The Muslim Businessmen Who Support Narendra Modi
(Why business is the bridge between the man and the community)
There was a time when it was the mission of Zafar Sareshwala’s life to get Narendra Modi arrested. Today there is no one perhaps among Indian Muslims who supports the Gujarat chief minister more emphatically than this scion of an old Ahmedabad business family. By his own count, he has “appeared hundreds of times in the press, both print and TV, clearing misconceptions about Modi”. A quick Google search throws 8,930 results for Zaresh Sareshwala — nearly all of them have him playing this debunking role.
“I have always asked — what do you want? A better future or the idea of revenge, hate?” says Sareshwala, 50, and owner of Parsoli Motors, the marquee BMW showroom in Ahmedabad, apart from his family businesses in real estate and finance. “There is more to Modi than the riots.”
This transformation has been neither simple nor swift (for Sareshwala it has taken a decade). But his change of heart is the biggest example of a slow perception change driven by economics that lies at the heart of Modi’s campaign to become prime minister of India. It represents a change of mood among many Muslim entrepreneurs across India about Modi. Do all of them 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 that he could have at least made a formal public apology, but they all have one thing in common — they believe that Modi is a change agent. A man who can deliver growth and prosperity without favour or prejudice, and that his economic ideas help everyone rise.
There are many reasons for this — some that explain how Muslims inside in Gujarat see Modi, some which affect Muslims across the country. In Gujarat, 2013 marks the first decade where the state’s biggest city Ahmedabad has seen no incident of Hindu-Muslim violence. This is a first after years of a major riot in every decade (1969, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1992, 2002) since Independence. This has coincided with more and more Muslims voting for Modi. In 2012, Modi’s hat-trick win in Gujarat saw around 31% of Muslims voting for his Bharatiya Janata Party. Different calculations by separate researchers show that in those elections, in areas where Muslims were either an absolute majority or most influential, the BJP won 8 of 12 such constituencies according to one assessment, and 11 of 18, according to another; this in spite of the fact that in 2012, the Congress won 61 seats in Gujarat, its highest tally since 1990. In the 2013 civic elections, where the BJP won 47 of 76 municipalities (and the Congress won only 9 with smaller parties like the BSP and NCP winning more seats than the Congress), in Muslim-dominated Salaya in Jamnagar, the BJP put up 24 Muslim candidates and 3 Hindu ones in a town which has 90% Muslims in its population — all 27 seats were swept by the party. The BJP put up 297 Muslim candidates between 2009 and 2013 in various elections in Gujarat, of which 142 won.
How did this come to pass? Not just through the peace dividend, though that was an important factor. Data shows that the average Muslim has done well in Gujarat. According to the Sachar Committee Report (2006), the most definitive report on the state of Muslims in India commissioned by the Congress-ruled central government, monthly per capita income of Muslims in rural Gujarat was Rs 24 higher than rural Hindus. Average urban income of the 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 9.1% of the population in Gujarat but have bought 18% of the two wheelers (an important marker for development) during the last decade, and even the Gujarat government has around 11% Muslim employees and 10.6% of the state’s cops are Muslim. In fact, Gujarat has more Muslims in police service compared to percentage of Muslim population than any other state. Compare this to states like Kerala, Assam and Bengal, some of the regions with the highest Muslim population. Kerala has around 24.7% Muslim population and Muslims in the police force number 11.6%. Around 25.2% of Bengalis are Muslims but the number in police is 8.4%, and Assam has a Muslim population of 30.9% with 21.5% Muslims in police service.
What does this mean in the lives of ordinary Muslims? It means Gujarat has one of lowest rates of poverty among Muslims in India. Only 7.7% of Gujarati Muslims are poor compared to more than 40% in Assam and nearly 24% in Bengal. Kerala is slightly ahead at 8%. It is true that as a state Gujarat is more prosperous than Bengal or Assam and has more indigenous business enterprises than Kerala, but economists say that that Modi has been able to ensure that even in his tenure — and in spite of the feeling after the riots that he was deeply prejudiced against Muslims — that the benefits of growth has reached Muslims.
The economist Surjit Bhalla has calculated that Muslims in Gujarat have had one of the highest declines in poverty anywhere in the country. Gujarat has had the second highest relative decline in poverty among Muslims (Bengal had the highest decline but also its Muslims had a poverty level twice that of Gujarat).
“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 Bhalla.
And so it is that many Muslims, especially entrepreneurs, but not confined to them, say that their feelings at least towards Modi’s economics, if not the man himself, has altered significantly. Sareshwala’s own story is illustrative.
I asked Sareshwala how this had happened sitting in his all white painted, white furniture office Parsoli Motors, the most prominent showroom of BMW cars in Ahmedabad on the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway.
