In Gujarat’s Naroda constituency, a TV journalist from Delhi tutors BJP candidate Payal Kukrani on how to dodge questions about her father by sticking to the development plank and highlighting her medical education.
Among the BJP’s youngest candidates for the Gujarat assembly election, the 30-year-old is the daughter of Manoj Kukrani, who is out on bail and has moved the Supreme Court against his conviction in the .
Naroda Patiya, like much of Gujarat, has remained a BJP turf, and the party has chosen Payal over incumbent MLA Wani Balram Khubchando for a constituency dominated by Sindhi voters.
Payal, who studied medicine in Russia, seems to follow the journalist’s advice in a conversation with Newslaundry. Asked about her father’s conviction, she says, “It is a 20-year-old tale. The country has come a long way since then.”
But even though she has got the ticket, local people believe that it’s her father, “Manoj bhai”, who is actually the candidate.
“Payal is contesting but Manoj bhai has the ticket. He could not legally contest the elections. His wife Reshma is the local corporator. That's why the ticket went to his daughter,” claims Chandra Bhai, 64, a resident standing outside Kukrani’s house in Navdeep Society.
When Newslaundry visited their residence Sunday afternoon, Kukrani had just returned after campaigning with his daughter. As his wife and daughter spoke to the media, Kukrani tried to explain to them what they should or shouldn’t say.
“I was framed. The incident happened in 2002 and the SIT was made to include my name in 2008, after about six years. I was not even involved in the riots. I am a trader and I have a shop at the local APMC. My house was in Patiya. Since the incident happened nearby, I was also named in the case. I had nothing to do with the riots,” he tells Newslaundry, before refusing to speak on the subject further.
Sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012, Kukrani had challenged his conviction in the Gujarat High Court. The court upheld the sentence in 2018, but not before granting him bail on several occasions. Kukrani subsequently approached the Supreme Court, where his appeal is pending.
Expressing confidence about his daughter’s victory, Kukrani cited caste equations in the constituency.
“Naroda Patiya has around 90,000 Sindhi voters. The Patel community has 20,000, the khadiya community has 15,000 and Muslim voters number about 700. The remaining 75,000 voters are migrants,” says Kukrani, whose family was among many Sindhis who moved to the area during the Partition.
The constituency also has a significant number of migrant voters from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Nakul Tomar, whose family is from Madhya Pradesh, is the NCP-Congress alliance candidate while the Aam Aadmi Party has fielded Omprakash Tiwari, who is from Gorakhpur.
In 2017, Tiwari had contested the election on a Congress ticket but had lost to the BJP by over 50,000 votes. With an eye on migrant voters, he claims that he always worked for their benefit during the pandemic or festivals such as Chhath.
However, Tiwari’s hopes may be dashed again as most migrants have been traditional BJP voters, according to Ashok Yadav, a resident of UP’s Etawah and a BJP ward president. “The BJP always fields a person from the Sindhi community from the Naroda seat. They win easily.”
However, for Muslim voters in the locality, concentrated in the localities of Hussain Nagar and Jawan Nagar, no party seems to be bothered about their concerns.
‘Does anyone listen to us?’
Payal Kukrani may talk about moving on and say that “everyone is our family”, but for victims of the 2002 riots, her candidature is a reminder of an agonising memory.
“BJP people never show their faces, even to ask for votes. How will they? The way people were mercilessly burnt and killed in 2002, even animals don't do it,” says Yasin Mansoori, a local resident who spent four months in a relief camp with his family after the riots. “The BJP never forsakes its people. Those who worked for it are rewarded. We are tired of telling our story. Now it has become a routine. At election time, you people come. And then you also forget…but how can anyone forget the suffering?” By ‘you people’, he meant the media.
Having seen the violence unfold before his eyes, Abdul Salam Rizvi, who was the imam of the Sunni mosque next to the Patiya square when it was damaged during the riots, had to undergo treatment at Ranchi mental hospital for six months.
“Does anyone listen to us? We were not heard then, and we are not being heard now. They threw 11 cylinders at this mosque…they killed everyone they could find. They brought a water-like substance…it caused the skin to melt…The BJP has given tickets to the perpetrators only. Go away, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Many Muslim residents have rented out their houses to tenants from Bihar and UP in the wake of the violence. But the few who are still here have only two questions – why were they punished for an incident that happened 125 km away in Godhra, and if giving tickets to families of convicts is not rubbing salt on wounds, then what is?