“YOU THINK I AM A FOOL? You think I am an idiot?” That’s a visibly annoyed Zafar Sareshwala, at his desk at the BMW showroom he owns in Ahmedabad. The question that’s riled him: Why does he support Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a candidate for Prime Minister? It’s a fair question, given that till 2003, Sareshwala, then in London, was one of Modi’s prominent detractors, even lobbying with British lawmakers to deny Modi a visa.
The man he was fighting was, in 2002, seen as Gujarat’s Nero, giving free rein to communal riots that broke out soon after he became chief minister. Modi has always claimed that he had debuted as chief minister shortly before the riots broke out, and they went out of his control. Not everyone wants to believe that, and there are still questions raised about him, despite several court rulings absolving him, personally. (Members of his party and affiliate groups have been indicted.)
But after meeting Modi in 2003, Sareshwala changed his stance. “Modi told us that his performance as chief minister would show the state how remorseful he was about the riots. He said: ‘Judge my work, not my words,’ ” says Sareshwala. “I felt in that meeting that he was genuinely moved by what had happened and that he deserved a chance.”
Almost every Muslim I spoke to in Ahmedabad told me that Sareshwala is the go-to man for Muslims in trouble or seeking aid from the government. He has a “hotline” to Modi, I was told. Sareshwala refuses to talk about this, but he does confirm that it was he who suggested to Modi that Arab envoys should be invited to his flagship Vibrant Gujarat annual conclave in 2009. The Arab League (an organisation of Arab countries in North and Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia) sent a representative, as did some of the wealthiest Arab states—Oman, Brunei, and the U.A.E.—separately.
At that time, Mahmood Madani, the leader of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, one of the largest Muslim clerical bodies in India, protested strongly. But by 2013, he was agreeing with Sareshwala that there were more Muslims in prison in Maharashtra than in Gujarat, and that Muslims were worse off in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh than Gujarat.
This is not a unique volte-face but a sign of the times. In 2010, Ghulam Vastanvi, then vice chancellor of the Deoband seminary, lost his post for praising the Gujarat development model. But last year, when another prominent Deoband cleric, Suhaib Qasmi, declared his support for Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, it barely created a stir.
Sareshwala’s acceptance of Modi comes from the latter’s emphasis on economics as an agent of change. Do all Muslim entrepreneurs believe, as Sareshwala does, that Modi cannot be solely held responsible for the 2002 riots where more than 1,000 Muslims and 300 Hindus died? Not quite. Some believe he could have done more. Some say that he could have at least made a public apology. Many others regard Modi and the prospect of him as prime minister with grave suspicion.
But they all still believe that Modi is a change agent. A man who can deliver growth and prosperity, whose economic ideas will help everyone rise. These Muslim businesspeople and entrepreneurs have become Modi’s bridge to a community that treated him with open hatred a decade ago. And, as his sweeping victories in Gujarat, and that of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh have shown, very many Muslims are today ready to give him a chance.
“There is only one thing that drives Muslim support for Modi: good economics, and therefore better livelihoods and the promise of a better future,” says economist Surjit Bhalla. That, basically, is Modi’s pitch. He tells the Muslim business community that if the state gets wealthy, everyone benefits; a repeat of 2002 is destructive for all. So, whether directly with him, or through tacit support, entrepreneurs like Sareshwala and hundreds more signal a change in the attitude among many Muslims towards Modi.
In Gujarat, 2013 marks the first decade in a very long time when the state’s biggest city, Ahmedabad, has seen no incident of Hindu-Muslim violence. And whether it’s coincidence or not, this has happened over a period when more Muslims have voted for Modi. In 2012, Modi’s third win in Gujarat saw around 31% of Muslims voting for the BJP. Different calculations show that in those elections, the BJP won at least eight of 12 constituencies in areas where Muslims were either an absolute majority or most influential. In the 2013 civic elections, the BJP won 47 of 76 municipalities (and the Congress won only nine, overtaken by smaller parties like the BSP and NCP). The BJP put up 297 Muslim candidates between 2009 and 2013 in various elections in Gujarat, of whom 142 won.
