Kolkata: Politically and socially-conscious sections of West Bengal’s Muslim electorate have had the benefit of getting some counselling by members of the Muslim intelligentsia and of civil society over the past six-seven weeks. Those who counselled expect the ‘beneficiaries’ to carry forward their message to as many people among the Muslim electorate as possible.
Counselling has also been undertaken by leaders of a socio-religious organisation and its branch outfits in half-a-dozen districts of North Bengal that are yet to vote for the eight-phase West Bengal elections.
Content-wise, there are some similarities and dissimilarities between the exercises undertaken by various counsellors but the overall consideration is identical – that 2021 is not 2016 when the last Assembly elections were held in West Bengal.
The observations of sources NewsClick spoke to lend themselves to three major inferences.
First, the key points mentioned by the first group of counsellors to Muslim voters are: Be very judicious in exercising the right to franchise and keep track of the evolving situation for as long as possible before reaching a decision on the preference.
Second, good candidates with clean image wherever available from among those fielded by the Sanyukta Morcha of the Left Front-Congress- Indian Secular Front (ISF), should be supported. And
if this criterion cannot be fulfilled, support should be extended to candidates fielded by the incumbent, i.e, Trinamool Congress (TMC).
The main points sought to be driven home by the second group of counsellors, who have also utilised the occasion to flag their concerns over the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), are: Under no circumstances should candidates fielded by political forces who are stridently fostering polarisation on religious lines be backed. The reference obviously is to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but they have scrupulously avoided mentioning it. In the context of the proposed NRC, however, they mention the name of Union home minister Amit Shah because “he is the spearhead”.
When asked to be specific about their preference by NewsClick, the answer was: “We have been supporting the Trinamool Congress and we see no reason to act differently. We stand by outfits who thwart attempts to divide society on considerations of religion and caste and work to promote communal amity”.
NewsClick spoke to some Muslim ‘influencers’ and initiated a discussion with just one question: How is the 2021 Assembly election different from the previous one held in 2016. The response naturally had within its purview the ISF and its architect Furfura Sharif Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui.
Saifullah Shamim, who teaches Bengali at Aliah University, said: “There is a sea change on the ground when judged with the 2016 Assembly elections. The BJP was not a visible factor then. Now, the party is in its second innings at the Centre. It, perhaps, performed beyond its expectations in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by bagging 18 out of 42 seats (in Bengal). Now, after defections, its tally stands at 22, which was TMC’s original tally.”
The second major change between 2016 and 2021 can be traced to the crude attempts made by the TMC leadership to decimate the Left Front and Congress, particularly during its current term. The consequences have been dangerous, both for the Left Front and Congress, but certainly more for the Left Front, which was in no position to protect its cadres and sympathisers, who were disenchanted and “the phenomenon of bam (Left) for Ram” can be traced to this situation. In addition, there is strong resentment against the state government for its lapses and malpractices of TMC cadres.
The emergence of the Sanyukta Morcha may be reckoned as the third change and, in a sense, a new option this time round.
“We are, therefore, conveying to the voters that wherever they see the possibility, they should back the Morcha candidate. The rise of the third front is necessary. Where this option is not available, the ruling party’s candidates may be supported. Possibly, we may have to wait for five more years” Shamim observed.
About ISF, Shamim thinks that initially it looked disorganised but in recent weeks it has been able to gear up to some extent. Siddiqui is heard articulating the distressing conditions of the deprived sections of the society and their rights. Asked if he sees chances of a shift-back on the part of the original Left supporters and sympathisers from the ‘Ram’ camp, he said: “Possible, let us see”.
From among the second group of counsellors, NewsClick spoke to Mahboob Ali, secretary of Cooch Behar-headquartered Uttar Banga Imam Moazzin Muslim Buddhyjibi Aikya Mancha.
“Our opposition to the NRC move stems from our steadfast policy of rejecting all divisive forces and we think it will be a tool to divide society. We have seen what has happened in Assam. Moreover, there will be a huge documentation problem and those failing to submit prescribed papers will be harassed and penalised”, he said.
Ali admitted to cautioning Muslim voters about the tricky situation and advising them to go by the preferences they exercised in the previous two Assembly elections. When urged to be specific, he said: “Yes, we have been supporting the party in power”.
When Ali’s views were sought about ISF and Siddiqui, he invoked the ‘divisive’ theory and said: “If you see carefully, Siddiqui is trying to split the Muslim vote; we are against that”. When pointed out that in his campaign meetings, he is raising the issue of the rights of the deprived sections and demanding job opportunities instead of dole-based appeasement, Ali did not react.
Moidul Islam, professor of political science at the city-based Centre for Study of Social Sciences, said: “In 2016, the BJP was nowhere. The Left and Congress tried to occupy the anti-TMC space but their efforts did not succeed. From 2017, the rural areas began to see changes with the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh prachararaks quietly working among other backward classes, Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribe groups and gradually the BJP’s hold over these categories of people grew. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP reaped the benefits.”
Islam said that at that time, the BJP’s appeasement charge against TMC was sticking but its leadership was found taking things for granted. TMC also faced serious charges of corruption and extortion in cyclone Amphan relief and welfare disbursements. These slow political changes were manifest in BJP’s good show in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Left’s programme to connect with the people post-Amphan around mid-2020 and during the lockdown phase has helped it regain some visibility and in the developing political situation, the TMC’s sustained campaign to “reduce the Opposition parties to signboards” considerably weakened. Subsequently, the Left Front and Congress were able to sort out ticklish issues and ultimately joined hands. This process gained momentum with ISF deciding to partner them.
On the Siddiqui factor this time, Islam said: “He is still largely an unknown quantum but in recent days, in his campaigns, some clarity is there about his approach. He has not been pronouncedly pro-Muslim. On the contrary, he is concentrating on livelihood issues of the poor and backward classes. The youths are turning out in large numbers in his meetings.”
Islam was of the view that the Left was “grooming” Siddiqui. “If he sticks to the agenda he has drawn to highlight the causes of the deprived sections and is able to withstand pressures that may be brought to bear upon him for taking a pronounced pro-Muslim stand, he will make his presence felt in West Bengal’s political space”, he said.
Asked if he sees any chance of the Left getting back the voter support it lost to BJP in the past two years, Islam said it is possible, adding that “even a 2-5% come-back will be meaningful.”
According to Abduf Salam, general secretary of the West Bengal unit of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, it appears that BJP has been working tactfully in the interior areas for quite some time and this election season it is aggressively pushing its agenda of grabbing power. He also thinks that the Sanjukta Morcha in general and ISF in particular may not be much of a factor.
“I doubt whether those attending Siddiqui’s meetings in large numbers are voters”, he observes. It may be mentioned that Jamiat, a social welfare outfit, has been extending its support to TMC and its state unit president Siddiqullah Chowdhury is a member of the state ministry.
A key talking point is also whether Siddiqui will be able to dent TMC’s Muslim support base and thereby unwittingly help BJP. Suffice it to say that in the last three-four days, TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee has been targeting the ISF founder and calling him a “traitor” who is out to split the Muslim vote bank of her party.
Meanwhile, for the record, a quote from the after-edit by Varghese K George in The Hindu edition of April 6, kind of sums up the situation: “Comparing one election to another is always fraught with problems, but the situation in West Bengal is broadly comparable to Assam in 2016 – a besieged incumbent, a triangular fight in some regions, and the BJP led by defectors from other parties”.
The writer is a veteran freelance journalist based in Kolkata.