Vadodara: He narrowly escaped death in 2002 when a mob torched his house in a Vadodara neighbourhood. Ten years after that near-death experience, noted activist Juzar Saleh Bandukwala believes that Narendra Modi, the man who allegedly allowed Hindu mobs to go berserk in 2002 in Gujarat, will win the upcoming state elections but with only a slim margin.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is splintered, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel has mutinied and, contrary to the hype of economic progress, people at the bottom of the social pyramid are doing badly. Plus, there is the communal divide, says Bandukwala, who believes that the elections next month will be tantalisingly close.
"The elections in Gujarat in December will be a close fight. Contrary to popular public perception, there will be no sweeping majority for Modi," Bandukwala, a former physics professor from M.S. University, told IANS in an interview.
"Keshubhai Patel has mutinied. He could well split the Patel vote (19 percent of Gujarat's population). The Congress itself is trying to woo the Patels. In their latest cabinet reshuffle, they made Dinsha Patel a cabinet minister. So, who knows," he said, referring to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Sunday elevating Dinsha Patel to cabinet rank.
Bandukwala, 68, who has also been president of the Gujarat wing of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), added that the economic situation could also prove to be factor for Modi - held up as a model chief minister by some for propelling the state towards prosperity but also believed to be responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots that saw 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, being killed.
"Contrary to the 'Vibrant Gujarat' hype that Modi has built up in the last decade, the economic situation for those at the bottom in the state is very bad. But it has been masked by heavy communal polarisation. One does not know how poor Hindus will vote in this election. Much also depends on the Dalit community will vote," the veteran activist added.
And how will Muslims in Gujarat vote in this election?
"With the exception of a tiny fragment, they will not vote for Modi. Only Bohras may vote for him since they have mercantile concerns," Bandukwala, who has been one of the most articulate Muslim voices in Gujarat, asserted.
So does that mean that Muslims will vote en masse for the Congress?
"Much depends on how the Congress will react. They have not cultivated Gujarat's Muslims till now," he said, blaming Sonia Gandhi's close aide Ahmed Patel who he believes can be held responsible for either a "general or a Muslim leadership" to evolve in the Congress in Gujarat.
"There is an absence of elected Muslim leadership in Gujarat. So Muslims feel they don't have a voice."
Bandukwala dismisses the recent meeting between British High Commissioner James Bevan and Modi in Gandhinagar as of no real significance. Britain had maintained a 'no contact' policy with Modi after the riots.
"It is nothing really. Britain requires business as its economy has gone kaput. Gujarati Hindus are a powerful community there. They have taken advantage of the circumstances. But still, I am not worried as Britain is no longer top dog. I would be much more worried if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embrace Modi."
Asked what would be the foremost demand of Gujarat's Muslims if the Congress came to power, Bandukwala told IANS: "We only want security. We do not want a repeat of 2002, either in Gujarat or in the rest of the country.
"By god's grace, we (Gujarati Muslims) have been able to recover from 2002. We can never forget that leaders like Advani and Vajpayee remained silent in 2002. We only want that 2002 should not happen again."
And will Modi's removal from power help speed up the delivery of justice in the riot cases?
"Frankly, it does not matter who comes to power. In these 11, we have managed to get justice. But much remains to be done. And we will get there one day."