Kolkata: In January earlier this year, the Trinamool Congress government did something unusual. It unleashed a billboard blitz throughout the city, listing all the projects it has undertaken for Muslims during its tenure. And in February, when 26 Muslim students cleared the state’s civil service examination, Trinamool leaders went on a felicitation spree. They were careful not to claim the credit overtly, but the subtle overture was not lost on anybody.
Trinamool is not alone. With only a few weeks to go for the assembly polls, every political party worth its policies wants to court the Muslims of West Bengal. Last week, leader of opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra visited Furfura Sharif, a Muslim pilgrimage centre in Hooghly. Congress MP Adhir Chowdhury followed the next day.
It’s easy to understand the scramble to woo Muslims — the community accounts for 28% votes in Bengal. “Every party in the state knows how crucial the Muslim vote is. Though the campaign is yet to gain momentum, parties are making a beeline to get their Muslim maths in order,” said Hasnain Imam, a teacher and political analyst in Kolkata.
The Muslim vote is decisive in at least 22 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats and 125 of the 294 assembly constituencies. In almost 70 segments, Muslim voters are in a majority. In the 2011 assembly polls, the Trinamool Congress and Congress alliance had bagged 94 of these seats. Predictably, Mamata Banerjee is fiercely possessive of her Muslim votebase.
From reservation in education and employment to awarding stipends to Muslim students and giving doles to imams — the chief minister is pulling all stops to woo the community and doesn’t let go of any opportunity to list her “achievements” for them. “The government has done commendable work for minorities and it wants to convey this to them. It shows the sincerity of the Mamata Banerjee government. The left Front got 35 years to improve the conditions of the Muslims, but it used them only as a vote bank. Mamata has done for them what the Marxists could not,” said Gyasuddin Molla, MoS, minorities department.
In Bengal, Muslims were by and large CPM backers. Then, Singur happened in September 2006 and poor Muslim families believed the Left was out to grab their landholdings. The perception intensified with Nandigram. The Sachar committee report followed next, adding to the disgruntlement. Between the land question and the Sachar report, the Muslim vote moved to the anti-Left camp of Trinamool and Congress.
“It confirmed the minorities’ fears that the CPM wouldn’t let them live in peace. On the other hand Mamata’s prolonged agitation to save the land of poor Muslim farmers showed them that it was she and not CPM who would look after their interests. The minorities began drifting away from the Left,” said Trinamool MP Sultan Ahmed.
But the partners have split then. Though Mamata did very well in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, bagging 34 of 42 seats, the factors were different, feel Trinamool leaders. “The 2014 election was a referendum on Modi. Muslims who feared for their lives and livelihood aligned with Mamata who provided the most credible anti-Modi plank in the state. But this time the community will judge her on her work,” said a Trinamool MLA asking not to be named.
In 2008, Bengali-speaking rural Muslims started drifted away from the Left and towards Trinamool. The Left once held sway in 102 of the 125 seats where Muslims are dominant. The tables turned in 2011.
But Mamata’s engagement with the community has not been smooth. She has been criticized by clerics for taking the community for granted. Qari Fazlur Rahman, who leads the Id prayers on Red Road, had cautioned the CM in her presence to “fulfil her promises or perish like the Left”. “If the community shows faith in a particular party, they had better work for them. If they can’t, they should come clean. The community will look for other alternatives,” Fazlur Rahman told TOI. Peerzada Toha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif also called her bluff that she had done “99% of the work she had promised for Muslims”.
Professor and political analyst Maidul Islam feels that the ruling party pursued OBC reservation sincerely, but could not deliver on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee. “In the predominantly minority belts in the rural hinterland, the infrastructure is still dismal,” said Islam.
It remains to be seen if Mamata’s ‘achievements’ on the minority front are enough to crack the ‘M’ code.