Gujarat polls: Triple-talaq row may not translate into deluge of Muslim votes for BJP

Electoral issues usually mean little to Zakia Ahmed*, an anaesthetist, and Zainab*, an engineer. The sisters, who struggled to finance their education, are more concerned about everyday challenges faced by working women in metropolitan cities.

However, with the assembly elections coming up, conversations at home are bound to be peppered with politics and nuggets on the race between various parties to bag the Muslim vote.

Though the two are tight-lipped about their choices for the upcoming electoral contest, they seem willing to compare notes on what various political parties have to offer them. High on their list of topics is the BJP’s campaign to end triple talaq, the controversial Islamic practice of immediate divorce, and both are unanimous in the opinion that the party has done well in appropriating the issue.

“It is a very good step,” Zainab says laughingly, catching her husband’s eye.

The sisters, however, are far from swayed by the campaign. Zakia, who was able to pay for her medical college fee through a private Jeddha bank’s philanthropy programme, says they would be more impressed if the BJP were to offer financial aid to the community – so women like her could pursue their dreams.

“My grandfather decided to educate us although even men don’t aspire for educational degrees in the place we hail from,” says Zainab, who holds a government job.

In Gujarat, the issue of triple talaq may not yield political dividends for the incumbent party in the Muslim community. The party’s efforts are appreciated, but not spoken of in superlatives. While many admit that triple talaq could pave the way for the community to bring in similar reforms, such as ending discrimination against women, there is little evidence to show that the unease and distrust towards the saffron party (which emerged as a consequence of the 2002 riots) have dissipated.

“The campaign to fight for the rights of Muslim women was well-received within the community, but it is no game changer. While a small section of the Muslims has always voted for the BJP, there is no indication that more would join in because of the triple-talaq issue,” said an Ahmedabad-based educationist on the condition of anonymity.

She said Gujarati Muslims are progressive when compared to their counterparts in other states, which is why they have welcomed the BJP’s campaign to end the practice.

However, Rashida Ben – who works with non-government organisation Adhikar Prapti Kendra in Ahmedabad – differs on the matter. She dismisses triple talaq as an issue where the BJP has “interfered with the community’s faith”.

“We are not interested (in triple talaq); there are courts for that (to provide justice to women). We are more interested in knowing why the party did not fulfil its promises of providing jobs and depositing money in our accounts,” Rashida Ben says.

After winning the Uttar Pradesh elections with a brute majority, the BJP claimed that it had bagged many votes from the Muslim community – especially women – as well. The party, which had until then made no bones about coalescing the Hindu vote, found a chance to build bridges with the Muslim community with the anti-triple talaq campaign.

The 2011 Census report shows that Muslims constitute 9.67% of Gujarat’s total population, dominating as many as 20 assembly constituencies in mostly urban areas. However, there are no overt signs of the community being impressed with the incumbent government, although certain sections such as the Bohras and the Khojas are not averse to voting for the BJP. The saffron party is also too busy trying to prevent the Patidar community from drifting away and retaining the votes of traders miffed with the demonetisation and GST initiatives to aggressively pursue the Muslim vote.

“It is a myth that Muslims vote as a monolith. However, the difference is that unlike 2012, when there seemed to be little option but to vote for the seemingly invincible BJP, they now see a viable alternative in the Congress. Also, given that even other communities such as the Patidars are also extending their support to the Congress, Muslims are not apprehensive of sticking out like a sore thumb in this regard,” says Afroz Alam, head of the political science department at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.

Alam believes the BJP’s pitch to end triple talaq is not so much an initiative to woo Muslims as an image-changing exercise aimed at pitching itself as a secular and centrist party before those who view it as a divisive force. “Muslims are as fractured in voting choices as any other community. Voting patterns depend on region, gender and even caste. Take Uttar Pradesh, for instance, where the BJP won even in Muslim-dominated constituencies,” he says.

Meanwhile, news that the Maulana Aamir Rashadi Madni-founded Rashtriya Ulema Council (RUC) would be contesting at least 10 seats in the assembly polls has barely created a flutter in the community. Most Muslims do not see the RUC turning into a veritable political force at least this time round.