He seemed slightly upset by the question. “What do you think I am? You think I am a fool? You think I am an idiot?” Sareshwala asked me rhetorically. He isn’t. His own business has been growing at 20% each year for at least the last five years. His BMW store sold nearly 600 BMW cars priced between Rs 30 lakh and Rs. 1.5 crore in 2013 — 11% of these or double that in 2012 were sold to Muslims.
The Sareshwalas have been in Ahmedabad for more than 250 years. His father Yunus was a metallurgical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur in Bengal. The Sareshwalas have been in real estate and finance in the city for centuries. When 9/11 happened, Zafar Sareshwala was busy selling Sharia-complaint financial products across the US and the UK. Between 1998 and 2005, based in London, he used to go to the World Trade Centre for work each time he went to New York.
“But after 9/11, we saw with our own eyes how overnight everything changed. I just could not do business there anymore. The Islamophobia was too high — even people who knew me for years shied away,” remembers Zafarwala.
Then came the riots of 2002, and “all that anger (of 9/11) was already inside me, and I thought I have to do something”. Like in every riot before, his family was involved in running relief camps after the bloodshed in Ahmedabad. One their apartments, which his artist wife Asiya had bought, in Delight Apartment in downtown Ahmedabad had been burnt down along with most of the building. Shalimar Building, an office complex with 90 Muslim shops including a Parsoli office, had been gutted too. Shalimar is also opposite the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) office. VHP leader Pravin Togadia has been questioned by the Special Investigation Team looking into the riots about his role in instigating violence before the riots — though nothing concrete has been found against him.
“Everyone wanted to exit Shalimar and Delight but I was adamant. I did not want to sell. I wanted to send a message to Pravin Togadia that if you think that Muslims don’t belong to this country, I want you to know that when you die, your ashes are washed away in the river and to the sea. But my bones will be buried in this land, as my ancestors before me. This is my land,” says Sareshwala.
From that time, Sareshwala began campaigning against Modi in the UK even attempting “as hard as I could to try and get the British government to deny him a visa and have him arrested for crimes against humanity in case he landed on British soil”. He met Colin Powell, the former US army general and secretary of state, and appealed for a ban on Modi from entering the US and filed a law suit against BJP veteran and former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani.
Then on August 17, 2003, urged on by Mahesh Bhatt, Sareshwala and a veteran UK-based Islamic scholar Maulana Esa Mansuri met Modi at St James Court Hotel during a visit by the chief minister. Sareshwala says Modi heard Mansuri speak about how without justice there can be no peace almost for two hours.
“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.”
One of the biggest ways Sareshwala says he has understood that the chief minister means business is through his handling of five criminal cases in the last decade where Sareshwala appealed to Modi for him. In each of the cases, there were Muslim men accused or convicted of grave crime including terror, and one of the sections under which they were charged was 268. Section 268 declares a convict a public nuisance and therefore makes bail, parole or furlough (temporary leave from imprisonment on emergency) nearly impossible.
“But the chief minister has the powers to remove the convict from being held under Section 268 and each case that I have forwarded to Modi on humanitarian grounds, he has removed Section 268 from it,” says Sareshwala. The most defining among these was the help given to Habib Hawa and Anees Machiswala, convicted in the 2002 post-riot bomb blasts in five places in Ahmedabad which left dozens injured and came to be called the ‘tiffin bomb case’ because bombs were packed in lunch boxes.
After the family members of Hawa and Machiswala appealed to Sareshwala — one had elderly, ill parents, another a three-month daughter — that without the removal of Section 268, it would be impossible for them to get any relief even to attend to family crisis. It was removed.
Sareshwala would not directly confirm this to me but almost every Muslim I spoke to him Ahmedabad told me that Sareshwala had become the man to approach for Muslims in trouble or seeking aid from the government. He has a “hot line” to Modi, I was told. What Sareshwala did confirm was that it was he who suggested to the chief minister Arab envoys should be invited to Modi’s flagship Vibrant Gujarat annual conclave in 2009. The Arab League sent a representative, as did some of the wealthiest Arab states, Oman, Brunei and Abu Dhabi. At that time the leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, one of the largest clerical bodies, Mahmood Madani protested strongly. By 2013, he was agreeing with Sareshwala that there were more Muslims in prison in Maharashtra than in Gujarat and Muslims were worse off in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh than Gujarat. (This is not a unique volte-face but a signal 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 the Modi for PM campaign, it barely created a stir.)
