December 7, 2007 / 4:13 AM / 10 years ago

Tale of two cities as India's Gujarat goes to polls

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - In India’s largest supermarket, in front of rows of Japanese electronics, French perfume and Californian plums, it is hard to find anyone who does not support Narendra Modi.

<p>Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, gestures during a meeting before filing his nomination papers for the assembly elections in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, November 28, 2007. REUTERS/Amit Dave</p>

This is home turf for the charismatic and controversial chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, who has brought development with a hardline Hindu nationalist face and is seeking re-election next week.

“You can see all the development in Gujarat, the roads are very good, a lot of malls, entertainment centers, the express highway,” said 23-year-old Chirayu Patel, a Hindu who works for Nokia and who was shopping with his girlfriend.

“I really admire Modi’s style, his attitude.”

Gujarat is one of the richest and fastest growing states in a booming India, and the gleaming Reliance Mart in its main city Ahmedabad is a symbol of consumerist culture in a region where money was always important.

Modi’s business-friendly and relatively efficient government is taking credit for what he calls “Vibrant Gujarat.”

But on the other side of town, vibrancy is in desperately short supply. Here, the minority Muslim population lives in poverty, in what can only be described as a series of ghettoes.

Discrimination and division is deep-rooted in Ahmedabad. Muslims cannot buy or rent property in Hindu parts of town, the two communities living separately, and in fear of each other.

One of the poorest Muslim areas is Citizen Nagar, a cluster of sorry houses beside towering, stinking mountains of garbage, built for people who lost their homes in communal riots in 2002.

“We are living in a pile of garbage and that’s how the government wants us to live,” said 36-year-old Ayub Ismail Sheikh, who runs a small store from his home, amid the filthy, narrow, fly-infested dirt streets.

“Muslims are like garbage.”

Modi is often referred to as the poster boy of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist philosophy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party.

Accused of encouraging the 2002 riots in which between 1,200 and 2,500 people were killed, most of them Muslims, he swept the state election later that year on an overtly pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim platform.

But Modi is vulnerable this time around, and the Congress party, which runs the national coalition government, is hoping to unseat him when voting takes place on December 11 and 16.

MUSLIMS DREAD MODI

Victory would give Congress a massive boost ahead of national polls due by mid-2009, but for now, Modi seems to be just ahead.

It is a prospect which fills many Muslims with dread.

“More riots, more problems for us,” predicted 30-year-old Reshma Bano Syed. “No hope,” said Sheikh.

Sheikh, who worked in Dubai for 10 years, said he lost property and possessions worth 300,000 rupees ($7,600) when a Hindu mob, armed with swords, tridents and guns came on a spree of murder and arson through the Muslim suburb of Naroda Patia.

He got 11,600 rupees as compensation.

Twice he tried to open a bank account, twice he was turned away -- because, he says, he is Muslim. There was even less hope of a loan to start a mechanic’s shop.

“The bank said ‘for people from this area, we are not giving loans. We have no time to argue with you, get lost’.”

Shama Bano Ansari lost her husband in the 2002 riots. He was beaten unconscious by a Hindu mob, dragged into a sidestreet, doused with petrol and burnt.

“All Modi has given us is the ashes of burnt bodies,” she said, her 10-year-old son, the youngest of seven children, leaving the room in tears.

“I try to forget what happened, but every week, every day someone is talking about it,” she said. “The wounds have never healed.”

Outside Gujarat, many Indians wonder how their Hindu brothers can so casually re-elect such a divisive figure as Modi.

“Everybody does good and bad things but the good things he has done are so much,” said Devina Bhardwaj, who runs a clinical research company.

And the riots?

“I have not seen him doing it,” she said. “There have always been riots in Ahmedabad.”

Hardik Parikh, a 23-year-old student, went further as he sat with his girlfriend in the mall. The riots, he says, were necessary, after Muslim militants had set off bombs in Mumbai in 1993 and attacked India’s parliament in 2001.

“It was important to teach the Muslims a lesson. They are mushrooming and they will start to kill Hindus.”

“It should not be repeated, but once is ok.”

Editing by Y.P. Rajesh and Sanjeev Miglani

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