The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Image makeover pitchforks Aneesa to hot seat

Ahmedabad, April 17: Hours before the election of the Congress-ruled Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s mayor yesterday, Aneesa Mirza was informed that she was the party’s chosen one.

Though not a frontrunner for the post, she was catapulted to the top job by the corporation under pressure from the party high command.

Her election appears to be an attempt by the Congress leadership to refurbish the party’s “secular image”, which was tainted by the “soft Hindutva” tag in the aftermath of the Godhra riots.

Mirza has created history by becoming the city’s first Muslim woman mayor. She was nominated to the coveted post despite the presence of at least three candidates from the majority community who stood a better chance of bagging the nomination.

The Congress was accused of adopting a soft-Hindutva strategy to counter the state BJP and its mascot, chief minister Narendra Modi.

The image was reinforced after the party appointed former BJP leader Shankersinh Vaghela the Gujarat unit chief ahead of the Assembly polls.

With general elections due next year and the minority community struggling to recover from the riots, the Congress deliberately pitched Mirza for the top job, said political analysts.

Mirza’s election as mayor is being considered a balm for the riot-hit Muslims in the city who can now feel confident about getting a sympathetic hearing for their troubles. It is like a healing touch, analysts say.

Senior Congress leader Hasmukh Patel, however, said Mirza was elected on merit, education, experience, seniority in the party and impeccable secular credentials.

Convent-educated with double post-graduation and a law degree, Mirza was certainly one of the most qualified women councillors.

The lecturer at Xavier’s college, who resigned from the post four years ago, was, however, not the consensus choice for Ahmedabad mayor though she has represented Raikhad since 1987.

The frontrunners were candidates for whom the Congress city president and another senior party leader were lobbying.

Asked what message her party intended to convey by electing her, Mirza, in her late 50s, said: “The message is obviously very clear. The party wants to show that it is a secular party. That is the Congress USP (unique selling proposition).”

Mirza said her priority as mayor is to restore communal harmony and ensure rehabilitation of the riot-affected people who have lost their livelihood.

She said she is confident of securing the cooperation of corporation members in pursuing her dream of converting Ahmedabad into a megacity.

Mirza believes only a religious person — that she says she is — can be secular. “I’m secular because I’m a religious person,” she said.

According to a senior Congress leader, Mirza visits the Jagannath temple in the city every year to seek the deity’s blessings.

The daughter of a former judge of Rajasthan High Court, Mirza completed her MA in history from St John’s College, Agra, followed by an MA in English from Udaipur University.

She moved to Ahmedabad in 1968 and joined active politics in 1969, by which time she had already built a base in social service under the guidance of noted social and cultural activist Mridula Sarabhai.

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