If there are two planks on which West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has built her brand over the last three years in power, they are her anti-Left credentials and her “secular” identity. But for all the minority schemes and the chief minister’s photo-ops at Muslim gatherings, Muslims in the state — who form 27 per cent of the electorate — remain sharply divided in their electoral preferences. While polarisation may cost Trinamool some Hindu votes, the party may find it tough to make up for the loss by becoming a rallying point for Muslims.
Trinamool, among other things, is battling anti-incumbency, the Saradha scam and its own NDA past on the Muslim front. Estimates suggest 30-40 per cent of duped Saradha investors were poor Muslims living in areas not served by the banking sector. Banerjee’s late outburst against Narendra Modi notwithstanding, a slew of local factors can undo her Muslim outreach initiatives.
Urdu posters across the state bear testimony to West Bengal government’s recognition of the language as an official medium and the stipend to imams and muezzins may have been among the government’s most talked about schemes. In her meetings, Mamata is not just publicising these, she’s adopting the community’s ways, including occasionally reciting the kalima. But her party does not have a Muslim leader with the kind of mass base that Forward Bloc’s Kalimuddin Shams once was for the Left Front.
Both Congress and Left retain some of their traditional support bases in the community — the former in the Urdu-speaking pockets and the latter among Bengali-speaking Muslims. There are newer players in the battle for Muslim votes. Assam perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF has for the the first time fielded candidates in eight seats. The Aam Aadmi Party has some support among Muslims in Barrackpore and Raigunj where there is a substantial non-Bengali population. Strong Muslim candidates in many seats where they are an electoral force, would mean division of votes — in Basirhat with 65 per cent Muslim voters, five of the nine candidates are from the community.
“The Trinamool government has worked,” is the refrain among Muslims across the state. But scratch below the surface and the party’s poll prospects don’t seem all that certain. Not even the nostalgia about the Vajpayee years — many in the community speak fondly of the former prime minister — can assuage lingering doubts about Mamata’s post-poll plans about NDA. Says Azizul Sheikh, a teacher in Krishnanagar, “The Trinamool has worked. If this was a state election, we would have voted en masse for Didi. But there are bigger national questions at stake here. The Trinamool may now be calling Narendra Modi names but it was part of NDA in 2002. After the elections, she may feel inclined towards BJP. The question to tackle here is who is better equipped to arrest Modi’s rise at the Centre.”
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Others raise questions about the schemes that Mamata flaunts in her speeches. Says Toyeb Siddiqui, peerzada of Furfura Sharif who has agitated against the Trinamool government’s minority policy several times, “We have been deprived during the Left Front years, and had great expectations from her when she first came. But we are yet to see the delivery of all those projects on the ground. I have asked this question many times but she is yet to give answers. Her constant reference to minorities has only led to an unprecedented aggression among the majority community.” Siddiqui was recently roughed up by alleged Trinamool workers for his criticism of the chief minister.
There are other hitches in Trinamool’s ride on the minority bandwagon. In Basirhat, cloth trader Rejaul Haq is all praise for Didi and her work. But he concedes that Trinamool may not make it in the end. “The Left won five of the seven Assembly seats here in 2011. Congress too has recovered over the last year or so. On the other hand, anti-incumbency has cost Trinamool some votes. Also given that Congress, Trinamool, Left and AIUDF all have fielded Muslim candidates, there will be some split,’ he says. An added bogey Trinamool is battling in Basirhat are the memories of the Deganga riots in 2010 in which sitting Trinamool MP Nurul Islam is alleged to be complicit. Islam has been shifted out but the bitterness remains especially around Deganga Market near which the arson happened over giving land for Puja.
In Baharampur, constituency of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president Adhir Choudhury, Didi is a distant shadow. On hoardings, signs and billboards in this seat with close to 50 per cent Muslim voters, the smiling face of “dada” rules. Graffiti highlights problems of inflation and women’s security. Muslims and Hindus alike root for Choudhury but what may be Trinamool’s further undoing here is the fact that its local workers have not quite reconciled to the arrival of parachute candidate singer Indraneel Sen.
“There is no Trinamool here, only Dada,” asserts Quran seller Azharuddin Sheikh. Saidul Islam says: “Dada will win by 2.5 lakh votes.
Trinamool does no work here they only take cuts. Besides people who set up the party here have been pushed to the backseat.”