It was the end of May 2019. The BJP's aggressive campaign against Mamata Banerjee's appeasement politics bore fruit as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) lost 12 seats in the parliamentary election to wind up with a reduced tally of just 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. Hardly had the West Bengal chief minister got time to adjust to the new reality of the BJP becoming her chief challenger than a seemingly innocuous question at a post-results press conference on whether she'll attend Iftaar parties threw her into a temper. "I appease Muslims, no?" she said. "I'll go there a hundred times. Je goru doodh dei tar lathi-o khete hoi (I am willing to be kicked by a cow that gives milk)." Nothing, she made it clear, would stop her from changing her stance towards a community that had fetched her rich political dividend. Of the TMC's 43.3 per cent vote share in 2019, Muslims accounted for 23.3 per cent. Minorities comprise 30 per cent (roughly 30 million) of Bengal's population.
However, nearly two years later, with the assembly election looming in March-April, Mamata appears unsure about what till recently seemed an assured vote bank. The choice has become equally vexed for the Muslim voter as too many political players have thrown their hats in the ring.
Among them is Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, the fourth-generation descendant of Sufi saint Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiqui, who is commemorated at the popular shrine of Furfura Sharif. The cleric has expressed a desire to float a socio-political platform along with eight other social organisations of Adivasis, Dalits and backward classes, and contest 44-50 seats from south Bengal in the upcoming assembly election. His organisation, the name for which he has yet to announce, intends to work for the upliftment and empowerment of what he calls "the weaker sections", of which Muslims constitute a large share.
Why Mamata should worry
Why should this worry Mamata? Furfura Sharif, located in Hooghly district, controls over 3,000 mosques and several charitable institutions, educational institutes, orphanages, madrasas and health centres. Its writ runs strong among Muslims in the adjacent Howrah, South and North 24 Parganas districts. These four districts in south Bengal have 25 per cent of the state's Muslims and account for roughly 33 per cent, or 98, of the state's 294 assembly seats. The TMC won 11 of the 14 parliamentary seats from these districts in 2019, the minorities having voted for Mamata en bloc.
Till recently, it was Abbas's uncle and the senior pirzada, Twaha Siddiqui, who was the face of Furfura Sharif. Known to be close to Mamata, he was shocked to realise that not only had his nephew charted his own course but also made his position shaky.
Ever since the lockdown, Abbas, the 33-year-old scion of Furfura Sharif, has held more than 60 rallies in South and North 24 Parganas, which account for 65 seats in south Bengal. Each of these gatherings attracted huge crowds. The subject of discussions at these rallies varies from religion to politics, but the underlying thread is the deprivation of Muslims, their structural backwardness under successive secular regimes, all of whom have offered appeasement but not development in exchange for their votes.
"Imandar Musalman Bhai," he addresses his audiences amid huge rounds of applause as he flits from one chapter of deprivation to another. "The direct railway line between Dankuni and Furfura is yet to happen, the only hospital in Furfura is in a shambles, the sanctioned ITI college is still a playground..." While listing this litany of neglect, he tells crowds he was not there to be chief minister, as his detractors claim, but to hold accountable the person holding the state's top job.
The Abbas-Owaisi bond
Abbas's crowd-pulling skills and plain-speaking have caught the attention of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, whose AIMIM (All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) plans to contest the Bengal election. In a state where 80 per cent of the Muslims speak Bengali, Abbas has emerged as Owaisi's best bet. The AIMIM chief has already had preliminary talks with Abbas and agreed to contest the poll under his leadership.
There are roughly 102 seats in the state where the minority vote matters, of which 60 per cent, or 61 seats, are in south Bengal. Mamata was able to retain most of these assembly segments in the 2019 general election. But with multiple players other than the Congress-Left combine seeking a slice of the minority pie, she is under stress.
However, more than the split in the minority vote, Abbas's stand against the TMC government is making Mamata nervous. He's using hard data on development indices, much like the Sachar Committee report in 2009, to inform and educate the Muslims. The Sachar Committee's revelations on the condition of Bengal's Muslims under Left rule were considered instrumental in the minority vote swinging in favour of Mamata, who was then a rising star and a mighty challenger to the Left.
"Mamata's nervousness is understandable," says Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, social scientist and a former professor at the Presidency University. "She fears that Abbas Siddiqui will upset her applecart with hard facts, which she perhaps thought she could camouflage and fictionalise with her appeasement politics."
Careful not to publicly attack Abbas herself, Mamata has reportedly asked Twaha, the senior pirzada, to either rein in his nephew or engineer cracks in the new Abbas-Owaisi consolidation. Twaha has obliged in a statement declaring, "Politics is no place for a religious leader. If you are into politics, you have to play by the rules of the game. Attacks, foul language, wrong moves, all are part of the game, and using Furfura Sharif as a shield is wrong."
Abbas has retaliated by saying that a religious leader and cleric can show the world the right direction. "What is wrong in having a broader platform to work for the betterment of the poor and weaker sections?" he asks. Imankalyan Lahiri, a professor of international relations at Jadavpur University, finds the idea of floating a broader subaltern religious platform interesting. "It is being consciously done to stop the Adivasis and Dalits from seeking refuge in mainstream political parties, which use them only as vote banks. Do you think Dalits feel good about having to host big political leaders in order to get some limelight? For a moment maybe, but what after the limelight has faded and they continue to live in neglect and abject poverty?" asks Lahiri. Even though it may not get traction in its target group at this stage, the subaltern platform, Lahiri feels, is a good initiative to attract attention.
