West Bengal’s Muslim vote looks likely to split, but not in reaction to any “Modi wave”. A slew of Muslim parties have sprung up recently, trying to woo Muslims away from the Trinamool Congress and the CPM.
Just last month, three Muslim parties — Welfare Party of India (WPI), Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) — formed an alliance and has fielded Muslim candidates in 23 of the 42 seats. All 23 are part of districts where more that half the population is Muslim, such as Maldah, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, Uttar Dinajpur and Cooch Behar.
While the AIUDF is making its debut in Bengal, the WPI and the SDPI launched themselves in the state in 2012 in the Jangipur Lok Sabha bypoll when Pranab Mukhejree vacated the seat. Together, the two parties managed to win eight per cent of the vote.
It was a less than impressive start, but marked the beginning of the fragmentation of the Muslim vote. Traditionally, the Muslims of West Bengal —they form 30 per cent of the state’s population — have voted for the Left. But following the stand-off between the largely Muslim farmers of Nandigram and the then Left government in 2007, Muslims switched to the Trinamool in the 2011 assembly elections.
In 2014, they are set to split among the Left, the TMC and the front of Muslim parties. That is worrying the CPM, which has fielded 12 Muslim candidates, and the Trinamool, which has seven. While the CPM is doing an extensive campaign explaining how the TMC-led government has deceived the minorities, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has announced sops such as a Rs 2,500 monthly stipend to 3,500 Muslim clerics and imams. She has also appealed to the community not to allow their vote to split. “We have to ensure that the person with the stains of a riot on his hands should not become the prime minister. It is my appeal to my minority brothers and sisters to cast their votes for TMC and not for another party which just wants to split the votes,” she said recently.
“In Bengal, the minorities cannot be united against the BJP as it is not perceived as a threat here. But I can say that the Muslims are disappointed. That is why all Muslim parties are coming up. But as you are opting for more political parties, you are heading toward more fragmentation which is not good for the community,” said Sheikh Maqbool Islam, a Muslim academician and a professor.
To prevent the vote split, Maulana Nurur Rehman Barkati, an influential Imam, has accepted Mamata’s request to appeal to the Muslims. “I will hold a meeting and appeal to the Muslims to cast their votes for the TMC as other parties are trying to sway Muslim minority votes and not to win the polls.”
The imminent fragmentation does not bother the Muslim parties though. Siddiqullah Chowdhury, whose People’s Democratic Conference of India party allied with the TMC in 2011 but has now merged with the AIUDF, said, “The minorities have realised they were cheated by both CPM and TMC. They want their own leaders to win.”
The Muslim parties have also got the backing of A Razzak Mollah, the former “Muslim face” of the Left who was expelled from the CPM in February. Mollah has formed a party, Social Justice Manch, which is aiming at the 2016 assembly elections by “combining the might of the Dalits and the Muslims”.
In a recent meeting he held with 38 Muslim organisations — 13 political parties and 25 social groups — and Dalit organisations, Mollah requested the parties not to fight one another but unite against the Left and the TMC. He also spoke of a a “Muslim-Dalit maha jot (grand alliance)” in Bengal. “Both the TMC and CPM have deceived the minorities for decades. Two or three leaders were given a minister of state status of some unimportant department. Why there had not been a minority chief minister or a minority home minister? We will fight for that now,” said Mollah.