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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Explained: Spotlight on a Muslim cleric, election pointers in West Bengal

Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF could have potentially split the Bengali-speaking Muslim vote three ways among the TMC, Congress-Left, and itself — with or without direct AIMIM support.

Written by Santanu Chowdhury | Kolkata |
Updated: March 4, 2021 10:28:13 am
Abbas Siddiqui formed the Indian Secular Front (Express Photo: Ravik Bhattacharya)

The Congress and Left Front on Tuesday finalised an election alliance with Indian Secular Front (ISF), a party formed last month by Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, an influential cleric of the shrine of Furfura Sharif in West Bengal’s Hooghly district.

The deal is seen as a shot in the arm for the Congress-Left, which got only 12% of the vote and two seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. With the support of the ISF, the parties hope to win back at least some of the ground they have lost in recent years.

The deal would appear to suggest a closer three-corner fight in the Assembly elections among the TMC, BJP, and Left-Congress-ISF alliance. But it remains to be seen how many seats Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) contests, and what impact it has on the Muslim vote that is crucial to the Trinamool’s chances.

The Muslim vote

In South Bengal especially, the TMC has been the major beneficiary of Muslim support since 2011, when it first came to power. Religious leaders and influential clerics appealed to Muslim voters to support the government of Mamata Banerjee, which returned the favour with a variety of sops for the community. Muslim-dominated Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur in North Bengal, however, remained largely a Congress stronghold.

Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF could have potentially split the Bengali-speaking Muslim vote three ways among the TMC, Congress-Left, and itself — with or without direct AIMIM support. Now that the ISF has allied with the Congress-Left, the TMC could potentially benefit from a less splintered Muslim vote.

Abbas and Owaisi

After AIMIM’s showing in last year’s Bihar Assembly polls, in which it won five seats, Owaisi was seen as a “vote cutter” who benefitted the BJP. His decision to contest the Bengal elections triggered talk that it would make the election more challenging for the TMC and would help the BJP.

Realising that Bengal does not have enough Hindi-speaking Muslims, however, Owaisi decided to not contest on his own, and instead support Abbas Siddiqui. But the cleric decided to form his own party, and reached out to the Congress-Left, who demanded that he sever ties with Owaisi.

Anti-incumbency

While the BJP has been seen as the biggest beneficiary of the anti-incumbency against Mamata’s government, the strengthening of the third pole in the state’s politics indicates a potential for division of the anti-incumbency vote.

The Congress-Left-ISF alliance has accused both the TMC and BJP of creating communal polarisation, and sought to present itself as a democratic and secular front committed to highlighting issues of concern to the common man.

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The BJP has not done well in elections that have seen three-corner contests. But questions remain as to the role and impact of the AIMIM, the number of seats the ISF contests and, most importantly, whether the religious polarisation seen in the Lok Sabha elections will play a role in the Assembly polls as well, making many calculations redundant.

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