Equally important, perhaps, is that Gujarat has the highest ratio of Muslim cops to Muslim population compared to states such as Kerala, Assam, and West Bengal, where the percentage of Muslims is higher. (About 9% of Gujaratis are Muslims and its police force has about 10.6% Muslims. Kerala has a Muslim population of about 24.7% and 11.6% Muslims in the police. About 25.2% of Bengalis are Muslims, but the number in the police is 8.4%; the corresponding figures for Assam are 30.9% and 21.5%.)
It is not that Gujarat has been entirely free of communal violence since 2002: In 2013, the central government revealed numbers relating to incidents of communal violence for the first time which showed six dead (three Hindus and three Muslims) till September 2013.
The context is that these numbers are minuscule compared with 62 deaths in Uttar Pradesh from nearly 500 incidents of Hindu-Muslim clashes. This sort of data has enabled Modi to re-tell his story of maintaining peace compared to a complete breakdown of law and order in Uttar Pradesh.
For the few initial years, though, Sareshwala seemed like the lone voice. But no longer. Fortune India spent nearly two months speaking to Muslim businessmen across Ahmedabad, Mumbai, and Chennai. (Most large corporates, including pharmaceuticals firm Wockhardt which is run by Habil Khorakiwala—a prominent Bohra Muslim—were unavailable for comment.) What we found is not part of any debate before this major election: The Muslim business community is increasingly, if cautiously, behind Modi. It is not that they are not wary; it is just that they are weary of what they call decades of being taken for granted, and the last few years of indecisive governance at the Centre.
“MY POINT IS SIMPLE —what do the Muslims want? The same as anybody else: We want a greater say in the affairs of this country. How will that come? Not by hiding in our ghettos but by becoming economically prosperous,” says Sareshwala.
In many ways, the Muslim in Gujarat is “coming out of the ghetto”, says Kareem Lakhani, one of the most prominent Muslim chartered accounts in Ahmedabad. Since 1999, he, Armaan Ismaili, and Narendra Tundiya have run a successful chartered accountancy firm—Lakhani, Ismaili, Tundiya & Co. The three partners studied chartered accountancy together and then decided to start a firm. But in 2002, when the riots happened, the mobs came looking for their office—and the Muslim partners (Tundiya is the only Hindu).
“Our office was saved because our Hindu neighbours gave them wrong directions,” says Lakhani. You’d think he hates the administration which was blamed for standing by and allowing the mobs to run riot. But Lakhani says he supports Modi. “Modi has brought peace,” he says.
I ask him to explain that. “When I was growing up, there was never a year when there was no tension between the Hindus and Muslims. But there has been peace for 10 years. Riots are started and fuelled by criminals, goons. Ordinary people also participate, but the seed is always with criminals. Both Muslim and Hindu criminals are scared of Modi. No one talks about this, but this is why he gets support—because goons from both the communities are scared of him.”
Lakhani says he realised that the tide was turning when he went to speak at a career fair at Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Ahmedabad from the 1970s, which was once called “mini Pakistan”. “Many of the speakers at the event were Hindu and the response was very good. This would have been impossible before,” he says.
Then there’s Mushtaq Guliwala, whose sari printing business, Honest Print Care, has been growing at 15% annually. “All my customers are Hindu. Most of my labour is Hindu. I can do nothing unless there is peace,” he says.
Guliwala is not a Modi supporter; he only wants stability, which will allow his business to grow. “I believe that justice for 2002 has not been done, and any Muslim who tells you that they have moved on—well, I believe they are lying.”
It is Guliwala’s telling statement—“As long as Modi is in power, no antisocial element can disturb business”—that convinces me that there are those who are pragmatic enough to vote for a person they don’t approve of, as long as they are left to work in peace.
To understand the conflicts in the mind of the Gujarati Muslim, you have to understand that Gujarati society is one of the more communally divided in the country. Such has been the proliferation of ghettos that some areas in Ahmedabad are referred to as the “border areas” between Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods. But Muslims have realised that ghettos won’t bring prosperity—and they want a share of the growth. At the moment, Modi is first seen as a politician who is talking about fulfilling aspirations. Many still are sceptics—but there is no doubt about their eagerness for prosperity.
“Do you think if we did not see remorse in him we would have been with him for 10 years?” asks Sareshwala, whose own business has been growing by around 20% each year, though he will not reveal the turnover.
