The Congress’s bind
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In Gujarat, the party has belatedly broken its silence on Muslims, and done it badly
For the first time in this campaign, the prime minister broke his party's careful silence on Gujarat's minorities and their sense of security and belonging. Meanwhile, Sushilkumar Shinde fired off an ill-considered statement about how "a man named Ibrahim" came to head the Intelligence Bureau because of Sonia Gandhi's benevolence. The Congress in Gujarat is unhappy, having decided that any mention of communal faultlines would only strengthen Narendra Modi's campaign. Even party president Sonia Gandhi, who in 2007 referred to Modi as "maut ka saudagar", has now confined herself to countering his claims about development.
The Congress manifesto this year has also clearly changed tack — in 2007, it charged Modi with ignoring the needs of the riot-affected, of "hatred and contempt for Muslims" but this time, it makes no direct mention of Muslims, enfolding them with Dalits, tribals and other minorities who are not a priority for the Modi government. The matter of encounter killings has also been deliberately elided. This may be a pragmatic acknowledgment of a changed context, the fact that addressing itself to 2002 will not help it in 2012. Or it could be that the Congress calculates that polarising votes by religion will not work to its advantage now that its old "Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim" combination has unravelled, and given that Modi would once again invoke Gujarati solidarity against those who malign the state from outside. Either way, the matter of Muslim well-being is not an issue it wants to talk about in any concrete way.
Modi's reaction to the prime minister's speech was telling. After weeks of finding no response to his aggressive rhetoric, Manmohan Singh's mention of minorities gave him a chance to hold forth on "votebank politics", on how Gujarat did not distinguish between minority and majority. Modi brought up the "communal" violence in Assam, the Mumbai girl who moved to Gujarat after being targeted for anti-Shiv Sena Facebook comments. Of course, he did not confront the question of whether Muslims felt secure in the state. And so it has come to be that Gujarat's Muslims,