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West Bengal elections: Eye on Siddiqui, TMC works on counter-plan with caution

Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, TMC MP and chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, said Siddiqui is a “fundamentalist”, and association with his ISF may backfire for the Left and Congress.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | New Delhi |
Updated: March 4, 2021 1:12:03 pm
Abbas Siddiqui. (File)

Days after Abbas Siddiqui addressed a rally of the Left-led coalition in Kolkata to a rousing reception, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) appears to be walking a tightrope in its efforts to counter him, wary that the rise of the Furfura Sharif cleric and his new party ISF could adversely affect its prospects in the upcoming assembly elections.

While the TMC still believes that much of Siddiqui’s support is “hot air” and “curiosity”, and that the Muslim vote – which constitutes 27 per cent of the state’s population – will remain with it in an election polarised between it and the BJP, senior party leaders admitted that they would have to tackle the situation on the ground, “and that moves were being made”.

A senior TMC strategist told The Indian Express that there were two costs attached to the rise of Siddiqui in the Bengal elections for the ruling party. “Both are fairly obvious. The first is, hypothetically, if Siddiqui wins support especially in areas where the Furfura Sharif has influence, it will take away minority support from the TMC. Second, for the TMC, it is not a bad thing for the Left to wrest back the Hindu votes it had lost to the BJP [in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections]. But his alliance could make them stay with the BJP,” a senior TMC leader said.

“At this point though, to reiterate, we feel his crowds don’t mean electoral support, but in a high stakes election like this, we have to account for all factors,” he said.

Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, TMC MP and chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, said Siddiqui is a “fundamentalist”, and association with his ISF may backfire for the Left and Congress.

“You only need to see videos of his speeches. The TMC has stood for secularism, and our stance is that Muslims and Hindus have always stayed together in amity in Bengal, and bar the BJP which believes in polarisation. Even the Congress and Left have stood for that. But Siddiqui is a fundamentalist and that is clear from his speeches. This affects the Left and the Congress too. They are playing with fire. In areas of their influence, such as Murshidabad and Malda, this could have negative impacts as well,” Ray said.

It is in this context that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s allocation of Rs 2.60 crore for the development of the Furfura Sharif shrine, just ahead of the announcement of the election dates, is important. The TMC has also reached out to Toha Siddiqui, Abbas Siddiqui’s uncle and also a cleric at Furfura Sharif, who met the Chief Minister and Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim last week. Toha has lashed out at his nephew, accusing him of allying with the CPI(M) and the Congress because of “serious allegations of corruption”. He has since publicly backed the TMC.

But senior TMC leaders said the party will have to walk a tightrope when dealing with or commenting on Abbas Siddiqui. It has been careful of not falling into the BJP narrative of “appeasement” over the past few months. “The tightrope is that as and when the elections come closer, how not to fall into the counter polarisation trap if Siddiqui becomes increasingly important,” a leader said.

Some TMC leaders said they suspected that Siddiqui was being propped by the BJP. “Look at his speech at the Left rally or even before. All of his attacks are on Mamata Banerjee and the TMC and not the BJP. They only get a passing mention. We suspect he is being propped by the BJP, but the people of Bengal will stand firmly by Mamata Banerjee,” Ray said.

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