Mahisagar/Panchmahals/Junagadh: In an election where Patels, Dalits and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) have dominated the electoral chatter, there is one community missing from the conversation: Muslims.

The exclusion has not gone unnoticed by the community, which at one time was key to the rise of the Congress.

“The agenda of the election has changed. It is no longer fought on communal lines. Both Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are talking about development. The problems we face have more to do with demonetization and implementation of goods and service tax (GST). We want peace and development," said Usmanbhai Yusufbhai, a 56-year-old provision store owner in Balasinor constituency.

Some voters from the community opined that this time around, unlike previously, the Congress did not reach out to them. Voters in Junagadh, which has a large Muslim population, said that the temple visits of Congress’s president-elect Rahul Gandhi signalled a shift in the party’s strategy.

Previously, the community was one of the four constituents of Congress’ famed KHAM coalition—Kshatriyas, Harijans or Dalits, Adivasis or tribals and Muslims—which ensured the party’s political domination of Gujarat.

“In the 80s and the 90s, the Congress party paid real attention to our community; it reached out to us promising social schemes that would benefit us. The present leadership of the party only wants our votes; once elections get over no one cares about us," said Rafiqbhai Manrani, who owns a grocery shop in Junagadh.

Over the years, Muslim representation in the Gujarat assembly has shrunk. Despite accounting for nearly a tenth of the state’s population, its representation has reduced—from three in 2002 and five in 2007 to two in the current assembly.

While the Congress has given tickets to six Muslim candidates in the ongoing election, the BJP has not nominated a single Muslim candidate.

“If you want to know how much the relevance of Muslims in Gujarat politics has reduced, you don’t have to go too far. Just see our diminishing numbers in Parliament. Earlier there were so many Muslim lawmakers who were present in Parliament to discuss our issues but look at the numbers now," said Salimbhai Shakurbhai Ghachi, a 54-year-old trader from Junagadh.

The community, said Nizamuddin Suleiman Sheikh, a 50-year-old footwear businessman in Balasinor constituency, had limited options in Gujarat.

“The choice for us is between BJP and Congress. The BJP leadership in the state is talking about development whereas the Congress is talking more about change in government. Even if we vote for the ruling party, there is a section in the BJP which will not believe that Muslims have voted for the message of development. It is because of politics that people talk about religion, it is not an issue in the election," Sheikh said.

“Overall, the importance of the Muslim electorate is in specific constituencies like those of Ahmedabad, Surat, Banaskantha and Junagadh. So in a way it is influential in pockets and it is so dispersed in other areas that it does not have a dominant impact," said Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara.

“In this election, no one has made a visible outreach to the minority community, particularly the Congress. The only one who has spoken about it is (Dalit activist) Jignesh Mevani but that too in just one constituency," Dholakia added.

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