In response to those who call him a traitor to his community, Sareshwala points out that according to the Sachar Committee Report on the state of Muslims in India, commissioned by the Congress-led central government, the monthly per capita income of Muslims in rural Gujarat was Rs 24 higher than rural Hindus.
The average income of the urban Gujarati Muslim beat the all-India average by Rs 71. Literacy rate among Muslims in the state was nearly 9% higher than the national average. Muslims account for about 9.8% of the population in Gujarat but have bought 18% of the two-wheelers during the last decade. Sareshwala’s one BMW store sold nearly 600 cars priced between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 1.5 crore in 2013—and 11% of these were to Muslims.
Bhalla has calculated that Gujarat has had the second highest relative decline in poverty among Muslims. (West Bengal had the highest decline, but its Muslims had a poverty level twice that of Gujarat.)
And so it is that many Muslims say that their feelings at least towards Modi’s economics, if not the man himself, has altered significantly.
TO UNDERSTAND THE changes in Gujarat, and by extension the rest of India, I visited Juhapura. Sareshwala had told me that there had been fundamental changes in the locality. “There are now apartments there for Rs 1 crore and Rs 2 crore. This is astounding for us who live in Gujarat and know its history.”
What he is referring to is this: After 5,000 Muslims were killed in the worst riots ever in Gujarat in 1969, leading to nearly 200 days of curfew, property prices in Ahmedabad stalled for nearly two decades. This was especially true in Juhapura.
While it is a fact that Ahmedabad has been touched by the real estate boom across the country—and Juhapura too would have benefited from this—in this city of ‘borders’ that would not be the entire truth. Even with the real estate boom, had there not been peace and an anticipation of peace, the area in and near “mini Pakistan” would have remained in the dark.
When I ask to speak with someone who has benefited the most from Juhapura’s changing fortunes, I’m directed immediately to Nadeem Jafri, the founder of the Hearty Mart retail chain. Jafri is sometimes called the Kishore Biyani of Juhapura; he so admires Biyani that he carries a card in his wallet with Biyani’s autograph.
Till 2002, Jafri, a graduate of the Institute of Management Studies at Indore, worked as an account executive in the advertising agency Grey Worldwide in Ahmedabad. After the riots, he moved to Juhapura. “Even though I had seen Hindus and Muslims in my neighbourhood coming together and fighting the mobs, there was a lot of pressure from my friends and relatives to move to a Muslim-majority place,” he says. (He clarifies that leaving Grey had nothing to do with the riots. He could have easily stayed on.)
It was also the time when Jafri decided to start a business. “I was interested in retail and there was an opportunity. Juhapura did not have a large utilities and grocery store,” says Jafri, who is from the Syed Shia Muslim community, which has close ties with the Chiliya community.
The Chiliya Muslims are famed restaurateurs and run most of the restaurants on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway. Jafri and seven partners pooled in about Rs 60 lakh in 2004 and opened Hearty Mart in the heart of Juhapura. They started off with contracts from many highway restaurants to supply groceries to them.
Today, Hearty Mart has 12 franchise stores across Gujarat and announced a turnover of Rs 12 crore last year. Jafri’s work has become a case study at IIM, Ahmedabad, where he has also lectured. Jafri supports Modi’s work—though he has reservations about the man—because it has brought development. “If we blame him for failing to stop the violence in 2002, we also have to give him credit for 10 years of peace,” says Jafri.
He says all he wants is more development for Juhapura. “Already the locality is transforming. It has a series of new eateries where young people come for non-vegetarian food,” says Jafri. In a state that’s famed for being vegetarian, this is definitely a sign of change.
One of the most obvious signs of development in Juhapura is Al Burooj, a swanky set of apartments complete with an air-conditioned gym and landscaped gardens. Jafri recently bought a home in that complex for more than Rs 40 lakh. “Does this look like a ghetto?” he demands, gesturing at the 300 apartments that make up Al Burooj. “No one wants to live in a ghetto.”
But isn’t Al Burooj an upmarket ghetto, with a name like that? Sharif Memon of Deep Group, one of the biggest builders in Ahmedabad with around 65 lakh sq.ft. developed in the city, including Al Burooj, says that was definitely not the idea. He says he named his building Al Burooj because the area had mostly Muslims living in it, but there was no intention to make it a Muslim-only property. “But there was a pent-up demand for quality housing and it was bought by Muslims—this was an accident as far as I am concerned,” says Memon.