Sareshwala’s role in all this has been to be the first to speak for Modi on Muslim issues. It is he who the film director and activist Mahesh Bhatt called to check after he received a message from Communist and theatre activist Shabham Hashmi that Muslim slum dwellers received no settlement after the redevelopment of the Sabarmati river front in Ahmedabad. “I clarified that homes have been built for almost all slum dwellers, 68% of who are Muslims. Apart from a few cases stuck in court due to identification issues, everyone has got homes. You should go see them,” Sareshwala told me.
“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 and that he lives that examples. His business worth Rs 200 crores has grown 20% each year for the last five years.
So I did. The man who took me to the one of the sites where the homes have been built at Vatva on the outskirts of Ahmedabad was Mushtaq Guliwala. He runs Honest Print Care whose main business is printing saris. “100% of my customers are Hindu, most of my labour is Hindu, I can do nothing unless there is peace,” says Guliwala, who says emphatically that he no absolute Modi supporter. “I still 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.”
But he is pleased that his business worth about Rs 2 crores a year is growing by 15% but angry that in spite of numerous pleas there is no proper road to his factory. “I am paying tax but getting poor service,” says Guliwala. “I cannot say that Modi has changed or Modi has done great things for Muslims but yes, this much is true, as long as Modi is in power, no anti-social element can disturb business. You want to do business? No one will stop you under Modi.”
When we reached the rows of brown concrete apartments for Sarbarmati slum dwellers in Vatva, Guliwala stared sadly at the patches of collected garbage here and there: “The houses have been built, yes, but it is still dirty. But then you know — dirt is something people themselves have to clean too.”
To understand the conflicts in the mind of the Gujarati Muslim, you have to understand that Gujarati society is one of the most communally divided societies in the country. Such has been the proliferation of ghettos that some areas in Ahmedabad are referred to as the ‘border’ — between Hindu and Muslim areas. But the Muslim has realised that the ghetto won’t bring prosperity — and the community wants a share of the growth pie. At the moment Modi is foremost Indian politician who is talking about fulfilling aspiration. Many still have their scepticism about him — but there is no doubt about their eagerness for prosperity.
In a sense, 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 and another Muslim partner Armaan Ismaili and the Hindu Narendra Tundiya have run a successful chartered accountancy firm — Lakhani, Ismaili, Tundiya & Co. He was once so poor that he used to sell milk to make a living and lived in a slum called Ram-Rahim Nagar. He says he supports Modi because “Modi has brought peace”.
The three partners studied chartered accountancy together and then decided to start a firm. But in 2002, when the riots came, the mobs came looking for their office and the Muslim partners.
“Our office was saved because our Hindu neighbours gave them wrong directions and couldn’t find it,” says Lakhani.
Today Lakhani’s new office is in a building owned by Hindus and most of his clients and staff are also Hindu. “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. Let me tell you why, 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 the goons are scared of him,” says Lakhani.
It is important to note that it is not that no communal violence has happened in Gujarat in the last decade — in 2013, central government revealed numbers of incidents of communal violence for the first time which showed 6 dead till September, 3 Hindus and 3 Muslims, till September 2013. The context is that these numbers were minuscule compared to 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 relative peace compared to a complete breakdown of law and order in UP under chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and his father Mulayam Singh (so strong is his claim of being friendly to Muslims that he has been referred to as Maulana Mulayam) and their Samajwadi Party which makes religious tolerance their core political plank.
“I believe that Muslims have to come out of their ghettos,” says Lakhani, “I would say 90% of Hindus are secular and to curb violence you need strong law and order and that’s why the demand for a strong leader is growing.”
Lakhani says he realised that the tide was turning when he went to speak at a career fair at Juhapura, the most notorious Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad since 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 for years,” he says.
Earlier Sareshwala had given me another example of changing times using Juhapura too. “Even in Juhapura, there are now apartments for Rs 1 crore and Rs 2 crore, this is astounding for us who live in Gujarat and know its history,” Sareshwala told me. What he is referring to is this: after 5,000 Muslims were killed in the worst riots ever in the history of Gujarat in 1969 and the state had nearly 200 days of curfew following the bloodbath, property prices in Ahmedabad stalled for nearly two decades. This was especially true for Juhapura, which is on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Now it is true that Ahmedabad has been affected by the real estate boom across the country and Juhapura too would have benefitted from this but in this city of ‘borders’ that would not be entirely true. Even with the real estate boom, had there not been peace and an anticipation of peace, the area in and near ‘mini Pakistan’, as Juhapura used to be called, would have remained untouched by the boom.
To understand how Juhapura is changing I went to meet Nadeem Jafri. He is sometimes called the Kishore Biyani of Juhapura (in fact he so admires Biyani that in his wallet he carries a card with Biyani’s autograph).
