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In fact: Consolidating her Muslim vote, taking the sting out of dissent

Wary after the Bihar result, Mamata Banerjee’s outreach to the Jamiat is a bid to pre-empt moves toward a mahagathbandhan in West Bengal, which is headed to polls the coming summer.

Written by Subrata Nagchoudhury |
Updated: November 30, 2015 12:12:16 am
Mamata with Jamiat leader Siddiqullah Chowdhury at the November 26 rally in Kolkata. (Express Photo by: Partha Paul) Mamata with Jamiat leader Siddiqullah Chowdhury at the November 26 rally in Kolkata. (Express Photo by: Partha Paul)

Mamata Banerjee’s address to over 1 lakh Muslims in Kolkata last week — the first time that she addressed a rally of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind — was significant for more than one reason. Sharing the stage with Siddiqullah Chowdhury, the Jamiat leader whose massive anti-government protests have often ended in violence in the recent past, the Chief Minister tore into “those forces” who were attacking actor Aamir Khan [who had expressed concern over the growing intolerance in the country], and creating an environment of insecurity for the minorities.

The term of the West Bengal Assembly ends in May 2016, and Mamata has begun her campaign for a second shot at power. An understanding with the Jamiat is an important part of her political strategy — Mamata, leaders of the Trinamool Congress say, is keen to ensure that the Muslim vote stays with her, and the opposition is not able to replicate the Bihar template of the mahagathbandhan against her.

Muslims have been one of the pillars of the Trinamool’s electoral support base, having voted overwhelmingly for the party in successive elections from 2008-09 onward. Muslims are nearly 28% of the electorate in West Bengal, and while Mamata’s main campaign plank will be the development in the state since 2011, cutting a deal with the Jamiat will give her an unassailable advantage. The electoral record shows Muslim votes alone can win close to 70 Assembly constituencies; in another 30-35, they play a decisive role. The West Bengal House has 294 seats; 148 is the majority mark. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind controls over 800 madrasas in the state, and Didi is determined to consolidate her Muslim constituency further.

Chowdhury, who is general secretary of the Jamiat’s West Bengal chapter, has confirmed they are in talks with Trinamool. “Mamata Banerjee has shown interest in having an alliance, and we have reciprocated,” he said before the November 26 rally at Shahid Minar in the heart of Kolkata.

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“There is a perceptible change in the situation of Muslims under Mamata Banerjee’s rule. More and more Muslim youths are getting educated and going into medical or engineering colleges. More Muslims are getting jobs in the police and in other government services. A large number of welfare projects for minorities are being implemented. Things are actually happening on the ground,” Chowdhury said.

It could be a while before a final picture emerges, but it is clear the two sides are heading for an alliance, and Chowdhury’s outfit might well be a partner in the next government should Mamata win again, it is learnt. A TMC leader who has been part of the negotiations said, “Siddiqullah is bargaining for about 20 seats, but Didi might not concede more than 10-12 seats at the most.”

Mamata’s presence at Siddiqullah Chowdhury’s rally was aimed at wiping out bitter memories of her government’s confrontation with him, and showcase the newfound bonhomie between the Trinamool and Jamiat. It also largely neutralised simmering discontent over unfulfilled promises, which some Muslims groups have been intending to highlight. Community leaders like Md Kamruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, Qari Fazlur Rahaman, a Muslim intellectual and the maulana who leads the Eid prayers on Red Road, Md Shafique Qasmi, the Imam of Nakhoda Masjid, and Taha Siddiqui and Ibrahim Siddiqui, the clerics of Furfura Sharif, have expressed unhappiness over the government’s failure to deliver on promises. But with Siddiqullah Chowdhury leaning towards the TMC, this group has lost much of its heft.

The Trinamool tie-up with the Jamiat is also being viewed as a setback for Mukul Roy, once Mamata’s right-hand man, who is now believed to be working towards setting up a new political party, the Nationalist Trinamool Congress Party, consisting mostly of disgruntled political outfits and factions. A delegation representing the new outfit met Election Commission of India officials in New Delhi last week to clarify certain issues.

“In Delhi, we operate from Mukul Roy’s official residence and with his active guidance,” said Amitava Majumdar, Roy’s close aide who, along with others like former Congress and BJP leader Pradip Ghosh, has been among the prime movers of the new party. Roy, on his part, denies the initiative: “I am a TMC [Rajya Sabha] MP. I continue to remain so. I have no other agenda.”

Leaders close to Roy said post-Bihar, the wind has been taken out of his sails, and it should not surprise anyone if Mamata ultimately rehabilitates him in the Trinamool. Mukul Roy’s son Subhrangshu, TMC MLA from Bijpur in North 24-Parganas, told a rally earlier this month that his father was not interested in floating a new party. “These are all rumours,” he said. “Whatever Mukul Roy is today is because of Mamata Banerjee,” Subhrangshu said in what was interpreted by many as a “truce message” from Mukul Roy.

The former Union minister was at one stage believed to be emerging as the centre around whom several disgruntled TMC MLAs, MPs, councillors, panchayat functionaries and Muslim bodies were coming together. Everything, however, has changed with Didi getting the support of Siddiqullah Chowdhury and, possibly, the expelled CPI(M) leader Abdur Rezzak Mollah. Trinamool insiders say Didi’s “political engineering” has taken the sting out of the dissent against her, and she has won back most leaders who could potentially have joined Roy.

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