(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected])
Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has recently added an element of expectation and anxiety in West Bengal politics. Even in national-level discourse the possibility of the AIMIM opening up a new organizational chapter in West Bengal has attracted attention. The BJP is nurturing a certain amount of expectation that the entry of the AIMIM in West Bengal will cut into the Trinamul’s Muslim vote bank and facilitate former’s victory in the coming Assembly election of the state. Till recent times the Trinamul Congress (TMC) was also wary of such a possibility. So Mamata Banerjee warns the people of the state about existence of ‘extremists’ among both the Muslims and the Hindus.
If one reads it between the lines then Mamata Banerjee comes out to be a somewhat shaky person- one who is apprehensive of losing chunks of Muslim votes and trying to cover it up with an increase of votes among the Hindus. She has reasons to be so because for the first time a challenge, although in a nascent form, to her unquestioned sway over the 31 per cent minority community vote of the state is there in the horizon. Since 2017 the AIMIM has been trying to spread its bases in districts like Murshidabad, Malda,North Dinajpore, Birbhum and the two 24 Parganas. Owaisi is expected to give more times for West Bengal from this month and may tour several districts in near future.
But will the AIMIM be able to cut into Mamata’s slice of the minority community votes? Results of the by elections to three Assembly constituencies named Khargapur, Kaliagunj and Karimpur have shown that the TMC has been able to maintain its hold on the minority voting pattern. But there is no denying the fact that all the political parties will vie with one another to garner Muslim votes in the coming West Bengal Assembly election which is just little more than a year away.
This approach is politically significant as the Muslims now constitute nearly 28 per cent of the state population, the third highest in India in terms of proportion to total population of the state. West Bengal has now more than 2.47 crores of Muslim people, the second highest in India.
But Muslim politics in West Bengal has always been an eclectic one. Prior to independence Fazlul Haque, the unquestioned leader of Muslims in undivided Bengal, was basically a secular figure in spite of the fact that he was forced to get close to the Muslim League by the Congress’ refusal to form coalition ministry with his Krishak Praja Party after the 1937 provincial Assembly elections. That led to the first sprouting of mutual disbelief between the two Bengali-speaking communities of undivided Bengal.
In spite of the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, politics in post-partition West Bengal never witnessed attempts to cash in on religious sentiments. Prominent academic-cum-politician Humayun Kabir once graced the Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Left politics in Bengal saw luminaries like Muzaffar Ahmed and Abdullah Rasul. In fact, secular and liberal minority community leaders were never wanting in the state.
That has given the Muslim community a special place of acceptance and leverage in the polity of West Bengal. There are 125 Assembly seats where the Muslim community holds considerable electoral sway. In the districts of Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur the Muslims form the majority community while in the two districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia and Birbhum they constitute more than 25 per cent of the population.
The 2016 Assembly election in West Bengal had witnessed a near complete sway of the Trinamul Congress over Muslim voters. The TMC had bagged 95 out of those 125 Muslim-dominated Assembly seats. However, there are merits in the opinion that parliamentary election is a different proposition. Keeping this in view the BJP harped on infiltration from Bangladesh and threatened to institute an NRC exercise for West Bengal during the last parliamentary poll held in April-May this year. It paid dividends as the majority community votes showed a tendency to move en masse towards the BJP box in spite of the fact that there was no dent in the TMC’s minority community vote bank. The BJP will surely try to repair the cracks that have recently appeared in its majority community vote bank through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Will it carry convictions with those residents in the state who have no ancestral connection with Bangladesh? To what extent Asaduddin Owaisi can influence the Muslim mind in such a scenario will be an important question.
Whatever may be the respective campaign planks of the political parties, Muslim votes are crucial for winning an election in the state. In the 2006 Assembly election the Left Front got 56 per cent of Muslim votes and won 233 of 294 Assembly seats. Three years later, the 2009 parliamentary election followed. This time the TMC and the Congress struck an alliance and together they got 58 per cent Muslim votes accompanied by a victory over 26 parliamentary seats out of 42 in the state. In the 2011 Assembly poll the TMC and the Congress together got 50 per cent Muslim votes and won 227 Assembly seats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election the TMC alone garnered 40 per cent Muslim votes and won 34 parliamentary seats.
Past election records show that the TMC has now a distinct advantage over all other political parties so far as winning over Muslim support is concerned. Electoral arithmetic points out that the TMC generally enjoys 40 per cent lead over all other contestants in those constituencies where the Muslims have overwhelming influence. The party enjoys 16 per cent lead in the constituencies having around 40 per cent Muslim voters. However, in those constituencies where the presence of Muslim voters is low TMC’s lead comes down to only 12 per cent. This last mentioned group of constituencies will play a vital role in the coming Assembly election.