Till 2002, Jafri, a graduate of the Institute of Management Studies at Indore, used to work 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,” says Jafri.
It was also the time when Jafri, who has a Bachelor of Science (Physics) and a Bachelor of Arts (English Literature) from St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, decided to stay a business. (He clarifies that leaving Grey had nothing to do with the riots. He could have easily stayed on.)
“I was already interested in retail and there was an opportunity. Juhapura did not have a large utilities and grocery store. People used to bring things from outside,” says Jafri, who is from Shia Muslim Chiliya community. The Chiliya Muslims are famed restaurateurs and run most of the restaurants on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway. So Jafri and seven partners pooled in about Rs. 60 lakhs in 2004 and opened Hearty Mart in the heart of Juhapura with contracts from many highway restaurants to wholesale supply groceries to them.
Today with 12 franchise stores across Gujarat and a turnover of Rs. 12 crores last year, Jafri’s work has become a case study at IIM-Ahmedabad where the entrepreneur has also lectured.
He says he 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, who has met Modi once at a public event where they spoke briefly about growing Gujarat’s economic potential.
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 (Gujarat is predominantly vegetarian) food,” says Jafri who has bought an apartment in one of the most posh projects adjoining Juhapura called Al Burooj, a set of apartment blocks complete with an air-conditioned gym and landscaped gardens that would not be out of place in Gurgaon. He paid about Rs. 54 lakhs for a two-bedroom home which is about to be delivered.
Standing inside Al Burooj, shaded by the palm trees what dot the neat walking track around the more than 300 apartments, Jafri said, “Does this look like a ghetto? No one actually wants to live in a ghetto.”
When I said this to Sharif Memon of Deep Group, one of the biggest builders in Ahmedabad with around 65 lakh sq feet developed in the city, he said 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, whose firm of six promoters has brother partner pairs of two Muslim and one Hindu — Mahadev and Dinesh Patel, Deepak and Tushar Patel and Sharif and Sattar Memon.
“We are like six brothers in the firm — we have sat together and seen riot after riot. Zafar (Sareshwala) and I don’t live in Muslim-only neighbourhoods — and we believe that riots come and go. It is difficult to hold one chief minister responsible for everything.” He has met Modi only once he says with Sareshwala in an interaction between Muslim businesspeople and the chief minister.
It is seeing people like Sareshwala, Jafri and the Memons that Ali Hussain Momin, 32, decided to create Gujarat’s first trade networking event of Muslim entrepreneurs. Seventy companies attended the event in Ahmedabad between 7th and 9th February.
Momin’s Spider Communication which does printing and public relations and Muslim business networking platform Ummat hit a turnover of Rs 50 crores last year. Last year his firm even got the hospitality business of 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 since India desperately needs development and he was always ready to assist anyone who was building something. I have never faced any discrimination.”
One of the people who had been a great hand of support for 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 which included payment to his office at almost every major occasion from birth to death). He gave many sermons from around the world — several of these were from Gujarat — and inevitably he met Modi several times. They seemed to have develop 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 on his flock was complete till the end. When he died nearly a hundred years old in January such was the crush of his devotees that 18 people died in a stampede outside his home on Malabar Hills.
The Syedna ruled many aspects, some say most aspects, of Bohra life — including, though never openly, who the wealthy business community would politically support with money and votes.
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 Mumbai, asking traders about the late Syedna and Modi. It was two days before the 40 day anniversary of Syedna Burhanuddin’s death. Not a single person denied that the Syedna had close ties with Modi — or that his writ, expressed or implied, did not run supreme among the close knit community.
“The Syedna always told us that the Bohras had one principle — strengthen the hand of those who are coming to power,” is all Fakhruddin (goes by one name), partner at glass traders Fishfa Group would say.
Farooq Umar at the hardware store Bellacasa 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. We need strong leadership.”
Originally from Jamnagar in Gujarat, he visits the state every year. “Why should we not support Modi? Have you seen the electricity in Gujarat? It never goes. Have you seen the roads?”
From Mumbai, I went to meet Fakhruddin Vanak, one of the most prominent Bohra Muslim entrepreneurs in Chennai. Vanak, 75, is chairman of Vanak Sales, a industrial trolley and lift manufacturer. His Vanjax Sales had a turnover of Rs 22 crore last year and grew 10%. The entrance to his 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 iss desh ko banana hai (we need to build this country) and so, she didn’t know Hindi so 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 he seriously he adds, “We desperately need a sense of hope and growth in this country. We support Modi. Naturally there was an impact in the community about Syedna’s interactions with Modi. I wish that Modi becomes prime minister and then fulfils all his promises.”
(This essay was first published in Fortune India.)