The ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal acquire significance not only because they may define the state and the country’s future, but the limits of the BJP and its Hindutva juggernaut could also be tested. Ironically, Muslims, constituting 27 per cent of the state’s population, could have a big role in deciding this fate. Muslim votes matter in 125 assembly constituencies where they are more than 20 per cent and in not less than 59 constituencies where they constitute more than 40 per cent.
Fifteen years ago, the Sachar committee exposed the abysmal condition of Bengali Muslims. Their representation in public employment was just 2.1 per cent, against their population of 27 per cent — the lowest ratio in the country. Our own analysis (“The myth of appeasement”, IE April 20, 2018) showed that since the Sachar committee submitted its report, Muslims have been losing out to other marginalised communities like Dalits and Hindu OBCs in terms of income, jobs and education.
However, in West Bengal, while Muslims remain marginalised vis-à-vis other communities, including Dalits, they have indeed gained in public employment — so much so that Muslims getting regular jobs has generated anxiety among the bhadralok. According to the NSSO-Employment-Unemployment Survey (EUS) 2005, 2012 and PLFS (Periodic Labour Force Survey) 2018, Muslim representation in government and public sector employment has jumped from 6.7 per cent in 2006 to 9 per cent in 2012 and 17 per cent in 2018. The increase came at the expense of Hindu upper castes, whose share dropped from 63 per cent in 2006 to 53 per cent in 2012 and 47 per cent in 2018. The share of Dalits remained constant at 20 per cent while that of Adivasis increased from 3.5 per cent in 2005 to 6.9 per cent in 2018.
These figures are in sync with the percentage of Muslims in regular salaried jobs, which increased from 10 per cent in 2012 to 16 per cent in 2018. They are also in sync with the increased representation of Muslims in teaching positions, an influential occupational group in Bengal politics. As per the All-India Survey of Higher Education, Muslims accounted for 3.12 per cent of college teachers in 2012-13 and 7.8 per cent in 2018-19. Muslim teachers constituted just 4 per cent in all universities of West Bengal in 2012-13, but this proportion almost doubled to 7 per cent in 2018-19.
Most Muslims in West Bengal are “lower”-caste converts. They are, therefore, entitled to post-Mandal reservations. Following the Sachar committee, the Left-led governments added a few Muslim communities in the OBC list. Mamata Banerjee not only increased the OBC reservation from 10 to 17 per cent but added as many as 99 Muslim communities in the OBC list.
Besides the increased visibility of Muslims in public offices, the TMC regime has also opened social space for Muslims. Their increased visibility is significant, given the state’s history — as Atul Kohli puts it, whether “radical, conservative or reformist, modern Bengali politics has been dominated by an upper caste, well-off, educated minority”.
As a result, Muslims rallied behind the TMC and got something in return. Kolkata got its first Muslim mayor in independent India in 2018. In state assemblies, their representation increased from 14.3 per cent in 2001 to 20 per cent in 2011 and 2016. The TMC fielded as many as 53 Muslim candidates — 18 per cent — in 2016. The party’s vote share among Muslims in the Lok Sabha elections increased from 40 per cent in 2014 to 70 per cent in 2019.
But all this could have boomeranged on the TMC. Cowing down to BJP’s vitriolic attack of Muslim appeasement, Banerjee has not only cut down the number of Muslim candidates by one-third but has granted allowances and housing to Brahmin priests — a symbolic gesture. At the same time, the BJP has exploited the anxiety of the bhadralok and has made religious polarisation a central poll issue. The party is fighting the election on two planks: One, to restore “Sonar Bangla” to its Hindu past and two, preventing “West Bengal from becoming West Bangladesh”, a reference to Muslim refugees. The BJP never misses an opportunity to accuse the TMC government as tees pratishat ki sarkar (a government of the 30 per cent), referring to the Muslim population.
The Samyukta Morcha — a coalition of the Left Front, the Congress, and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) — could damage the TMC’s prospects by splitting Muslim votes. The coalition has fielded maximum Muslim candidates — 66 of 294.
In fact, in about 60 Muslim-dominated constituencies, where Muslims constitute more than 40 per cent, there is a triangular contest between the TMC, Morcha and BJP. In some constituencies in South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas and Hooghly, which were Left bastions and the regions where Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui enjoys wider support, the battle is between the Left and TMC. The TMC won 11 of the 14 parliamentary seats from this region in 2019. The coalition has resisted the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the state. It has also renewed confidence among the Left supporters who voted for the BJP in the last election in desperation. The jump in BJP’s vote share from 10.2 per cent in the 2016 assembly elections to 41 per cent in 2019 parliamentary election was correlated with the decline in the Left’s vote share — from 27 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The Left believes that its supporters, including Muslims, will come back to its fold, if they are given security from the violence of TMC.
Despite its virulent communal campaign driven by its growing popularity among Dalit refugees, it is not going to be easy for the BJP either. The fact that it inducted TMC leaders who the BJP had been accusing of corruption charges, hasn’t gone down well with its own party members.
No matter who wins, West Bengal politics will probably not be the same after a stridently communal election campaign and Muslims could be marginalised again.
Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute. Kalaiyarasan is a Fulbright-Nehru post-doctoral fellow at Brown University and an Assistant Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies
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