His company is a happy mix of Hindu and Muslim founders, and he himself doesn’t live in a “Muslim-only” neighbourhood.
“It is difficult to hold one chief minister responsible for everything,” he says, when I ask if he supports Modi. And yes, he does, because “Modi has a national vision”.It is people like Sareshwala, Jafri, and Memon that inspired Ali Hussain Momin, 32, to create Gujarat’s first trade networking event for Muslim entrepreneurs. Momin runs Spider Communication—it does printing and public relations—and Muslim business networking platform Ummat, which together organised the networking event. The company declared a turnover of Rs 5 crore last year.
The event also generated more business for Momin. Last year, his firm even got the hospitality contract for Vibrant Gujarat, Modi’s flagship annual business summit.
“Many people told me that if you try and do a Muslim business event, you will face trouble,” says Momin. “But the chief minister himself agreed to open it. He told me that every community needs to build [entrepreneurs] since India desperately needs development. He also said he was always ready to assist anyone who was building something. I have never faced any discrimination.”
ONE OF THE PEOPLE who had shown great support to Modi was the Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the late absolute spiritual leader of the Bohra Muslim community—one of the most powerful business communities of India. The Syedna, who was born in Surat, had complete control over the Bohra community (though in later years there were some dissidents to his absolute rule, and the collection of zakat—used for charitable and religious purposes—at almost every major occasion from birth to death). He gave many sermons around the world—and several more in Gujarat—and inevitably met Modi several times. They seemed to have developed a genuine regard for each other. On his death, Modi tweeted a condolence message—the first he had ever done for any Muslim leader.
On his part, the Syedna’s control over his flock remained strong till the end. When he died, such was the crush of his followers that 18 people were killed in a stampede outside his home at Mumbai’s Malabar Hills.
The Syedna ruled many aspects, some say most aspects, of Bohra life—including, though never openly, financial support to specific politicians. In Mumbai, I spent a couple of days walking up and down crowded Bhendi Bazaar and Nalli Bazaar lanes, the business centre of the Bohra Muslims in the city, asking traders about the late Syedna and Modi. It was two days before the 40-day anniversary of the Syedna’s death. Not a single person denied that the Syedna had close ties with Modi—or that his writ, expressed or implied, ran supreme in the close-knit community.
“The Syedna always told us that the Bohras have one principle: Strengthen the hand of those who are coming to power,” is all Fakhruddin (he goes by one name), partner at glass traders Fishfa Group, will say. Farooq Umar, who runs Bellacasa, a hardware store, is more forthcoming. “Can you tell me the name of the chief minister during the 1969 riots in Gujarat or 1992 riots in Mumbai? No one remembers.” His point: Strong leadership and development will last longer than controversy.
Originally from Jamnagar in Gujarat, he visits the state every year. “Why should we not support Modi? Have you seen the electricity [supply] in Gujarat? There’s no power cut. Have you seen the roads?”
It’s not just a western Indian phenomenon. From Mumbai, I went to Chennai to meet Fakhruddin Vanak, one of the most prominent Bohra Muslim entrepreneurs in the southern city. Vanak, 75, is chairman of Vanjax Sales, an industrial trolley and lift manufacturer. Last year, the company grew by 10% and declared a turnover of Rs 22 crore.
The entrance to Vanak’s office has a large photograph of the Syedna. Mention Modi to him and the smiling man with twinkling eyes says, “Let me tell you a joke first. My granddaughter once told me that India was a banana republic. I was aghast. I asked her, who told you that? She said someone told her that Rajiv Gandhi used to say ‘is desh ko banana hai’ (‘we need to build this country’), and since she didn’t know Hindi very well, she thought it must be the same as a banana republic. I wonder if some people are thinking the same when Modi goes on about building the nation.” He gives a little guffaw at his own joke.
Then, turning serious, he adds, “We desperately need a sense of hope and growth in this country. Naturally, there was an impact in the community about the yedna’s interactions with Modi. I wish that Modi becomes prime minister and then fulfils all his promises.”