Malad resident Muhammed Gulzar Khan looked pensively at the people--many of whom were Muslims--who were trooping in at the the MMRDA grounds at the Bandra Kurla Complex where Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally on Sunday. "Yes, inflation hurts. Maybe people who earn a good amount are comfortable, but people like us...we can hardly make ends meet," said the handcart puller, listing jobs and education as some priority areas where the community lacked support from the government.
Khan may be representing the predicament of the minority Muslim community, which feels crushed under the weight of inflation, economic slowdown, lack of a social security net and opportunity for the common man to pull himself out of poverty but feels compelled to vote for the due to lack of viable alternatives and the fear around the BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi.
Muslims form around 14% of the population and can swing results in seats including the six segments in Mumbai, Though the cracks in its social combination are visible with some pointing to how Muslims had been neglected by successive Congress governments as indicated by poor educational and social indices, Congress leaders claim that the community will opt for "tactical and strategic voting" to defeat Modi.
"However, we will vote for the Congress," said Khan, expressing dismay that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal (who he mistakenly refers to as his former associate Anna Hazare), had chosen to throw in the towel in Delhi after just 49 days in power.
Khan said Kejriwal should have instead focussed on ensuring good governance in Delhi to become a viable alternative. "This shows that only two parties-- the Congress and BJP can run the country," said Khan, adding that since Modi was responsible for the "Godhra kand," the BJP was not an option for Muslims.
"We want jobs and better educational opportunities," said the shy Salman Khan from Malad, whose fortunes seem far removed from his more famous Bollywood namesake. He admitted that the community may be compelled to vote for the Congress due to factors like Modi's rise despite the anti-incumbency wave. Standing amidst the sizeable Muslim crowd which turned up at the rally, with the men in trademark skull caps and the Middle Eastern keffiyeh wrapped around their shoulders and women in burkhas, youngsters Sonu Shaikh and Akshay Salve admit that they may be more comfortable with the change of the dispensation at the Centre.
"We are here because the Congress is strong in our Antop Hill neighborhood. They help us in need. In contrast, the BJP's network there is weak," said Akshay, admitting that the BJP may be a better choice for the people. Shaikh sheepishly nodded his assent even as Congress speakers held forth on "Feku Modi." "The Congress is facing the peoples ire on issues like inflation and joblessness," said a Muslim activist of the Congress from the eastern suburbs, adding that however, the polls were being fought on the "communalism vs secularism issue" which would deliver crucial minority votes into the party kitty.
"The Muslims are safeguarding their votes, they will not waste them," he said. "Surprising as it may sound, I do not consider Modi to be communal," he chuckled, adding that the Gujarat chief minister, who has been attacked by opponents for the 2002 riots which happened under his watch, had infact defanged and sidelined Hindutva hardliners within his party including BJP patriarch L.K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and others. "(VHP leader) Pravin Togadiya can go anywhere in India except Gujarat," he said, adding that many of Modi's political positions may be driven by "personal ambition" than communal sentiments.