Election fever is heating up in West Bengal as the eastern Indian state steadily nears its tryst with voters in a few months. With the Bharatiya Janata Party going hammer and tongs against the incumbent Trinamul Congress and the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a new twist in the tale is the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) announcing its foray into the state.
The entry of the hardline Muslim party into West Bengal was to an extent a mere formality as just a couple of months ago, when it fared surprisingly well in the elections to the neighbouring state of Bihar, it had announced that West Bengal would be its next frontier. The party’s chairman Asaduddin Owaisi on Sunday met Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, a prominent cleric of Furfura Sharif, a much-revered shrine in the state’s Hooghly district.
The minority vote has always been a crucial factor in West Bengal elections. The state is home to 24.6 million Muslims, according to the 2011 Census. They form 27.01 per cent of the state’s population, and constitute a majority of the population in three districts: Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. It is no coincidence that these three districts are on the border with Bangladesh, where immigration has remained a contentious issue over the years. The soft border with the neighbouring country adds to these contentions.
The minority vote is a deciding factor in nearly 100-110 seats in the state. Of these, 43 are in the three above-mentioned districts. In the past, the Muslim vote had been solidly behind the three-decade Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front rule in West Bengal. The loss of this vote bank to the Trinamul Congress is said to be one of the main reasons behind the Left’s now nearly washed out impact on the state’s polity.
Once she came into power, Banerjee rewarded this vote bank with a host of measures, including one that provided a monthly salary to the imams and muezzins in the state. The BJP, in their fight against her party, used this as ready-made cannon fodder, after which she announced a similar dole for the Hindu priests as well.
The addition of Owaisi’s party is sure to add to the already polarising political atmosphere in the state, where the BJP has been luring away Trinamul long-timers by the dozens in recent months. The recent induction of former state ministry Suvendu Adhikari into the BJP, followed by his younger brother and a host of their supporters, adds to Banerjee’s problems manifold, as the party was already bleeding with other high-profile defections.
If we look at the 18 Lok Sabha seats that the BJP won in West Bengal in the last parliamentary election in 2019, we will see that those seats correspond to 122 seats in the state assembly. The Trinamul Congress’ 22 seats give it 163 seats in the assembly. So on this basis, the saffron brigade is still shy of 30-odd seats to reach a majority number in the 294-member House. The Trinamul, despite its vastly reduced show, still retains a comfortable majority.
But the equation may still change. Adhikari’s joining the BJP ranks has the potential to upset the Trinamul applecart. In the Contai area, where the Adhikari family holds sway, no less than 35 Assembly seats are up for grabs. If the defection can transfer even half of those seats to the BJP, suddenly the magic figure of 148 does not seem so far distant.
Polarisation of votes along religious lines is an unprecedented phenomenon in West Bengal. Despite the odd flare-up, the state has largely been free of major communal riots since Independence and Partition, when Bengal was divided into the Hindu west and East Pakistan, later to become Bangladesh. The escalating war of words between the BJP and its opponents in Bengal on social media and elsewhere is a clear indication of a hardening stance on both sides.
This is where Owaisi’s party is likely to play a key role in the polls. There have been rumbles among the state’s Muslims regarding their treatment in Didi’s hands. With the polarisation of votes along religious lines, it is more than likely that Owaisi will be able to pull a chunk of the minority vote bank to his side. That straightaway means that the loss will be Trinamul’s. This loss of votes would automatically mean that the BJP will get an upper hand without having to do much.
This is all the more so as despite all the noise that Trinamul bigwigs are making that Owaisi being an Urdu-speaking Muslim, he will not be able to appeal the Bengali-speaking Muslims. Apart from the three majority districts, there are Muslim pockets in almost all districts of the state, including several in the capital Kolkata. Thus it is more than likely that the AIMIM may be able to cut through the Trinamul votes in these areas as well.
The Herculean task ahead for Didi and her Trinamul Congress is now to ensure that the AIMIM does not manage to convince the religious minorities in the state that their hopes of a better future lies in abandoning her. For if even a portion of that number does, the situation may become calamitous for Mamata Banerjee. Add to that the traditional anti-incumbency factor that can plague any government after a decade in power, and the party may face a tough time over the next few months.