminent resident of the area who did not want to be named.
"Everyone understands how one side tries to create a fear among the majority community about us for votes. The other side indulges in polarisation politics. No one talks about the pitiable conditions here. There are no public sector banks in our part of the city. There is reluctance to issue us even ATM cards. The basic amenities are missing and our repeated requests go unheard. Just go to the other side and you will see good infrastructure, new hospitals coming up and proper sanitation. There have been tall claims and talks but our part of the city remains where it was," lamented a restaurant owner.
The stark difference in the areas where the two communities live can be seen clearly. Godhra constituency has around 2.80 lakh votes out of which the Muslims in the town account for around 70,000 voters while Hindus in the city are around 80,000 voters. The Muslim voters say that the BJP has not even bothered to seek their votes.
"The others came including AIMIM and AAP but the mathematics is simple. In the city, polarisation ensures that the majority of the Hindu votes go to the BJP while the Muslim votes get divided between the remaining three players," said a shopkeeper.
The minority sentiment was visible through a torn banner that still hangs near Rani Masjid. It read, "Sambhle Congress Netrutva…Minority ne ticket nahi toh minority na vote nahi' (The Congress should understand that if there is no election ticket to the minority, there will be no votes from the minority)."
Kesri Chowk in this area stands out as a symbol of sycophancy that has been a part and parcel of Indian politics. Somewhere around 2006, a local Muslim businessman in consultation with a bureaucrat had proposed to name the roundabout as "Modi Chowk' along with the idea of hoisting the national flag there daily. But the very idea of its nomenclature had drawn a sharp reaction from the Muslim community, and he had to name it Kesri Chowk.
The BJP's candidate Raulji had come to the saffron fold before the 2017 polls. He had earlier been with the Janata Dal, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) that had been floated by former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela. Raulji's supporters, however, are clear. "For us it is the symbol that matters. The party leadership had inducted him and fielded him successfully last time also after due consideration," said Dalip Dasadiya who is the chief of the party's local unit.
"It was not Raulji alone who decided upon the release of those who had spent 20 years in jail in the Bilkis case. There were other members including bureaucrats in the committee that recommended the release following due procedure. The release was no issue over here. It was raked up," said KT Parikh, vice chairman of a local co-operative.
The two leaders said that the BJP has a blueprint ready for Godhra's development and the target is to spend Rs 200 crores for the purpose. They said that the development plan was to improve local civic infrastructure, develop the local cremation ground, increase the seats in the medical college, beautify local Ram Sagar lake besides other projects.
However, it is the ethos and will to bring the two communities together that is missing. Even the rational voices on the other side worried that radicalisation of the youth is continuing unabated. The voices of logic and reasoning are getting lost at a fast pace. The divide continues to increase and the stigma of 2002 continues to rankle as the politicians refuse to let the ghosts of those dark days lie down.
As a local journalist remarked, "Sadly this is the only story to write from here. It is also a journalist's dilemma whether to continue writing about hate and divide."
Campaign Trail - Battle of Contrasts in Gujarat Campaigns
The ongoing battle for Gujarat assembly polls, the results to which will be declared on December 8, will go down as a battle of contrasts when it comes to campaigning. It remains to be seen whether the same contrasts will follow in the polls to follow. These reflect who has the resources, grassroots links and the differences in the issues being raised as well. The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) campaign has been loud and shrill, while that of its traditional rival, the Congress, has been a muted one. The new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has tried to introduce the mode of campaign that it has tried and tested in Delhi and Punjab.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) campaign has been loud and shrill, while that of its traditional rival, the Congress, has been a muted one. The new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has tried to introduce the mode of campaign that it has tried and tested in Delhi and Punjab.
A common refrain that one gets to hear from political observers and also the common man is that this election will go down as one of the dullest and colourless ones and the contrasts in campaigning have a role to play in that. Talking from the viewpoint of voters, they have not been showing much interest and taking everything as a matter of routine. "What can I say? I just know that anyone who gets elected will first fill his or her own coffers. Do you think they give a damn to how the common man is reeling under inflation and economic insecurity?" said an autorickshaw driver as he took this reporter around the old city of Ahmedabad which the BJP leaders refer to as Karnawati.
