West Bengal assembly elections : Why getting Muslims votes could be tough for Mamata Banerjee
With Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui-led Indian Secular Front (ISF) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi courting the Muslims, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Banerjee (TMC) faces a major risk of losing the decisive votes of the community in the forthcoming assembly elections.
The challenge to the TMC had already become serious with Owaisi announcing his plans to contest the upcoming state polls on a sizeable number of seats. The threat has become graver with the Congress planning to forge an alliance with ISF now.
Muslims constitute 30 per cent of the West Bengal population and their votes are decisive on 100-110 of the 294 assembly seats, situated mostly in the districts of Kolkata, Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. Mamata-led TMC had retained office in 2016 by winning 204 assembly constituencies with the crucial help of these Muslim-dominated seats.
Ever since Mamata Banerjee came to office in her first stint in 2011, she has been wooing the Muslims by announcing several sops for them.
For instance, her TMC government gave a monthly stipend of upto Rs 2,500 to about 60,000 imams and muezzins, distributed bicycles to girl students enrolled in madrassas, extended scholarships to Muslim students of Class I to X, offered reservation to Muslim OBCs and has declared Urdu as the second language in the Muslim-populated districts.
Besides these, her government had banned a TV serial scripted by activist Taslima Nasreen in December 2013 after Muslim fundamentalists objected to it.
Due to her Muslim appeasement, she is often taunted by being called “Mumtaz Begum”.
After winning five seats – all in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region – in last year’s Bihar assembly elections, the AIMIM has announced to seriously contest the West Bengal polls. This has rattled Mamata Banerjee.
Without naming AIMIM, she alleged that it was the B-team of the BJP. She has gone on record to say that to divide the Muslim votes, the BJP is spending crores of rupees to bring in a party from Hyderabad. “The plan is that BJP will eat into Hindu votes, and this Hyderabad party will eat into Muslim votes… In recent Bihar elections, they did the same thing. This party is a B-team of the BJP,” she said.
Owaisi had hit back saying Muslims voters were not Banerjee “jagir” (personal property). “Never was a man born who can buy Asaduddin Owaisi with money,” the Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad said.
Not just the TMC and AIMIM but now the Congress has also decided to work towards garnering the Muslim votes in alliance with ISF. On February 4, the West Bengal unit of the Congress sought party president Sonia Gandhi’s approval for initiating negotiations with Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui and form a grand alliance for the assembly elections.
Senior state Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who is also the leader of opposition in the assembly, wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi and said he has already started “unofficial dialogue” with ISF and WBPCC president Adhir Chowdhury has visited Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif shrine.
“The addition of ISF in the Left-Congress alliance may be a game changer in the ensuing assembly elections… I have started unofficial dialogue with the ISF and the PCC president visited Siddiqui’s place recently. He has discussed the issue with me and is seeking my help because of my personal relation with Pirzada Siddiqui’s family since decades,” Mannan said.
He claimed that CPM politburo member Md Salim has also started discussions with Siddiqui. Mannan further said, “He (Siddiqui) is popular for his oratory skills among Muslims, as well as dalits and tribals,” and added that lakhs of people gather at his meetings in minority, tribal and dalit areas.
Stating that 30 per cent of the population in the state are Muslims, he said of them 90 per cent are Bengali-speaking and are the traditional vote bank of the Congress.
The Muslim cleric, the fourth-generation descendant of Sufi saint Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiqui, heads the popular shrine of Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district. He has called the Congress move a “positive development”. The 34-year-old Pirzada said, “It is a positive development. But it is too early for us to comment on the issue. .. Let us see how things unfold.”
The Pirzada, who became the first religious leader in West Bengal to take the plunge into politics, wishes to be the kingmaker after the assembly polls.
Siddiqui has lashed out at Mamata government and alleged that it had done “more harm than good” for the Muslims by creating a Hindu-Muslim divide.
Not to be left behind, the BJP is also making some efforts to win the confidence of the Muslims. It has held Muslim conferences ahead of the the 2018 Bengal Panchayat elections. It gave tickets to more than 850 candidates from the Muslim community, in which 27 had won. It fielded six Muslim candidstes in the 2016 assembly elections though no one won.
With the race for Muslim votes becoming more challenging, Mamata Banerjee faces a challenge in the forthcoming assembly elections.