Mamata's minority card
Tactful as far as Abbas is concerned, Mamata has deployed the All Bengal Imams Association to woo Muslims back to her fold. Of the 40,000-odd mosques in West Bengal, the association has members in 23,000 mosques. The president of the association, Mohammad Yahiya, has already said religion and politics cannot go together. "Bengal has a tradition of Hindus and Muslims living together as brothers. Whether Hindus or Muslims, people in Bengal have one identity-of being Bengalis first," Yahiya has said. Urdu-speaking Muslim organisations from Hyderabad, like Owaisi's AIMIM, can never secure a foothold in Bengal, he adds. Mamata, too, maintains that Owaisi represents only 6 per cent of the Urdu-speaking Muslims in Bengal and will not impact the remaining 24 per cent of Bengali Muslims.
Mamata is also using her cabinet minister Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who represents the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and has clout in the Burdwan, Birbhum and East Midnapore districts in south Bengal. Muslims constitute 21 and 35 per cent of the population in the Burdwan and Birbhum districts, respectively. Chowdhury likens the AIMIM to the Muslim League and the BJP to the Hindu Mahasabha of pre-Independence days, which had advocated the two-nation theory that led to India's Partition.
Budding friendship: Asaduddin Owaisi with Pirzada Abbas (in front)
"To divide minority votes, they have caught hold of a party from Hyderabad. The BJP gives them the money, and they divide the votes. The Bihar election has proved it," Mamata tells her audiences in rally after rally. Accustomed to allegations of his party being the BJP's B-team, Owaisi retorted via a tweet: "So far, you've only dealt with obedient Mir Jaffers and Sadiqs. You don't like Muslims who think and speak for themselves. Muslim voters aren't your jagir." Owaisi has been working in Bengal over the past year and has built a considerable base in north Bengal's Malda, Murshidabad, and North and South Dinajpur districts. In the general election in 2019, the BJP won three of the seven Lok Sabha seats in this region.
However, Mamata is more measured in her comments on Abbas. The attacks, harassment and heckling that Abbas and his followers may have allegedly faced at the hands of TMC goons and the police have been passed off as political scuffles between Abbas and the BJP.
The ruling TMC is clearly rattled. Having competitors for the 30 per cent minority pie, which had been its monopoly for the past decade, will affect the party's vote share. It will also trigger competitive polarisation, which will work in the BJP's favour.
These are misgivings that Mamata has reportedly shared within her close circle. She will find it difficult to break the rabid Hindu polarisation that Owaisi, with his fiery oratory and air of Muslim assertion, will most likely provoke. No amount of pandering-whether doles for community Durga puja committees, revamping of Hindu pilgrimage sites or allowances to priests-will suffice.
Outwardly, though, the TMC rubbishes talks of these groups playing spoiler for Mamata. TMC minister Firhad Hakim continues to call Owaisi's party the BJP's B-team and slams its role in helping the BJP-JD(U) alliance form the government in Bihar. "He's coming here as a vote-cutter, hoping to strengthen the BJP's hands, but this will never happen. Muslims know that he attacks the BJP in public meetings and meets Amit Shah in private," he says, while taking care to highlight Mamata's 'genuine' feelings for Muslims.
Win-win for BJP
In all this, it is the BJP that seems to be the quiet gainer. Noor-ur Rahman Barkati, who was sacked as the imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid but retains substantial clout in Kolkata and its adjacent areas, made no bones about the BJP benefitting from the division in the minority vote bank. Even Anwar Pasha of the AIMIM, who had joined the TMC, said that his erstwhile party's entry in Bengal politics will benefit the BJP in the same way as it did in Bihar.
"No matter how hard we try to firm up the religious polarisation narrative for a vertical split on communal lines, we will always end up being 30 per cent vote share behind, with the minorities voting en bloc for whoever has been in power. Now, with more than one player trying to woo the minorities, our job looks easier," says a senior BJP leader, on condition of anonymity.
The BJP is yet to say a word against Owaisi. And detached though it might appear, the saffron party is also trying to woo the minority vote in its own way. In 2019, it secured 4 per cent of the minority vote. Given the opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, it plans to weave in polarisation within the larger issues of the collapse of law and order, rise in crime rates, blatant violation of rules and corruption, as Diptiman Sengupta, BJP leader and spokesperson of North Bengal, reveals. "Going through the criminal records and cases of violation of rules will reveal the identity of criminals without us having to say anything in black and white," he says. "We did the groundwork for polarisation in 2019. People are polarised; now we just need to sit back and watch. By talking incessantly and overtly about religion, Hindus and Muslims, we will put our gain of 20 per cent Left vote share in 2019 at risk."
"A shift of a few percentage points in our favour will be a win-win situation," says BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy. "The BJP has indeed done some good work, especially on triple talaq and various central government schemes for all during the lockdown. This time, we'll also get Muslim votes because anti-incumbency is high among south Bengal's Muslims, who were deprived of relief material and compensation after Cyclone Amphan." The BJP is going into the Bengal assembly poll with renewed confidence. A split in the Muslim vote can only bode well for the party.