Muslims of West Bengal are no longer Mamata Banerjee fans but they have no real option

May 06, 2019

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Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress.
Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress.

For most Delhi commentators, the Muslim vote bank in India's West Bengal solely rests with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

But such simplistic analysis fails to capture the mood of the voter on the ground.

Muslims, who comprise 27.01 per cent of Bengal’s population, are caught in a dilemma this Lok Sabha election. They went over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2009 and have largely backed the party until recently. But now, they are showing signs of unrest.

With the growing disenchantment with the Mamata Banerjee government, the Muslims are looking for an alternative. But the Congress and the Left have been weakened to such an extent in Bengal that none of them is in a position to challenge the TMC.

However, Muslims’ concerns to thwart the BJP’s entry in West Bengal leave them in a bind. Of the 24 seats that go to polls in the remaining three phases, Muslim voters can hugely impact the outcome in at least half-a-dozen seats.

Unfulfilled promises

“It is true that Muslims were in favour of change in 2011. At that time, both the Congress and the TMC were fighting the elections together against the Left,” says Mohammed Kamruzzaman, leader of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation.

But in south Bengal, he says, most Muslim leaders like Sultan Ahmed, Sardar Amjad Ali, Idris Ali left the Congress and joined the TMC. “So, Muslims also rallied behind the TMC,” he says.

But things started changing. More than a year into her first term, chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared that her government had already fulfilled 90 per cent of the work needed to uplift the Muslims.

But Kamruzzaman says the situation hasn’t altered on ground even today. “She stopped giving recognition to new madrassas. During the last days of the Left rule, they issued ordinance to include Muslims in the OBC category. If a law was enacted, Muslims would have been eligible for 10 per cent reservation in government. Mamata, however, did not pursue that,” he says.

Not a homogenous voting bloc

In south Bengal, which is getting ready to vote in the next three phases, most Muslims are rallying behind the TMC, but a section is now trying to renew its ties with the Left.

In Basirhat, a traditional Left stronghold till 2014, CPI’s Pallab Sengupta is facing a stiff challenge from popular actor and TMC candidate Nusrat Jahan and the BJP’s Sayantan Basu. Sengupta’s campaign meetings have been disrupted allegedly by TMC members. He claims that the local pirjada (religious leader) has appealed to his followers to support a secular candidate like him.

But that is not the dominant trend.

Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is hoping to make inroads in districts like Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad, which voted in the first four phases of Lok Sabha elections. Muslims hold considerable sway here and have traditionally supported the Congress or the Left even during the 2014 elections.

The Congress won both the seats – Malda North and Malda South – in Malda district and retained Berhampore and Jangipur in 2014. The Left won Murshidabad and Raiganj Lok Sabha constituencies.

Maidul Islam, a political scientist with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, says that Muslims have many political preferences and they cannot be clubbed as one voting bloc.

Bengali Muslims, who are cultivators-peasants in rural areas, were largely with the Congress in the first two decades post-Independence. But in some pockets of rural Bengal, they also supported the Communists due to the lingering influence of the Tebhaga movement.

During the Left Front’s rule, a large section of the Muslims in rural Bengal gradually aligned themselves with the Left. However, the Left government’s forcible acquisition of farmland in Singur and Nandigram and the Sachar committee’s report on conditions of Muslims in Bengal eroded that support. And that’s when they started supporting Mamata Banerjee’s TMC.

Hands tied

But in 2019, for Kamruzzaman and many other Muslims, there is little to choose between Modi and Mamata. “If Modi is the face of hard Hindutva, Mamata is pursuing soft Hindutva,” he says.

Lest the BJP occupies the entire Hindu vote bank in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has now started asserting her Hindu identity at public meetings. Her party, the TMC, is observing Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti while competing with the BJP. It is also planning to build Sun temples in Asansol. Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly claimed that she is a good and pious Hindu but is against “the BJP’s idea of Hinduism”.

“If the Congress and the Left had arrived at some understanding and fought the election together, we would have wholeheartedly supported them. But that did not happen,” says Kamruzzaman.

For Muslims in West Bengal, this election is different from the previous elections. This is clearly not the time to settle scores with the ruling TMC for non-fulfilment of promises, says Kamruzzaman.

Muslims in Bengal are fighting for their security and protection, their right to live peacefully without compromising their religious identity.

During the election campaign in 2014, then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had come to south Bengal and threatened to deport ‘illegal immigrants’ to Bangladesh. This time, Modi has launched a tirade against Mamata Banerjee in his campaign rallies in Bengal, leaving it to BJP president Amit Shah to rake up the issues of citizenship and ‘illegal immigrants’.

Despite the growing frustration with the Trinamool Congress, many Muslims in Bengal are still likely to vote for the party to stave off the BJP.

This article originally appeared on ThePrint.in and has been reproduced with permission.