The cacophony that one gets to enjoy in the other parts of the country particularly in the plains of the Hindi heartland and also the southern states is not visible in Gujarat. For the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home minister Amit Shah taking the reins into their hands right from the beginning simply translated into raising an emotional pitch laced with communal undertones. Also Read - BJY- 'In Your Market of Hate We Have Come to Open the Market of Love' So it was not a surprise when the talk has all been about abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, construction of Narmada dam, bomb blasts in the past, 'teaching a lesson' to those responsible for Godhra train burning etc. PM Modi has added the element of him being targeted and making the campaign all about himself when he has been asking people to not bother about the candidate but vote for him. He has once again raked up the tried and tested tact of playing on Gujarati 'Asmita' (pride).
He has been involving the people in saying 'I have made this Gujarat' thus giving them a sense of belonging and pride at the same time. He has taken to the road show mode demonstrating and also building up on his popularity with Gujaratis. "You need to understand how it has been Modi who gave metro rail to Ahmedabad, developed Sabarmati river front, brought Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) and other development projects. Do you think he has done this all for himself? Do you think he will be travelling in the Metro or BRTS? No, he has done this for us," pointed a resident of Gomtipur.
Interestingly, one gets to hear loud songs reminding one of the pre-Babri demolition days when the BJP was climbing the political ladder when one visits the downtown localities of cities like Ahmedabad or mofussil towns like Godhra, Tankara etc. These songs have a chorus like 'Bharat mein jo rehna hoga Vande Matram kehna hoga' (You will have to chant Vande Matram) if you want to live in India). The BJP's mobile campaign vans that have been travelling in the hinterland of the state simply exude affluence. The party has flooded the state with its chief ministers and leaders from other states and central units. In sheer contrast, the Congress campaign has been muffled. In fact, it was Modi who drew public attention to the 'Khatla Baithaks' (cot meetings) being organised by the Congress leaders in the villages. Till then even the local media was unaware of what was going on and there were stories going around that the Congress campaign was a nonstarter and an unimaginative one.
PM Modi had gone a step ahead to provoke the Congress saying that it had sublet the task of abusing him (in an apparent reference to AAP). This has been another aspect of the Congress campaign wherein the leadership, the state leaders in particular, has not targeted Modi personally and focused mainly on attacking his model instead.
Senior party leader Shaktisinh Gohil said in an interaction, "Modi model is not Gujarat model. It is Mahatma Gandhi's model of compassion and nonviolence which is the real Gujarat model." An interesting aspect of the Congress campaign is that it is the leadership from Delhi that has taken up the task of media interactions in Ahmedabad while the state leadership has been pushed out in the field.
"It is a good thing as the state leaders just sat in their air conditioned chambers and made sweeping statements with no connection with the ground," said a reporter with a local newspaper. The Congress has been countering BJP's development plank by trying to convey to the people that it was the grand old party's leadership that conceived and executed Narmada project, brought institutions like National Institute of Design, Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) besides developing the milk cooperatives under Operation Flood. The campaigners have been reaching out through videos to tell that it was the Congress that had initiated the majority of the things for which Modi and his party are now taking credit. The party's tagline encapsulates everything as it reads 'Congress nu kaam bole che' (Congress' work speaks for itself). Party leader Raghu Sharma said, "Our workers have concentrated on booth management and reached out to 1.5 crore families. Everyone knows the Congress that has taken up the people's issues of inflation, unemployment and social security."
On the other hand, AAP has been banking heavily on its hyper local mode of campaign, reaching out to the people through roadshows while raking up the issues of governance. There are constituencies where people are largely unaware of AAP candidates and then there are constituencies where the party has been drawing huge crowds that have surpassed even those coming to the events of its rivals. Its promises on power, education and health facilities have clicked with the people.
"I want my expenses to come down. The government has people's money that is meant to be spent on the people, not for the air travel and luxuries of those in power," is a sentiment that one gets to hear all over. But the issue that still remains is whether AAP workers manage to bring these crowds to the polling booths," observed veteran political observer Kaushik Mehta in Rajkot.
The fourth player All India Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has been confined to Muslim pockets with its leader Asaduddin Owaisi having made multiple forays into the state over the last several months. But it is yet to gain the confidence of its core constituency of Muslims. Political analysts from the community view it as 'Leela Kamal' (Green lotus) with lotus being the poll symbol of the BJP. A large section of the community sees AIMIM as a polarising force that will cut the Congress votes. They say that the tone and tenor of the AIMIM leadership does not go to help the leadership in any way but only to help the saffron forces who already have a tight grip over the state.
All Photographs Rajeev Khanna.